An Ugly Image #2


Haily Luong


Upon my reflection of what we have learned over the course of this class and especially emphasizing on the time period of the Great Migration and onward; the immense racism and class struggle African Americans face and endure does nothing but taper off, post-slavery in America. It intensifies and expands into an institutional and higher power level, seeping its influence and impact on a civil, social, and individual level. The African American experience throughout history is one that is incomparable, and to me, inconceivable. However, when reflecting upon an issue that African Americans have faced that I can truly relate on some sort of level, gets me thinking of my own personal battles with society, and how I am represented. As I mentioned, I can’t say explicitly that I can relate fully, moreover, my experience parallels to a degree, leaving me empathetic and understanding. Given this, as an Asian American, my history and my experiences have been one of discrimination and emotional endurance. Speaking of representation and opportunity, there is a lack thereof, regarding Asian Americans, specifically in film and representation. As representation is meniscal, the representation Asian Americans do get, is typically negative; perpetuating the already inaccurate and negative stereotypes we are given. I want to emphasize my focus closely to the film industry, because I grew up watching films and seeing these representations that have affected my life at one point or another.

These stereotypes and images framing the societal view of a specific group of people can have long term and significant consequences. Such consequences can affect an individual’s sense of identity, as well as internal afflictions of self-hatred, distress, and displacement. Alike, the African American experience, Asian Americans have been marginalized and deemed a demeaning and inaccurate depiction through media and other avenues. These portrayals stem from traces of early experiences in America. In regards to American self-interest, Asian immigrants were welcomed as cheap labor in the United States. As the California gold rush became a pull factor, Asian labor increased, thus in-fluxing the Asian immigrant population in California. This soon, welcoming atmosphere quickly led to a sense of fear or threat towards Asian immigrants. Stereotypical caricatures of Asians evolved into really negative connotations and portrayals. Even beyond this, the film industry has a long held history of excluding Asian Americans from roles of Asian portrayals. White individuals, typically portraying a demeaning and demoralizing image of Asians, have filled these roles. These roles are minor in screen time, but large in impact and adverse effect. For example, some of these stereotypes include, the coolie, yellow peril, the deviant, dragon lady, gook, and the model minority myth. Yellow face in film and TV goes back as early as 1915 when a white American/Canadian actress, Mary Pickford played the role of a Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio San, in the film Madame Butterfly. We see these depictions repeated extensively throughout American film and TV history; to even, Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961. It is to question, why those ethnically fitting do not embrace these roles, moreover, given to the privileged white individual. Not only withholding opportunities for minorities in the cinematic industry, but also posing a negative image within the roles that have been typically written and illustrated.

With this limited opportunity for Asian Americans in the film industry, we can empathize, as African Americans too, have had a long and intricate history in the American motion pictures and television industry. African American men and women have been marginalized to demeaning stereotypical images of people of color. Many films depict a nostalgic and idealized illustration of life in the antebellum South. These depictions really took off in the beginning of the 20th century. As the Civil War was a recent event during this time, certain films played a role of mending the North and the South by appealing the illustration of the “Old South” and its “lost cause”. Similarly, to Asian Americans, African American roles were characters of dominant stereotypes, depicting incompetent, child-like, hyper-sexualized, and criminal, figures. Many of these roles and images of African Americans were portrayed in an over exaggerate “happy-go-lucky” light to which had the potential of misinterpretation of being a positive illustration. Although, appearing positive, these images reinforced a perspective that the proper social position for Blacks was that of servitude with a willingness and devotedness to his/her white masters and to upholding social orders. As we have covered in our class, the great migration of large numbers of African Americans from the rural South to more urban areas throughout the U.S. in the early 1900’s, shifted the racial landscape, which led to mainstream Hollywood sparking its’ illustrations of these demographic shifts in film and television.

        The cultural artifact I have chosen to represent the appalling cinematic use of “blackface” in American filmography is an illustrative photograph from the film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). 1915, the same year, Mary Pickford portrayed a Japanese geisha in Madame Butterfly. This film depicts a distorted image of the South after the Civil War, as it glorifies the Klu Klux Klan while demonizing blacks. There is this falsification of the Reconstruction period through its’ illustration of black domination to Southern whites and sexually forcing themselves upon white women. This image solidifies this stereotype that still lingers in the contemporary and modern day that suggests black men are demon-like and are sexual threats to white women specifically.Despite the fact that this image is

%22The Birth of a Nation%22

false in its entirety, films such as this one, sets a huge impact on the overall image African Americans have been painted in U.S. society. These come with significant repercussions and major setbacks to their lives and interactions in society. This film is one of many but marks a substantial note in history, making it one of the most racist films to exist. Its’ premiere screening at New York’s Liberty Theater caused hell to raise, as it sparked a massive protest against director D.W. Griffith’s film, led by the NAACP. Going deeper into the storyline, we see demeaning caricatures of blacks typical of minstrel shows and “coon” songs. White actors wearing blackface to which they played buffoon type characters. As mentioned, history entails a pattern of continuation through the use of blackface and its’ harmful intentions. We see this in the films, “The Jazz Singer” (1927), “Swing Time” (1936), “Everybody Sing” (1938), “Soul Man” (1986), and “Bamboozled” (2000). The bottom line is that there has been a very prominent trend of ostracizing a group of minorities, deeming them a deplorable depiction and uprising the already privileged white population.

        Although, my artifact is a film from the early 1900’s, “blackface” first gained prominence in the late 1820’s when white male performers embodied African American characters using burnt cork to blacken their skin and their faces in particular. They also furthered the image through wearing weather and torn clothing while mocking over-embellished, over exaggerated and perpetuated behaviors, as they play racial stereotypes for laughs and in the name of comedy before humanity. All of these deplorable images were viewed by thousands of Americans in the decades before the Civil War and continued well after this time period. Blackface was integral in comedic value that perpetuated stereotypes of black laziness, ignorance, or crass behaviors at the African American expense. Although, blackface is not a prominent activity in today’s world of 2015, the history and cultural residue is most certainly prominent in our society. Ignorance among many other attributes is what fuels such hateful and discriminatory acts of racism. As these images and stereotypes were perpetuated via cinema and Hollywood, the mindset of America and their views of African Americans, heavily affected their social, civil, and economic, livelihoods. Pitting them a significant disadvantage in U.S. society. After the great migration, many policies and practices involving racism and discrimination, made it extremely hard and difficult for the lives of African Americans. De jure and de facto segregation, 1911 Mother’s Pensions Programs, 1935 Social Security Act, and overall racial discriminations were fueled and stemmed by ideas held by white superior ideologies. These ideologies trace back to the idea that African Americans are subordinate, lesser than, and undeserving of the privileges white Americans so greatly obtain. Sadly, it is an unacknowledged discrepancy. As scholar, Peggy McIntosh would say, white privilege in a nutshell is an “invisible knapsack”. It is invisible because, it is unacknowledged and unappreciated by those who possess it, but obtainable in the form that they can use their privilege at anytime and any place, as it sits pretty in their invisible knapsacks, waiting to be used and flaunted.



Works Cited:


Phillips, Michael. “‘Birth of a Nation’ anniversary has a heck of a bookend”. Chicago Tribune. 6 February 2015.

“Yellow Face”.

“From Blackface to Blaxploitation: Representations of African Americans in Film. Duke University Library.

Rampell, Ed. “The Birth of a Nation: The most racist movie ever made”. The Washington Post.

Lee, Youyoung. “A History Of Blackface In Movies: From ‘Birth of a Nation’ to ‘White Chicks’” Huffington Post. 1 November 2015.

Kelly, L. M., Blair. “A brief history of blackface”. The Grio. 30 October 2013.

Mcintosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”.

Pittman, LaShawnDa. “The Great Migration Part 2”. University of Washington. Savery Hall. 19 November 2015.

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