History of African-Americans in Film

The course introduces to students the history of African-American actors in film, beginning in the early 20th century until the present. The course features prominent figures in cinema history who paved the way for current actors and filmmakers.

History of African-Americans in Film

Pre-course Survey

On the next two pages, you will be asked two questions related to the topic. They are open-ended, meaning there are no right or wrong answers.

Do you know what blackface is? If so, could you please explain it?

Do you believe minorities have a harder time breaking into the film industry and getting bigger roles?

  • Yes
  • No

Until 1930s


Before African-Americans were allowed to act in films, they were portrayed by white actors in "blackface," the practice of covering  one's self in black paint, or similar, to depict a black person. Many celebrities, as well as others, in recent years have been slammed over blackface Halloween costumes, yet every year someone still does it.

Image of actress Julianne Hough dressed as a character from TV show "Orange is the New Black" in 2013 | Huffington Post

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903)

A film adaptation of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a story about the lives and hardships of slaves. The novel was meant to inspire anti-slavery feelings in its readers, but today it is seen in a negatively light because it popularized many stereotypes, such as the "mammy," a black woman who worked as a nanny for a white family, and "Uncle Tom," a black person who sells out to white people. The movie was contradictory because white actors played black characters in major roles, while black actors only played extras.

Birth of a Nation (1915)

Adapted from a novel titled The Clansmen, the movie depicts two Lincoln era families during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The film was controversial for the way it portrayed black men (white men acting in blackface), as unintelligent and belligerent. The film also painted the Ku Klux Klan as heroes

In response to the movie, brothers George and Noble Johnson started the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916. They were the first producers of what became known as "race movies," movies featuring black actors for black audiences.



Stereotypes are oversimplified representations of people. Stereotypes in Hollywood include African-Americans solely in roles as drug dealers, single parents and uneducated members of society. Sometimes stereotypes lead to actors being typecast, when an actor starts being strongly identified with roles or traits. An example would be Samuel L. Jackson, who has been typecast as a foul-mouthed badass.

Hattie McDaniel

For her role as "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind, McDaniel became the first African-American to receive an Academy Award. She was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She faced criticism for her role by the African-American community because it seemed like she was reenforcing stereotypes.

Sidney Poitier

Poitier was the first African-American actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his role in Lillies in the Field. He wanted to challenge stereotypes, so he took on roles in which his character was a soft-spoken mediator. This lead to him being typecast as the ideal African-American man, without flaws. 



Blaxploitation is the exploitation of the African-American race in film. These films were created to empower the urban black community, though some felt it just reinforced stereotypes. They were meant to put African-Americans as the foreground characters, playing the subjects and heroes instead of being put off to the side. Unfortunately, this was not enough for black filmmakers to break into Hollywood. This subgenre of film introduced majority black casts, as well as soul music. Famous blaxploitation films include Foxy Brown, Super Fly and Shaft.

Foxy Brown (1974)

Starring Pam Grier, Foxy Brown's titular character is described as "whole lot of woman" by her brother. She is relentlessly looking for revenge for the loss of a loved one. The film addressing objectification of (black) women, drug use and abuse, as well as violence in the black community. 

1980s - 1990s

The Color Purple (1985)

Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple told the story of Celie (Goldberg), and the problems she faced as a black woman. Legrand Clegg II wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the movie only further pushed the stereotypes of single, black mothers. Winfrey believed the movie helped white audiences see black characters as more than one-dimensional.

Boyz in da Hood (1991)

Written and directed by John Singleton, the teen hood film earned him Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director nominations. In 2002, the film was selected for preservation by the National Library of Congress, deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

1990s - 2000s

Eddie Murphy

In the nineties, action thrillers ruled the screen, but Murphy still managed to star in one of the highest grossing films of 1996, feel good comedy The Nutty Professor. Known for his stand up comedy and Beverly Hills Cop series, Murphy was also one of the not so many black cast members of comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live in the early 80s.

Denzel Washington

A Golden Globe, Tony and Academy Award winner, Washington is best known for his role as corrupt cop Alonzo Harris in crime film Training Day (2001). His  Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic Movie in 2000 was the first to be awarded to a black actor since Sidney Poitier in 1963. 

Samuel L. Jackson

A relatively unknown actor, Jackson gained a few minor roles in Spike Lee films, such as School Daze and Do the Right Thing. His first starring role was in Nation Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1. He has now gone on to appear in over 100 films, including four Quentin Tarantino films, the Star Wars prequel trilogy and many Marvel Cinematic Universe films with the character Nick Fury.



In 2016, for the second consecutive year in a row, the Academy Award nominees lacked diversity. All twenty acting nominees and four of five directing nominees were Caucasian. This sparked the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, as many criticized the Academy for its lack of diversity especially with the releases of Creed, Straight Outta Compton and Beasts of No Nation the previous year. At the time of the 88th Academy Awards, only 14 actors had won acting acting awards, and it was even less for other minority groups.

Black Filmmakers

Ava DuVernay

As the first black female director nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, DuVernay continues to push boundaries on telling the story of African-Americans in films. She was praised for her work on Selma, a movie about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by prominent leaders in the Civil Rights movement including the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and current congressman Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).

Ryan Coogler

With the titles Fruitvale Station, Creed and Black Panther, Coogler has shown that black filmmakers can produce blockbuster hits with majority black casts and people will watch. Black Panther went on to be the most successful film directed by an African-American, as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's highest grossing film (until Avengers: Infinity War) and the ninth highest grossing move of all time.

Jordan Peele

Known for Comedy Central sketch series "Key & Peele," Peele ventured into feature film screenwriting and directing Keanu and later on his Best Picture nominated Get Out. With this film Peele became the  first black screenwriter to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film focused themes like slavery, missing African-Americans and the white savior narrative.

Black Audiences Pay to Watch Movies

Black Panther

The first mostly black cast film in the MCU, Black Panther broke many records, including the the first domestic film grossing of over $1 billion. It sparked much interest in the black community, depicting an African country that never dealt with European colonialism.

Hidden Figures

The biopic of three African-American NASA mathematicians who helped push America forward during the Space Race. It became the highest grossing Best Picture nominee at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017.

Post-course Survey

On the next two pages, you will be asked the same two questions from the beginning of the course.

Do you know what blackface is? If so, could you please explain it?

Do you believe minorities have a harder time breaking into the film industry and getting bigger roles?

  • Yes
  • No