Misrepresentation: Racial Inequities In The Film Industry

By: Cynthia Tucker | Journalist in Residence | catucker@southalabama.edu

Hollywood has a strained relationship with history. Filmmakers and screenwriters shun facts about important events and cultural traditions in favor of a slick and comfortable fantasy for white audiences to enjoy. That wouldn’t matter much if movies were merely entertainment, but, unfortunately, most Americans glean their understanding of actual history from popular TV shows and films.

That’s why Black History Month — limited though it is — remains important. Most Americans, black, white, and brown, still don’t understand the extent to which black American history is, in fact, American history. Africans arrived on these shores in 1619 and their descendants have participated in every major episode in the nation’s chronicles. Generally speaking, movies and TV shows don’t tell you that.

In my childhood, for example, popular Westerns were tales of brave white men and women taming the frontier while facing off against savage natives. Never mind that native Americans were merely trying to hold territory that occupiers were taking through violence. And black people simply didn’t exist. 

In fact, historians tell us, about a quarter of Old West cowboys were black men who worked alongside their white colleagues. While Hollywood made token efforts at inclusion by the 1970s with movies such as Buck and the Preacher, starring Sidney Poitier, it took the rise of black filmmakers to change the script, offering Westerns such as The Harder They Fall (2021) with predominately black casts. Though that film’s plot is fiction, it celebrates real people, including Bill Pickett, who was a champion rodeo star and traveled in Wild West shows.  Still, he has never gained legendary status in popular culture.

You probably wouldn’t know from the movies, either, that black men have been race car drivers since the 1920s. Among the earliest was stock car driver Dewey Gatson, who raced under the name “Rajo Jack.” If you are a NASCAR fan, you know the name Bubba Wallace, not only a champion racer but also an activist who successfully campaigned for NASCAR to ban Confederate flags from its events.

But you may never have heard of Elias Bowie, who was a NASCAR driver in the 1950s when the Rebel flag still waved over most southern courthouses and capitols. If you’ve seen the 1977 film Greased Lightning starring Richard Pryor, you know something of the story of Wendell Scott. He is the only black race car driver memorialized in a major motion picture. 

Then there are the nation’s wars, similarly whitewashed (pun intended) by the big movie houses. Director Edward Zwick earned my lasting gratitude with the 1989 movie “Glory,” about the courage of the all-black (except for their white officers) 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the Union Army’s earliest black regiments. Some reviewers called it the best film ever made about the Civil War, but even white movie critic Roger Ebert noted that the script elevated the point of view of the 54th’s white commanding officer: “Why did we see the black troops through his eyes — instead of seeing him through theirs?”

At least heroic black airmen are finally getting their due with films about the Tuskegee airmen and about Jesse Brown, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in the Korean War. But those are rare exceptions; very few movies about U.S. warfare feature black men or women in major roles, from World War I to the invasion of Iraq. That’s true despite the fact that the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest medal awarded for valor by the U.S. Armed Forces, has been given to 93 black men for bravery in battles from the Civil War to the Iraq War. 

Perhaps Hollywood can eventually find redemption through more work from some gifted black filmmakers, including Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, and Ava DuVernay. There is certainly much work to be done to fill in the gaps left in the historical record — as told through motion pictures and popular TV shows, anyway.

Meanwhile, Black History Month, though the shortest month of the year, exists to remind us: Much of the Hollywood version of history still needs to be colorized.

Professor Cynthia Tucker is currently the Journalist in Residence at the University of South Alabama where she teaches political communication, media literacy, and narrative non-fiction classes in the English and Communication departments. Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, has spent most of her professional career in newsrooms, namely The Atlanta Journal Constitution where she served as the editorial page editor.