Zora Lotton-Barker: The racist history of the Hollywood film industry and its implications for today (Racial Justice essay)

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This essay was written as a submission to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Racial Justice Essay Contest, facilitated by the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition. Students were asked to respond to the following prompt:

“A myth of Black inferiority and white supremacy was developed to justify slavery in the United States. Even though we ended chattel slavery, we did not end the myth of racial difference. EJI believes we need a new era of truth and justice that starts with confronting our history of racial injustice. Based on the theme or topic and historical event you selected, how does the history of racial injustice help to explain present-day injustice in our society? How can this history be overcome in order to change the challenges our nation is facing today?”

Contest winners were recognized in August. The Lawrence Times is publishing entries that some of the student writers chose to submit to us. This essay is by Zora Lotton-Barker, then a senior at Lawrence High School, who won fourth place in the contest. See links to other entries at the bottom of this page.

From its inception, Hollywood has been systematically dominated by white male filmmakers and producers, catering to a predominantly white audience. Even when people of color, women, and other minorities are depicted in the film, it is often within the context of the white male gaze. Because of this — and a lack of representation not only on screen, but also behind the scenes — characters of color are often pushed to the background or heavily stereotyped.

To understand how insidious racist ideologies are within American film culture, it is important to examine the long history of bigoted representation in media. At the same time, we should acknowledge the active changemakers, such as Julie Dash and Chloe Zhao, who are making a difference in the film representation of America. 

In February 1915, the film The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith was released. Based on the novel The Clansman (1905) by Thomas Dixon, the two-part epic traces the impact of the Civil War on two families: the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South. In the film, the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed in a heroic light as a healing force restoring order to the chaos and lawlessness of Reconstruction. The movie also used actors in blackface to depict African Americans as “savages,” using threatening imagery to justify violence against African Americans. After the movie’s debut, racial violence against African Americans increased, including the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in November of the same year. 

In 1927, the first sound film The Jazz Singer by Alan Crosland was released. It utilized blackface imagery of a white Jewish character and explored duplicity and ethnic hybridity within American identity. The Jazz Singer is unique in that it is the only film where blackface is central to the narrative development and thematic expression. 

Many racist tropes of East Asian peoples were codified in early Hollywood films as well. Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American movie star in the early 1920s, commonly featured as supporting characters or “Dragon Lady” villains. Anti-miscegenation laws prevented onscreen interracial relationships, forcing Wong to remain in stereotypical “vamp” roles until Daughter of the Dragon in 1931. Several Hollywood movies continue to portray Asian destinations as underdeveloped, including showing elephants as a primary mode of transport in modern India or any of the similar stereotypes that have no resemblance to lived reality.

How can we as a society fix such a systemic and long-standing issue? The answer is, among other things, representation. It is when people of color are seen within every facet of the film industry that stories surrounding honest representation will start to emerge in the media, rather than merely exploitation films created for the sole purpose of evoking white guilt over America’s racist past and present.

It is important not to discount the multitude of filmmakers, actors, and others in the film industry who are currently working to equalize the playing field. Rather, we should see these leaders as examples of what we should see more of. To better illustrate this point, let us look at the career of Julie Dash. 

A raconteur of extraordinary vision, director Julie Dash broke several barriers in the film industry because she prevailed as an artist when she was met with the harsh realities of both racism and sexism in her field and society at large. Dash used her artistic influence to communicate the African American experience through representative filmmaking. The impact she had on Hollywood through the critical acclaim of her 1991 masterpiece Daughters of the Dust was pivotal in showing a more nuanced view of Black women and African American culture.

Dash conveyed the complexity of African American life, free of harmful tropes of violence and struggle often ascribed to Black stories, especially by white media. Through Daughters of the Dust’s representations of Black women’s beauty, particularly of Black women with dark skin, Dash is able to combat insidious colorism within Hollywood. This breaks cinematic ground. Although there were exceptions — such as Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind — the standard was that of Dorothy Dandridge who was light-skinned and more able to “pass” with white audiences. Daughters cast away the notion that genetically lightened Black femininity should be the ideal.  

Dash paved the way for African American women directors such as Dee Rees, who directed Pariah; Regina King, who directed One Night in Miami; and Ava DuVernay, who directed Selma. DuVernay even cited Dash as her inspiration to begin directing. In 2021, Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color, and the second woman to win an Oscar for Best Director for her film Nomadland. This historic win is just a small step toward the vast potential that could be unlocked if female directors and directors of color were given equal resources and recognition. 

Though there has been a significant amount of change since Dash first entered the film industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. In recent years, #OscarsSoWhite was used to call out the lack of diversity in nominations for the Academy Awards. Dash continues to push for inclusion. As a college professor, she demonstrates the power of visionary storytelling to her students and emphasizes the need to use their experiences to tell their own stories. Daughters of the Dust also inspired the lyrical and historical imagery in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade, which tackled issues of Black womanhood, southern traditions, and female rage. Dash’s legacy is boundless. 

Dash is a key example of the power of good representation in Hollywood. In order to truly eradicate an issue as historic and complex as racial representation within the media, it is vital for people of color to work within all facets of the industry. When characters of color are given nuanced storylines that are not reduced to racial trauma or stereotypes, that is when the issue will begin to be resolved.

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Read more: Equal Justice Initiative’s Racial Justice Essay Contest

Zora Lotton-Barker: The racist history of the Hollywood film industry and its implications for today (Racial Justice essay)

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“From its inception, Hollywood has been systematically dominated by white male filmmakers and producers, catering to a predominantly white audience,” Zora Lotton-Barker writes in this essay.

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