Whitewashing Black Stories Wins Big in Hollywood

Amanda Landwehr
Staff Writer

Actors Emma Stone (left), Viola Davis (right) and Octavia Spencer (center) in 2011’s “The Help,” Image courtesy of NOLA.com

In his article for IndieWire, author Tambay A. Olson sets forth an interesting concept. “Imagine if black audiences, en masse, stopped seeing ‘white films,’ taking away the billions of dollars we spend every year on movie tickets, DVD sales and rentals combined.” He continued by saying “Let’s spend our dollars on ‘black films’ ONLY, or at least primarily, because there’s nothing relatable to our experiences in ‘white films,’ and thus they aren’t made for ‘us.’”

Olson’s article was published as a response to the production of films such as “Hidden Figures” and “The Help,” which have been accused of distorting and whitewashing black stories in order to appeal to white audiences. The demographic of Hollywood movie directors remains overwhelmingly white, and some of these filmmakers make the conscious decision to discuss topics such as racial discrimination. However, they almost always “soften” the true horrors of racism with the intention of appealing to white viewers.

By using colorblind filmmaking strategies that work to overshadow black voices with white narratives, Hollywood directors profit big. The film adaptation of “The Help” grossed nearly $216 million worldwide, despite gaining controversy for whitewashing the experiences of black maids in the Jim Crow era. “The Help” even received criticism from leading actress Viola Davis, who openly admitted her regret for participating in the film. As stated by Davis, “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”

Despite the backlash against these films, white directors continue to produce movies that discuss black characters, black stories and racial discrimination through a distorted and racially insensitive perspective. These films are being produced with the influence of an inaccurate white narrative—and almost always become instant box office hits.

The Root Magazine author Monique Judge argues that these racially ignorant movies work to “spoon-feed racism to white people” in order to make difficult subjects such as slavery and the Jim Crow era “more palatable” to white audiences. Depictions of racism in films such as “Cool Runnings” are seemingly inaccurate and inappropriate, as they fail to highlight the horrors of racism that black people have experienced and still experience in contemporary society.

As white audiences continue to fawn over “heroic” characters such as southern belle Leigh Anne Tuohy from “The Blind Side” and Katherine Johnson’s boss, Larry Bloom from “Hidden Figures,” it is evident to see that inserting a white savior into a black story is an exhausted trope that Hollywood seems to adore.

Not only are black stories and black characters being silenced by white directors—they are also not being cast. A recent study by the Los Angeles Daily News reveals that of the 4,583 speaking characters examined from the top 100 films of 2016, “70.8 percent were white; 13.6 percent black; 5.7 percent Asian; 3.1 percent Hispanic; and less than 1 percent American Indian, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian.” In addition to this, within that same set of data, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that “47 films featured no black females; 66 had no Asian females; and 72 had no Hispanic females.”  

Choosing not to cast actors of different ethnicities erases an essential part of any story. In addition to this, when directors choose to create a film centered around a black character, a white savior is almost always given a role as a “guiding hand” in that character’s struggle. Not only are these characterizations inaccurate, they work to erase the true struggles and triumphs of a black character’s story. So, when Katherine Johnson’s boss takes a crowbar to the “colored restroom” sign at NASA headquarters in “Hidden Figures,” it is crucial to realize that this scene not only never happened in real life, but serves as a shocking example of how white directors choose to blatantly whitewash black stories.

With Peter Farrelly’s controversial film “Green Book” taking the Oscar for Best Picture at the 91st Annual Academy Awards, it seems as though the majority of filmmakers have no intention of erasing the white savior complex from Hollywood movie scripts. However, with the success of critically-acclaimed films such as Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” perhaps Hollywood will finally give black directors the same spotlight that has historically been given to only white directors.

Categories: Feature, Feature, Recent Posts, Recent Stories, Web Exclusive

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