Reel of film laying on flat surface.
Today in TV and film, we have more nuanced representations of African Americans and things that are grounded in lived experiences with less stereotypes, says Veronica McComb.
Veronica McComb on Black representation in film, TV, what to watch during BHM
Feb 28, 2024, by Emma Bartlett
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Representation is important — especially when it comes to TV and film.

“Say you’re a woman of color growing up in America and the only images of beauty displayed on TV are of white women with blonde hair. Are you then going to see your dark skin and hair texture as problematic because it's not being celebrated in the way that these women are on screen?” says Veronica McComb, Ph.D.

The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who has a BA in film and television studies and Ph.D. in American cultural history, explains that creating diverse characters gives viewers a vision of possibilities for their future.

Here, McComb discusses Black representation in TV and film and offers recommendations on what to watch during Black History Month:


How has the portrayal of Black characters evolved over time in film and TV?

It's hard to say evolved. We're in a good moment now where we have more nuanced representations of African Americans and things that are grounded in lived experiences with less stereotypes.

A lot of African American characters in early film and television were extensions of Blackface minstrelsy. Some examples are the mammy figure — a heavier-set Black woman who was often a caretaker for white children and is portrayed as nurturing and not very bright; there’s also the Sambo character who was lethargic and lazy; then you have the “primitive” African American male who was a threat to white womanhood.

Over time, some of those stereotypes remained the same while others changed slightly. But any representation was good because there was at least a celebration and acknowledgement of the existence of Black talent in television. That representation, however, was always through the white gaze and what was acceptable to white audiences.


What are we seeing at present?

Currently, there is a better acknowledgement that consumers of entertainment are more diverse. Capitalism was an impetus for there to be a wider acceptance of different ways of representing Black culture because you're going to lose your audience with these stereotypes. Lost audience is lost revenue, so you must evolve.

The real evolution is when you have African Americans and people from diverse backgrounds telling their own stories without the influence of the white gaze and not thinking about what is going to be acceptable to white audiences. That’s the realm we're entering.


How can the entertainment industry advance racial equality?

If we had executives around the table making decisions that were more mindful of representation, it would significantly influence what stories get told and who gets cast. The people around the table do not always have to be people of color, but they at least have to be allies and know enough to say, ‘we need more diversity — and not tokenism — to bring real depth to the story we're trying to tell.’ That is the only way it's going to change.

Additionally, you don't publicly see collaborations between people of different races very often. So, when I see shows like “The Bear” or any full cast get on stage at an awards ceremony and they have a kaleidoscope of people in front of and behind the camera, that's when I get excited.


Do you have any TV or film recommendations for us to check out this Black History Month?

1. “Atlanta”: This show is amazing and it's about everyday people, but in a Black community and the humor surrounding it. It doesn't pretend to be representative of anything other than these specific characters who live in Atlanta, Georgia.

2. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: This is about a blues singer named Ma Rainey during the Jazz era. The film gives you a good grounding of Black culture, historically speaking, at a time when stereotypes about Black people were being formed.

3. Fences: This movie gives you a sense of reality versus stereotype. Fences is based on August Wilson’s play and stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. I would liken it to Death of a Salesman with less death, but about what it means to be Black and working class in America.

4. 12 Years a Slave: If you're in for something heavy, watch this film. It's important to understand the nuances of slavery, and I don't think a lot of people know the history of Solomon Northup, who was a free man captured in D.C. and sent south of the Mason-Dixon line and enslaved for 12 years until white abolitionist allies rescued him.

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