.AfricanAmerican Women in FilmAs we have learned in class, the African American womanhas been characterized as the Mammy,Jezebel, and Sapphire/Independent woman.
None of these names areendearing, but putting a face to thesenames filmmakers came up with caricaturesthat in their minds captured the essence of these three types of women. As I researched these categories, I find it interesting that AfricanAmerican women have always had to be portrayed in a demeaning role to earn a decent day’s pay. Nevertheless, in whatever role we play, we putour hearts, mind, and soul into it. A famous actressfrom the 30’s and 40’s looked at her role as a maid and came to the conclusionyou make more playing a maid than being a maid. Therein lies the strength of the African American Woman. Whatever unfair role or characterization thatwe find ourselves in, we give it all we have and rise above it. Ava Marie DuVernay, the talented writer, of the television show QueenSugar stated this eloquently, too many movies regarding African American womenare being told from a perspective point of view instead of what is a reality. From Spike Lee’s perspective, it is nothing that he can do to change theimage of the black woman due to the characterization has been around since thedays of D.
W. Griffith the filmmaker of Birth of a Nation. THE DIFFERENCE IN CINEMA The differences in how they portray black and white women are vast, andthis emanates from as far back as the colonial days. (White 1999, 4). However, our lot in life is vastly different,so different that it cannot be compared. African American women have a different take on the world of cinema whenit comes to race, class, and sexuality.
Why one could ask, because the AfricanAmerican woman has to be exploited and made to feel less than for directors tosee them in a positive light. A primeexample would be Monster’s Ball, a film which won Halle Berry an Oscar. Winning an Oscar is one of the highest formsof achievement within the movie industry. However, it is noted, Halle Berry won the Oscar for a vividly wild sexscene. Halle has played greatcharacters in her lifetime, so why does the sex scene make her an Oscarwinner. Was it the actress who won, orthe acting within the scene that made her this unstoppable force, which earnedher the title of being the first African American woman to win an Oscar. Within the world of cinema, Caucasianwomen are not exposed to the same exploitation or oppression. Take for instance Pretty Woman, Julia Robertswas a prostitute.
However, her role was glamorized and althougha prostitute she gets the millionaire boyfriend who wines and dines her, andeventually falls in love with her. If welook at bases of these two movies, you will see that the Caucasian actress didnot face the degradation or humiliation that was offered to the African Americanactress. Two entirely differentexperiences but yet two women actresses. From a historical point, African American women when presented in films, sex and race are lumped together.
Writers cannot differentiate the AfricanAmerican woman from her sexuality, or her race. (White 1999, 6). THE MAMMY The “mammy”whose betrayal in films as being the protector of her caucasian family, she raisesthe children as if they were her own.
She looks over her Master and Mistress as if they were her ownfamily. Never allowing any hurt or harmto come to them. Themammy had endearing qualities, which separated her from the field hands or theother female slaves. Descriptors used todescribe the Mammy are self-governing, trustworthy, devoted reliable, dependable, dedicated, and faithful., (Parkhurst 1938, 352-353) The mammy, depicted in early versions of filmmakers were boisterous,protector of the family.
The mammy,though the role became less and less due to the civil rights movement was reintroducedinto films with the HELP. With a characteras such, many people would look at this position as a slap in the face,considering how far the African American Female has come, however, satisfyingthis role won two African Ameican actresses Academy awards. So one could look at it from the standpoint ofgetting your award any way you can.The Jezebel The characterization of Jezebel emanated from slavery when slave ownerstook liberty with their African American slaves.
Labeling them as a Jezebel, gave slave ownersthe right to rape and misuse the female body as his saw fit. Hence, it was not considered rape, becauseAfrican American women were labeled to be highly sexualized, and the slaveowners were just giving them what they wanted. After the reconstructionperiod, the Jezebel took on a more physical appearance.
One could say she became the tragicmulatto. Physically the tragic mulatto emulatedthe physical features of a Caucasian woman. However, the tragic mulatto had an exotic look, not 100% Caucasian, nor100% African American. With her exotic looks,the tragic mulatto began to be characterized as a seducer of men, and highlysexual. (Jewell, 1993).From the powerpoint, you can see theloudmouth, boisterous, and highly sexualized, version of today’s rendition of aJezebel.
From the video clip, you hear the no holds barred conversationbetween two friends from the movie Booty Call. Look at Boomerang, Robin’s Given’scharacter was so intent on having her way with men, she lost her way when Eddie Murphy chose todeal with a more wholesome woman.The Sapphire/Today’s Independent Woman The origination of the characterization of the Saphhire woman is mind-boggling.
In history, we know that the sapphireimage comes from slavery. However, wealso know that most were church-going people who believed in the bible. So it makes me wonder why place such ahorrible connotation on such a lovely name. Sapphire means beautiful, so howcould one label a sapphire as mean, vindictive, deceitful, and disloyal towardand disrespectful of Black men” (Bond and Perry, 197, p. 116). The Sapphirecharacterization in today’s cinema is displayed by the eye rolling, headsnapping, all up in your face type of female.
The Sapphire’s role is to reduce black men to nothing. The Sapphire roleis to “reduce Black men to nothing, while verbally attacking them, in a voiceloud enough for all to hear (Jewell 1993). We see the imagery of Sapphire in films of all genres, whether it a Rudyon the Cosby Show, telling Kenny who and what she is, we look at it as “Oh thatis cute, or she is giving him a piece of her mind.” However, we overlook the Sapphire image thatis being promoted. We can go to more recent times, in a scene of Jumping the Broom, wherePaula Patton’s character belittles her fiance, by calling him a mama’s boy infront of everyone. One may not see thisas being a Sapphire, but if we look at the definition, the character no matterhow demure or innocent, brought out her modern-day Sapphire image. In conclusion, the African American woman has been identified as Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire/IndependentWoman.
Nevertheless, in whatever role we play, we putour hearts, mind, and soul into it. We rise to theoccasion and therein lies the strength of the African American Woman.