American Women in Film
As we have learned in class, the African American woman
has been characterized as the Mammy,
Jezebel, and Sapphire/Independent woman.
None of these names are
endearing, but putting a face to these
names filmmakers came up with caricatures
that in their minds captured the essence of these three types of women. As I researched these categories, I find it interesting that African
American 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 put
our hearts, mind, and soul into it. A famous actress
from the 30’s and 40’s looked at her role as a maid and came to the conclusion
you make more playing a maid than being a maid.
Therein lies the strength of the African American Woman. Whatever unfair role or characterization that
we find ourselves in, we give it all we have and rise above it.
Ava Marie DuVernay, the talented writer, of the television show Queen
Sugar stated this eloquently, too many movies regarding African American women
are 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 the
image of the black woman due to the characterization has been around since the
days 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, and
this 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 when
it comes to race, class, and sexuality. Why one could ask, because the African
American woman has to be exploited and made to feel less than for directors to
see them in a positive light. A prime
example would be Monster’s Ball, a film which won Halle Berry an Oscar. Winning an Oscar is one of the highest forms
of achievement within the movie industry.
However, it is noted, Halle Berry won the Oscar for a vividly wild sex
scene. Halle has played great
characters in her lifetime, so why does the sex scene make her an Oscar
winner. Was it the actress who won, or
the acting within the scene that made her this unstoppable force, which earned
her the title of being the first African American woman to win an Oscar.
Within the world of cinema, Caucasian
women are not exposed to the same exploitation or oppression. Take for instance Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts
was a prostitute. However, her role was glamorized and although
a prostitute she gets the millionaire boyfriend who wines and dines her, and
eventually falls in love with her. If we
look at bases of these two movies, you will see that the Caucasian actress did
not face the degradation or humiliation that was offered to the African American
actress. Two entirely different
experiences 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 African
American woman from her sexuality, or her race. (White 1999, 6).
whose betrayal in films as being the protector of her caucasian family, she raises
the children as if they were her own.
She looks over her Master and Mistress as if they were her own
family. Never allowing any hurt or harm
to come to them.
mammy had endearing qualities, which separated her from the field hands or the
other female slaves. Descriptors used to
describe the Mammy are self-governing, trustworthy, devoted reliable, dependable,
dedicated, and faithful., (Parkhurst 1938, 352-
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 reintroduced
into films with the HELP. With a character
as such, many people would look at this position as a slap in the face,
considering how far the African American Female has come, however, satisfying
this role won two African Ameican actresses Academy awards. So one could look at it from the standpoint of
getting your award any way you can.
The characterization of Jezebel emanated from slavery when slave owners
took liberty with their African American slaves. Labeling them as a Jezebel, gave slave owners
the right to rape and misuse the female body as his saw fit. Hence, it was not considered rape, because
African American women were labeled to be highly sexualized, and the slave
owners were just giving them what they wanted.
After the reconstruction
period, the Jezebel took on a more physical appearance. One could say she became the tragic
mulatto. Physically the tragic mulatto emulated
the physical features of a Caucasian woman.
However, the tragic mulatto had an exotic look, not 100% Caucasian, nor
100% African American. With her exotic looks,
the tragic mulatto began to be characterized as a seducer of men, and highly
sexual. (Jewell, 1993).
From the powerpoint, you can see the
loudmouth, boisterous, and highly sexualized, version of today’s rendition of a
Jezebel. From the video clip, you hear the no holds barred conversation
between two friends from the movie Booty Call.
Look at Boomerang, Robin’s Given’s
character was so intent on having her way with men, she lost her way when Eddie Murphy chose to
deal 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 sapphire
image comes from slavery. However, we
also know that most were church-going people who believed in the bible. So it makes me wonder why place such a
horrible connotation on such a lovely name.
Sapphire means beautiful, so how
could one label a sapphire as mean, vindictive, deceitful, and disloyal toward
and disrespectful of Black men” (Bond and Perry, 197, p. 116). The Sapphire
characterization in today’s cinema is displayed by the eye rolling, head
snapping, all up in your face type of female.
The Sapphire’s role is to reduce black men to nothing. The Sapphire role
is to “reduce Black men to nothing, while verbally attacking them, in a voice
loud enough for all to hear (Jewell 1993).
We see the imagery of Sapphire in films of all genres, whether it a Rudy
on the Cosby Show, telling Kenny who and what she is, we look at it as “Oh that
is cute, or she is giving him a piece of her mind.” However, we overlook the Sapphire image that
is being promoted.
We can go to more recent times, in a scene of Jumping the Broom, where
Paula Patton’s character belittles her fiance, by calling him a mama’s boy in
front of everyone. One may not see this
as being a Sapphire, but if we look at the definition, the character no matter
how demure or innocent, brought out her modern-day Sapphire image.
In conclusion, the African American woman has been identified as Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire/Independent
Woman. Nevertheless, in whatever role we play, we put
our hearts, mind, and soul into it. We rise to the
occasion and therein lies the strength of the African American Woman.