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Darron T. Smith, Ph.D. Headshot

Images of Black Males in Popular Media

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Regardless of whether they believe in them or not, most people in U.S. society are well aware of the many visceral stereotypes and images surrounding black males. These negative representations of black males are readily visible and conveyed to the public through the news, film, music videos, reality television and other programming and forms of media. The typical roles are all too often the black sidekick of a white protagonist, for example, the token black person, the comedic relief, the athlete, the over-sexed ladies' man, the absentee father or, most damaging, the violent black man as drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug.

These stereotypical, one-dimensional characters in film negate the broader and deeper experience of black life and the lives of black men in particular. Reaching into people's homes through the media, these negative images influence personal opinions, ideas and racial attitudes. Once these representations of blackness become familiar and accepted, they fuel misperceptions and perpetuate misunderstandings among the "races." Indeed, negative understandings of black males are consistently used to justify the racial inequities they encounter in a number of institutions, seen in the form of inflated rates of school discipline, underachievement in higher education, and higher rates of poverty, homicide, unemployment, and over involvement in the criminal system.

Capturing our imagination as a society, film exemplifies how media images provide us with a manufactured reality of misrepresentations that guides societal perceptions of black men, whether real or imagined. Take the 2001 film Training Day, for example. Denzel Washington's role as Alonzo Harris provides one of the most enduring and threatening depictions of black men as violent criminals. The criminal mindedness of Washington's character is underscored by the contrast to his white partner, Ethan Hawke, who plays the role of good cop and a morally righteous man.

Will Smith, in successfully becoming one of film's leading men, has strategically flipped Hollywood's stereotypical notions of blacks as always violent and criminal. He is often seen starring as a protagonist fighting the good fight rather than the criminal to be apprehended. Although applauded for seeking and earning leading male roles in Hollywood, his often heroic and hyper-masculine characters play into the theme of protecting whiteness and its virtuous sub-themes of justice and freedom such as in the films Independence Day and I Am Legend. In fact, in extreme attempts to avoid the villain prototype, Smith frequently plays the role of the "magic negro" archetype in the films The Legend of Bagger Vance and Hitch, for example, where his efforts to save and teach whites about what it means to be good facilitates a mystical theme in the minds of many white people about the supernatural powers of a few exceptional blacks, among a people perceived as being closer to nature.

Popular media has a similar effect on white consciousness as film. News, written and conveyed by purportedly unbiased and objective journalist, are nevertheless, highly influenced by negative images of black folk in the selected news stories. Pictures of black men that flash on the screen leave an indelible image that anyone, with the exception of somebody white, is guilty.

Additionally, most popular shows or cinematic themes of American life reflect the interest of white people with strong white themes and often very little representation of difference with respects to writing and casting. Based on past and current Nielsen ratings, the most popular shows consist of the likes of NCIS, The Big Bang Theory, CSI, Friends, 2 Broke Girls and Seinfeld.

This is not to say that some African Americans don't participate in their own marginalization, from music videos and reality TV to roles on the big screen. Yet, for most black actors, the parts they are offered leave them with limited options. Conventionally, white screenwriters, who view the world through the prism of a white lens, write about subject matters that reflect their own narrow experiences living and existing in a highly racialized society. As a result, the predominately white film industry (from producers to screenwriters to directors), in the market of pleasing their predominately white consumer base, lacks diversity in the depth of their characters. Unfortunately, images and words wound and are difficult to erase from the mind.