Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2016

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors


American film history has historically been under the hegemonic control white, male directors, producers, writers and audiences. When popular Hollywood films include the "othered" groups in society, rather than celebrating differences between people, they present highly prejudiced, humiliating and condemning stereotypes. But there are those throughout history who have worked to change the stereotypes on the silver screen, filmmakers who strived to represent themselves and their culture accurately. Certain black filmmakers have worked tirelessly for progress and empowerment through their personal representation on film, though these accomplishments have largely gone unnoticed by the average film-goer. This study analyzes films from important moments throughout American film history, moments chosen because they were representative of major shifts in the status quo of their respecting times, and this study considers how these shifts ruptured societal norms. Some films were chosen to set up a standard baseline of mainstream filmmaking; indicative of Hollywood's role as a major exporter of culture and representing the hegemonic, dominant players. Other films were chosen to refute the standard and show a broader truth, not simply a one-sided story. The study begins with D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and contrasts his film with Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920). The study ends with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (Stanley Kramer, 1967), various films throughout the blaxploitation era and Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1978). The release of these films coincided with powerful Civil Rights movements and contributed to the major leaps toward civil equality. The purpose of this study is to analyze the origins of the stereotypical representations of black Americans in mainstream film while studying the societal effects of these representations. This study will also analyze black films as a counter culture and a tool for social justice, but more than anything this is a celebration of black filmmaking.