Starting at the Bottom
The matrix of mass mediated stereotypes for African-American’s listed in Debra L. Merkin’s Media, Minorities, and Meaning include : Sambo, Mammy, Buck, and Jezebel.
Although in more modern forms, these stereotypes still exist in our culture. Through study in film, I want to address a possible new plot and theme for many films with lead African-American roles. Most movies in the US still have white actors as lead characters. If an African-American actor takes part in a mainstream movie, they are most often supporting roles or character roles. Through the analysis of a few rare circumstances, I suggest a new type of mantra for mainstream film: The African-American lead starts from humble beginnings and through hard work and wit, they end up achieving the life they’d always dreamed of.
Will Smith and The Pursuit of Happyness
The Pursuit of Happyness tells the story of a middle-aged African-American man who wants a better life for himself and his son. Upon meeting a stock broker, he decides he wants to put his all into their unpaid internship program. The film is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, showing that racial and financial bias can be overcome. Even though the film is relatively true to his story, Gardner describes his journey in even more detail.
Chris Gardner speaks on The Pursuit of Happyness
It is also important to note that the actor, Will Smith, started his career in Hip-hop. One of the main ‘back-stories’ to many Hip-hop artists include starting in the ‘hood’ and making it into the mainstream. Although the film is not mainstream, Fear of a Black Hat is a parody of the Hip-hop industry and addresses the theme of ‘rags to riches’ (and many other themes) in the Hip-hop industry, which is dominated by African-American artists.
Another example of this hardworking, upward movement theme can even be seen in Disney movies. The first African-American Disney princess hit theaters in 2009. Although it has been criticized for stereotyping African-American women, The Princess and the Frog‘s plot sticks to the theme . She begins from a humble beginning and through hard work and a typical Disney journey to find love, Tiana ends up finding success.
The most comparable Disney princess starting from such means is Cinderella. At the time, perhaps Disney was not ready to make an African-American Disney princess. Interestingly enough, a second version of Cinderella was made in 1997 starring African-American Hip-hop and R&B artist, Brandy.