On August 15, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it had apologised to Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American activist who suffered abuse when she took a stand in the 1970s against anti-Indigenous racism in the United States film industry.
Littlefeather was racially abused after she declined Marlon Brando’s Best Actor award for The Godfather on his behalf and gave a passionate 60-second speech on the stereotypes of Native Americans in the entertainment industry.
Following that defiant speech, Littlefeather was at the receiving end of a professional boycott as well as personal attacks and discrimination for half a century. While I will admit that I had not previously read about Littlefeather’s ordeal or Brando’s splendid defiance, magnanimity and civil rights activism, I welcomed the announcement.
That the Academy chose to apologise for an abysmal racist act committed in the 1970s is commendable. However, it is just a start: The Academy and Hollywood establishment need to offer more apologies for promoting a white supremacist agenda around the world for a century.
The victims of Hollywood’s aggression extend well beyond those in the industry who have been targeted, like Littlefeather, to regular, unacknowledged people like me. The commercial tentacles of white supremacy respected no boundaries. Hollywood did not confine its racist productions to white audiences in the US.
Its problematic content went as far afield as Africa and the African diaspora.
I love Casablanca, the 1942 classic drama set in western Morocco, to bits. The romance between the main protagonists Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, intrigued me, as did their search for a second, implausible chance at eternal love in an exquisite setting. Everything about Casablanca – the incredibly intense soundtrack, distinguished cinematography and extraordinary, witty humour and suspense – is captivating.
Everything is almost perfect: everything, save for the extreme lack of depth embodied in the sole Black character, Sam.
Played by Dooley Wilson, Sam is an understated and complimentary addition to the smart, articulate and beautiful white lead characters on screen. He is merely a “sweet Negro” entertainer, an infinitely hollow and minor prop to the white man’s passionate and sophisticated relationship. Sam lacks the history, discernible agency and sheer presence that make Rick and Ilsa such strong, enticing and extraordinary characters.
Sam’s incomplete character and negligible role meant that each time I watched the movie as a young man, I somehow ignored his profound dehumanisation and consented to the cinematic expressions and demands of white supremacy. The subconscious message I grasped was that love and beauty were essentially intrinsic to white people only and certain narratives were overwhelmingly foreign to “my people”.
For a long time, I regarded white actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner as the quintessential representations of female beauty, character and elegance. I believed Black actresses such as Phylicia Rashad (from the Cosby Show), who played strong and intelligent female leads, were merely outliers in Hollywood and ostensibly in life.
Sure, Rashad was just as classy, talented and confident as, say, Ingrid Bergman or Barbra Streisand, but she was an aberration in an enthralling space dominated by white women – and men.
Only white characters and white experiences, Hollywood made us believe, could fully comprehend and capture the essence of love and humanity.
By contrast, Sam in Casablanca is barely distinguishable from Mammy, the cheerful, desexualised and submissive Black slave and servant featured in the award-winning 1939 epic Gone With the Wind. Decades after slavery was abolished, white filmmakers clearly remained determined to characterise Africans as amenable to white supremacy.
The Academy, meanwhile, elected to glorify such racism with significant acclaim. Gone With the Wind received eight Academy Awards, fetching Hattie McDaniel – who played Mammy – the first Oscar for any Black artist. Casablanca won three Academy Awards too.
Hollywood certainly struck gold at the box office by imagining that Black people could not possibly have elaborate and evolving characters that multiracial audiences (read white) could appreciate.
McDaniel, for instance, would act as a maid in no less than 74 movies. Her “successes” would set a template that Hollywood studios employ to this date in movies laden with massively sentimental Black stereotypes strictly intended to serve white protagonists. That is the case in films ranging from Shawshank Redemption and The Help to Green Mile, Jerry McGuire and Million Dollar Baby.
The deliberate erasure, minimisation and misrepresentation of Black characters for the benefit of the white gaze have had significant and enduring real-life consequences for Black people everywhere.
Growing up in Kambuzuma in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, my friends and I would play this wildly “exciting” game where we would cover our faces and bodies with sand.
Through this innocuous but detrimental endeavour, we pretended to be the white cowboys who saved the day in our favourite Western films.
I was barely six years old at the time, but like others in Kambuzuma and elsewhere, I harboured a ghoulish fascination with whiteness and appearing to be white. Light-skinned African people, especially women, were regarded as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, as compared with dark-skinned people, and skin-lightening creams were incredibly popular in our community.
Colourism and social and economic discrimination based on skin tone are so deeply entrenched within communities of African descent that the United Nations has described these as a “hidden human rights challenge”.
Years later, my friends and I would frequently laugh at dark-skinned Africans from countries such as Sudan and Uganda, and describe them as backward, deprived and ugly. Advertising campaigns for cosmetics, regularly endorsed by light-skinned models, would confirm our ghastly deductions.
The world I grew up in inspired me to hate Blackness. I felt ashamed of myself and the economic neediness and social struggles colonialism imposed on and bequeathed to Black people. So I fell for Casablanca and its contrived characterisation, despite its countless and condescending shortcomings.
Of course, much has changed since the 1970s, when the Hollywood establishment derided Littlefeather.
Films like Get Out, Black Panther, Moonlight and Blackkklansman have demonstrated Hollywood’s newfound willingness to produce films with genuinely Black characters and diverse, progressive themes.
However, the struggle is far from done, as the gatekeepers of whiteness remain powerful actors in the world of film and TV. Black and minority talent remains underrepresented in Hollywood. When it comes to on-screen romance, the industry’s love stories continue to largely feature white characters.
Yet Black people – my people – are people too.
We do love and want our love stories to be cherished and celebrated by everyone, including white people.
If it is truly remorseful about the social injustices of the past and committed to improving for the future, the Hollywood establishment must apologise for repeatedly dehumanising Black and brown people and advancing white supremacy around the world.
It must not wait another 50 years to do the right thing.