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  • E-News U. Contributor 9:24 am on December 21, 2008 Permalink |  

    Black commander-in-chief: From fiction to reality 


    On the night of Nov. 4, the seemingly impossible happened; a black man was elected U.S. president. However, people have been viewing black presidents for a while on television and on the big screen. The progression of black roles in television and film throughout the years has improved just as black people have advanced in image and status.

    Eleanor Earl teaches screenwriting, film criticism and Introduction to Motion Picture courses at Hampton University. Although the English professor is originally from Virginia, she has lived all over including Atlanta, New York, California and London.

    “We’ve come a long way,” Earl said. “Earlier images gave cause for great concern. It was discouraging to have to watch and be bombarded with negative images and stereotypes of black men.”

    In the 1930s, blackface, or minstrel shows, was a common performance put on by white men where they would use grease paint or burned cork to darken their faces and imitate “dandified coons,” or “darkies.” A dozen years later, black people where imitating plantation days with ethnic speech and exaggerated features on television. However, no matter how dark their skin was, they had to put on “blackface.” Common roles played then, the mammy figure and Uncle Tom can still be seen in television today.

    Phill Branch moved to Virginia from California to teach at Hampton University. In Los Angeles he worked as a writer, producer and in entertainment brand marketing. Recently he has launched a Web site, IllProfessors.com, that focuses on movies, television, music and literature reviews.

    “There are seven main archetypes in television and film for black people,” Branch said. “The mammy figure, the strong buck, a magical negro, the tragic mulatto and so on. The thing is if you watch television closely, even when the character is not made out to be a definite mammy figure…she still has mammy characteristics.”

    Despite black people’s beginnings in television, forward motion has been made. However, there is still discontent about how black people, particularly black men, are portrayed.

    Even now, stereotypes and negative imagery of black men can be found on television and in movies when African-Americans are cast in roles such as gang members, dead-beat dads and heavy drug users or pushers. Branch and Earl believe that some of these roles are necessary in the industry.

    “I don’t think someone being a criminal is a negative portrayal, it makes things more realistic,” Branch said. “I think the whole positive and negative conception is tricky though, not useful.”

    “We wouldn’t want cookie-cutter perfect images because there are black robbers, gang members and so on,” Earl said. “Directors have a right to explore that part of society.”

    According to Branch, the main problem that people have when it comes to television and film’s portrayal of black people is that there isn’t enough variety. When the television and film industry capitalizes off of subject matter at the expense of someone or thing, that’s when things become negative.

    “When you have BET constantly showing videos filled with naked women and gangsters, I have a problem,” Branch said. “We need more diversity; things shouldn’t just lead in one direction.”

    Branch believes the true issue concerning television is whether or not shows allow a viewer to see the full spectrum.

    “It’s not that Hollywood is not letting us play powerful roles,” Branch added, “… it’s that we aren’t showing those roles ourselves as black people, in real life. We can’t expect other people to be in the business of making sure that the black image is appropriate.”

    To some, having black men playing the role of president on television aided Obama in winning the election. Because it is now a familiar sight on movies and television shows, it has helped the public accept it as a possibility.

    Keesha Wilson, a five-year MBA major from Pasadena, Calif., believes that the movies do a good job of keeping things realistic.

    “Just as seeing interracial dating on TV has allowed for it to be more acceptable,” Wilson said, “seeing minorities in positive position of powers has allowed for society as a whole to become more comfortable with the idea.”

    Kyle Winfield, junior theater arts major from Orange County, Calif., says that the movies are still too overly dramatic with not enough substance.

    “It’s entertaining but it isn’t real,” Winfield said. “It’s still just acting in the end although it does look good on TV.” Obama winning the election, he said, can dispel the illusions that Hollywood has put up about the presidency being one intense situation after another.

    “Obama will show America what a real black president is like,” said Winfield. “It’s not going to be just yelling orders or looking stressed out when he finds out there is a bomb somewhere.”

    In 1997, Tommy “Tiny” Lister played as president in the sci-fi movie “5th Element.” As president, he was depicted as a brute and wasn’t a positive portrayal of what a black president could be.

    However a year later in “Deep Impact” Morgan Freeman played president and was calm, collected and carried himself in a more respectable manner. In FOX television series “24” starring Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer, a black president is shown handling intense situations, like the impending doom of humanity.

    “I think that black men are portrayed a lot better than we give television credit for,” said Branch.”We see black cops and lieutenants, presidents, hospital managers, business men and women on shows; we see a lot of diverse images.

    Chris Rock plays the part of a black president in the movie “Head of State,” a comedy displaying what it might look like if a young, black man ran for president. In the movie, Rock uses hip-hop music to endorse his campaign and represents extreme stereotypes as he makes his way to the top.

    “It’s interesting because although the movie was made as a speculative comedy, now there’s not a punch line,” Branch said. Obama used musicians such as Will.i.am, John Legend and Stevie Wonder to strengthen his campaign by reaching out to younger generations.

    “Head of State was letting people know that this is possible,” Branch said. “This is where we’re headed.”

    The writer is a junior at Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

  • E-News U. Contributor 8:35 am on December 21, 2008 Permalink |  

    Recession touches students too 

    With a $700 billion bailout plan proposed, the abrupt end of more than a few financial firms and the current credit crunch as indicators, America’s current economic crisis is undeniable. While what this means for Wall Street has been explored ad nauseum, what this implies for college campuses is somewhat less traversed territory.

    When the housing market bubble burst, the resulting mess did not stay contained to just that one industry. Its effects rippled throughout the whole of the American economy as seen in the swift downturns of the stock market, current rate of unemployment and general wariness of most businesses to put their necks out financially.

    “One of the things that makes this thing [economic crisis] so difficult is that it hit all the sectors,” said Sid Credle, dean of Hampton University’s school of business. “It hit the banks, the real estate market, retail … It went nationwide and now it’s international.”

    The effect of the crisis in service industries has touched students. Jobs in food service and retail serve to sustain many while they matriculate through college.

    “It has been beyond difficult to find a job,” said Shannon Hayes, a music education major at Hampton University. “I have been looking basically the whole semester, but I’m getting nowhere.”

    Hayes had a part-time job at a boutique in Norfolk until it went out of business is September.

    Her struggles were shared by Iyanna Fairweather, a biology major at HU.

    “It took me forever to find a part-time job,” said Faiweather. “I looked all over, but people just aren’t hiring right now. Everywhere I went, that’s what I heard.”

    It is not just in Hampton that students are having difficulty finding employment. Lynella Charles, a film student at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa., lost her job at a local restaurant that was forced to close and has been unable to find a replacement.

    “The owner was having difficulty keeping the doors open,” Charles said. There was a noticeable drop in customers from last year to this year.”

    While some students depend on part-time jobs to help finance their higher education, most depend on loans. With this recession has come a loss of some of these opportunities. Just as stores cut back on hiring and in some cases are even forced to close their doors, college loans could also be affected by the current market.

    “Loan rates are going higher,” Credle said. “There is going to be a great demand for loans and banks aren’t just going to give them to students carte blanche.”

    While rates have yet to rise, Credle says if the economy isn’t fixed or on the road to being fixed soon, that will be inevitable.

    Meanwhile, as according to the College Board, total borrowing for school has reached an all-time high of $85 billion in the 2007-08 school year, which is more than double what it was just 10 years ago. Federal aid growth, however, has stayed relatively flat in that same time period.

    With students loans at an all time high, fears are rising that defaulting on these loans will rise as well.

    “The credit crunch could affect student loan default rates as well,” Credle said. “The convergence of the high rates of borrowing and this economic downturn could create a serious issue. It’s definitely something people will have to watch for.”

    With borrowing at an all-time high, college student securing good jobs post-graduation would seem paramount. However, prospects for recent college grads aren’t as bright as some would hope.

    “Coming into the job market as a recent grad was daunting,” said Ronald Smith, a 2007 college grad. “Then with my field of study [business and market], it was next to impossible to actually find a job.”

    Smith, who graduated at the top of North Carolina Central’s business school, could not find a job in business or marketing upon his graduation.

    However, according to Credle, the future for students in not as dark as it seems.

    “Right now students have a unique opportunity,” Credle said. He explained that though the current crisis is daunting and serious, it does afford the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the equities market at what he called a, “seriously reduced cost.”

    He argues that if students can learn to prioritize and not spend frivolously, than they won’t only survive this crisis, they could come out the other side in better condition.

    Credle also pointed out the new opportunities that this crisis could create.

    “Federal government employment will open up. They will pick up the bright hard workers to help fix this problem and stimulate economic growth.”

    Not only will there be new opportunities in the wake of this crisis, but there are ways that students who find themselves in any of the situations mentioned can help themselves.

    “Obviously the first thing to do is budget,” Credle said. “After that, grads who find themselves in situation where they can’t pay loans can contact their lenders and see about deferment and forbearance. As far as continuing to finance an education, federal loans will remain unaffected by this crisis.”

    The writer is a junior at Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

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