Ask most individuals of any particular ethnicity whether the film industry portrays his or her ethnic group accurately and the answer will usually be “no.” Since its inception, film studios have very gradually sought to improve the way various ethnicities are depicted, usually only as a result of concerted efforts on the part of those ethnic groups to influence those producing, directing, and acting in films. That said, most film-makers have tried to present various ethnicities more accurately than in the past. Much of this effort occurred during the socially turbulent late-1960s and early-1970s. As the old, autocratic film studios began to give way to the so-called auteurs of cinema – directors who exercised far more control over the creative decisions involved in making a film than had ever been the case before – socially-liberal screenwriters, directors and producers began to portray certain categories of individual much differently than in the past. An early progenitor of this trend involved one of the ethnic groups most victimized by the old Hollywood system: Native Americans. Historically portrayed as primitive, savage, almost inhuman beasts intent on defiling white women, kidnapping white children, and slaughtering peaceful settlers heading West, the late 1960s witnessed the production of films that sought to depict the Native American experience more through the prism of the indigenous tribes. Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, both released in 1970, portrayed Native Americans as decent human beings whose lives and traditions were under constant attack by invading Caucasians. In short, film began to humanize humans who just so happened to represent different ethnicities and who were the victims of genocidal policies and actions, rather than the other way around.
African Americans were another group routinely portrayed inaccurately, sometimes by well-intentioned directors, often by ignorant screenwriters and directors who perpetuated negative stereotypes of blacks as shiftless, lazy, and dishonest. From D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking but racially-insensitive The Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified the brutal white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan while depicting blacks very inaccurately and negatively. A silent film, one of Griffith’s information cards, shown intermittently on screen to enlighten the audience, stated:
“The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation. . .until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
Well-intentioned films that nevertheless perpetuated stereotypes of blacks included the Shirley Temple film The Littlest Rebel (1935), which takes place in the Deep South during the Civil War, and which features African American Bill Robinson as the tap-dancing slave who is the little girl portrayed by Temple’s friend and confidant. As with portrayals of Native Americans, the changes in the way in which African Americans were portrayed in film occurred very gradually, and largely tracked the broader social transformations occurring during the 1970s. The emergence of “Black Cinema” would have a questionable start with respect to accuracy, but so-called “Blaxpoitation” films like Super Fly (1972) Foxy Brown (1974), Shaft (1971), Cleopatra Jones (1973), and many others represented the dramatic shift of African Americans as weak, dishonest, lazy, etc., to virile, strong, proud, and, usually, threatening to the now-weak and stupid Caucasians. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, portrayals of blacks would dispense with these comic book depictions of tough but honest private investigators and, in the case of Super Fly, drug dealers. It is important to note, however, that some of these films were conceived and directed by African Americans, for example, Gordon Parks (Shaft) and his son, Gordon Parks, Jr. (Super Fly).
The emergence of increasing numbers of African American screenwriters and directors would precipitate a major transformation in how blacks were depicted in film. How fair and accurate these depictions were is entirely a matter of debate, including within the African American community. Many blacks were aghast at the fact that Caucasian director Steven Spielberg adapted Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple (1985) for the screen, although Whoopi Goldberg was highly praised for her portrayal of Celie and the film was viewed and lauded by a broad cross-section of society. More typical were films depicting black youth struggling with the temptations of drugs and the allure and dangers of gangs. Mike Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991) and Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991), were praised by critics for their accurate portrayal of African American life. High-profile actors like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and James Earl Jones have all contributed to the mainstream depiction of African American men as typical of American society in both positive and negative depictions, especially with respect to Washington’s varied roles.
More could be said about the evolution of the treatment of other ethnic groups, especially Italian Americans who castigate the entertainment industry for frequent sensationalist portrayals of gangsters and organized crime, a lament that peaked with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Time, however, precludes further examination of this issue. Suffice to say that the social transformations of the 1960s and 1970s ushered in the changes in how film depicts minorities.
The question presumes that issues of ethnicity in movies do finally reflect society. I think that a significant issue of discussion might be that the construction of ethnicity is not reflective of society because there is far too much intricacy in social constructs like ethnicity which cannot be reflected on screen. The other issue here is that "whose" ethnicity is evident? This question goes back to the complexity issue that films simply cannot represent for it is fluid and dynamic.
At the same time, I think that we can see the emerging role of ethnicity in films of the 1990s. It was in the 1990s where the idea of "New Wave Black Cinema" could be seen. Artists like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers were developing films where African- Americans were playing lead roles. This was significant because African- Americans were not merely support to White actors. Films like Boyz 'N the Hood, Malcolm X, or Menace II Society were dominated by casts who were African- Americans. These films focused on ethnicity and issues related to racial identity. It was also in the 1990s were films like Smoke and The Joy Luck Club. These films addressed ethnic identity as either an active part of the narrative or in terms of identity in terms of developing the film. It was in the 1990s where issues of racial and ethnic diversity became active part of the cinema process.
I think that one can point to the 1990s where ethnicity in films moved closer to reflecting society. Cinema in the time period moved closer to showing what society reflected in terms of questioning ethnic identity and analyzing it on film. It is in this time period where movies came closer to reflecting society, a time period where diversity was openly articulated on a social level.