How does the portrayal of minority cultures in films influence the perception of those cultures in American society and lead to stereotypes? Zoe.Chen


Film is one of the ways that people choose to entertain themselves. At the same time, the movie industry is grappling with the problem that it is too white, just like Hollywood and the Oscars.(BBC) This controversial racial problem has shown on the big screen since the 1920s. After the Civil War, racist messages could be easily delivered to American audiences. News, movies and articles showed the implicit bias toward certain groups. Could the images in film evoke implicit bias and stereotyping? How mignt bias and stereotypes inside of movies lead to misunderstanding toward certain minority culture ingroups and outgroups?

Let's go back to the Civil War. Movies like the Birth of a Nation (1915) were considered masterpieces during the Silent Film Era in 1915; however, the content of this film demonstrates the racism of this time. In the Birth of a Nation, director D.W Griffith made audiences see the Civil War through his eyes, the KKK was portrayed as the savior of the society, and the whole movie delivered a message that black and white people will not and should not ever live together under the same roof (Corliss 1).

The United States, as a major producer of movies in the world influences the way people see race. The message that comes from the portrayals of race and ethnicity in film is powerful and such depictions can not only cause stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, but attribution errors provoke a range of antisocial, intergroup responses (Mastro 50). The purpose of this exhibit is to question how film connects to racism and impacts American people's perceptions. Picture and video are considered powerful messengers by showing information visually and verbally; there are tons of films that contains implicit bias in American cinema. This exhibit is going to show how racist scenes in cinema indicate unequal racial rights in and out of the movie industry. It tries to find how film impacts minority groups themselves and how it influences the process of white audiences reinforcing their prejudices and perceptions of other groups.


What is scariest is not the movie itself but the aftermath after this film was shown. It was a shock in the 1920s and gained huge success among white people. The point is, the success of this film not only showed the racism present in the United State after the Civil War but awakened and confirmed the implicit bias deep inside the souls of white people. D.W. Griffiths was not alone. In artwork from the time period, like The Birth of a Nation, black people were portrayed as evil. This movie strengthened the implicit bias and stereotype inside of white people's minds.(The Birth of a Nation (1915))

According to journalist Richard Corliss, "The movie provoked protests and riots in Northern cities with large black minorities. And by stirring bitter memories in the white South, it helped revive the dormant Ku Klux Klan, which for the next few decades went on a righteous spree of killing black men" (Corliss 1).

White people are not only cast to play white people, but also black and Asian. It still happening in nowadays’ film industry. The whole white play other race problem could be filmmakers believe white people will have a better leading role inside and outside film. It somehow indicate audiences prefer lighter skin characters and film makers might prefer white actors, overall, it is a signal of implicit bias that the face of other race cannot appeal box office. Even less color skinned leading character on the screen, this phenomenon seems normal and acceptable.

Here is Robert downey Jr portraying a black soldier in the film "Tropic Thunder". He was nominated best Supporting Actor of Oscars. Should audiences and film critics accept this?

This Film is controversial because Robert downey Jr was wearing a black face. As Journalist Jonathan Pitts-Wiley (A Black Person) suggested, "The fine line between satire and offense is found in awareness and responsibility. Both these blackface performances obviously sprung from this initial thought: “Let’s act like (we wrongly think) black people act. " He thinks Downey Jr nailed his acting and his performance did not amount to blackface. (Pitts-Wiley 1) What do you think?

There is also the argument that white stars in Hollywood have the biggest pull at the box office, therefore a producer will cast a white actor in order to maximize returns. For example, in the new Peter Pan movie, Rooney Mara is going to give Pan better commercial prospects than a lesser-known Native American actress in the role of Tiger Lily (BBC). Producer tend to cast the best actor/actress rather than the suitable one, what they prefer is what majority audiences want.


Mickey Rooney played a buffoonish Japanese businessman with fake buck teeth and coke bottle glasses in the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

  • Implicit bias also contains stereotyping and prejudice. People tend to give definitions before they really get to know the truth, and these prejudices were driven by the stereotypes in our mind. Undoubtably, movies played a big role during the forming process of this conscious, for example, some Asians tired so hard to break the “good at math” stereotype, however, when young people see an Asian nerdy stereotype on the screen, their effort collapsed. The Ted Talk suggested that the stereotypes is the single story that is being told again and again (Adichie).
  • Psychologists theorize bias conveyed by the media helps to explain why children can adopt hidden prejudices even when their family environments explicitly oppose them. Furthermore, study showed that the portrayals of stereotypes of a certain group makes them self-conscious (Schmader 64).

Results of this Study demonstrate that Mexican Americans have a negative emotional response to stereotypic film portrayals of their ethnic in-group, regardless of the realism of those portrayals. Feelings of anger and shame were similarly elevated in response to stereotypic film clips, in spite of the fact that these clips were recognized as being entertaining and engaging to watch (Schmader 64-65).


Film images and texts have become a part of the process of defining, and creating stereotypes. Through both short and long term exposure to media’s characterizations of racial and ethnic groups, cognitions about the features of those group members (including one’s own groups) and the value of these groups in society, are established and reinforced. Film images and texts have become a part of the process of defining, and creating stereotypes (Mastro 6). By showing these movies that contain implicit bias toward a minority group, it encourages the white privilege and Racial Erasure ( the ignorance of certain groups).

The stereotyping portrayal of minority groups started from the silent film era to nowadays, which brought out a question of whether implicit bias inside of people minds never changes or it is the fault of the environment. Imagine the filmmakers we have now, who grew up with watching those whitewashing and stereotyping films. It might have impacted their views when they became the crews in the film industry. However, when whitewashed screen is still the majority in the entertainment industry, it might imply that implicit bias still stuck in citizens' heads.

Just like those studies suggested; stereotyping of minority groups not only impacts their self-esteem in the long run but gives the majority a wrong confidence and privilege toward others. Even though people started to question how film industry can do about the whitewashing environment, film portrayal played a big role with the misunderstanding and prejudice between different racial groups.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story .” TED Global 2009 TheSubstance of Things Not Seen, 23 July 2009, Oxford, TED

“BBC - Culture - When White Actors Play Other Races.” BBC News, BBC, Accessed 13 Mar. 2017.

“BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S Poster.”, Accessed 16 Mar. 2017.

Breakfast at Tiffany's. Dir. Blake Edwards. 1961.

Corliss, Richard. "D.W. Griffith’s the Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later: Still Great, Still Shameful." Time.Com, 04 Mar. 2015. EBSCOhost,

Griffith, D.W, director. Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith, 1942.

The Birth of a Nation (1915). Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Three Ku Klux Klan members standing at a 1922 parade. Google Image search.

Mastro, Dana. "Why the Media's Role in Issues of Race and Ethnicity Should Be in the Spotlight." Journal of Social Issues, vol. 71, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 1-16. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/josi.12093.

Pitts-Wiley, Jonathan. “Best Actor in Blackface.” The Root,, 18 Feb. 2009, Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Schmader, Toni, et al. "Social Identity Threat in Response to Stereotypic Film Portrayals: Effects on Self-Conscious Emotion and Implicit Ingroup Attitudes." Journal of Social Issues, vol. 71, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 54-72. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/josi.12096.

“Test Yourself for Hidden Bias.” Test Yourself for Hidden Bias | Teaching Tolerance - Diversity, Equity and Justice, Accessed 13 Mar. 2017.

The Jazz Singer. Dir. Alan Crosland. Warner Brothers, 1927.

Tropic Thunder. Dir. Ben Stiller. 2008.

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