Racism and Stereotypes in American Movies

Published 16 Jan 2017

The focal point of this paper is to analyze and evaluate the concept of racism and stereotypes in American movies. For the purpose the movie selected for scrutiny and assessment is the 1971 release ‘Shaft’. The approach of this evaluation would be based on the concept of African American Studies class.

The film Shaft was released in July 2, 1971 and was distributed by the famous MGM studios. This movie with a runtime of 100 minutes was based on the screenplay and novel of John D.F. Black and Ernest Tidyman and was directed by Gordon Parks. The producer of the movie Shaft was Joel Freeman and the music was wonderfully composed by J. J. Johnson and Isaac Hayes.

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Music in this movie is a very interesting part and is aligned with the basic theme of this paper as it is composed on predominantly black themes with complete alignment with African American musical tradition. But before the movie is taken into consideration for analysis it would be most relevant to look into the aspect of racism and stereotypes within the perspective of the American society. (Johnson, 1999, ix-xi)

One of the most compelling developments of our age is the recognition of multicultural of multiracial society and how they translate to each and every inpidual. The challenge is not just in recognizing other races but more importantly the culture and heritage of people must also be recognized. The emergence of African American Studies as an important field of study is a recognition of the struggle against racial discrimination and oppression (Giddings, 1994, 153-156).

Today, there have been significant strides in institutionalizing the development of programs that are studying the best approaches and methods to bring the concerns of the African Americans in society in the country’s premiere Universities such as Temple and Harvard. Recent studies in the field indicate that though there are no more significant explicit social barriers to African Americans, they are still challenged by historical marginalization and disenfranchisement.

Thus, African American studies still serves as a platform for the valuation of those of African descent in the United States: exploring the social, economic, cultural and political history of America that includes African Americans. There is a realization that though society has changed its perspectives, it has yet to deal with the social operations and dynamics that dampen the development of the African American sectors in the society. In effect, by not being able to take the opportunities that are supposed to alleviate them they are being further stressed by the censure of failure and personal responsibility for their lives (Giddings, 1994, 178-180).

Peoples’ distrust or reservation of other races or cultures is to be expected: it is very natural to fear the unfamiliar. That is why there is a need for conscious and collective actions to change society. One of the most urgent concerns is the assurance of economic opportunities which should be considered an integral component of any social program to address the issue. The development of various alliance among groups within the community that have shown better success in eliciting response from the most distressed among African Americans: the youth and women. These efforts have efforts have achieved success because they have taken into consideration similar trends among other social that suffer marginalization.

For example, one of the major issues that have to deal with is the prevalence of crimes against and attributed to African Americans. This state of affairs which has become a cliché in effect is not only a civil problem but also has become detrimental to all African Americans within and outside their communities. The consensus is that there very few opportunities left to offenders who fit the cliché that it is easy to be caught in a downward spiral. Thus, programs dealing with offenders need the creation of support and prevention groups that consider the social context of African Americans.

The critical course of action is to consider the realities that African Americans face today. Though in theory, regulations and legislations have already addressed their emancipation, the reality is that society has not been unable to effectively meet the effects of years of oppression. The very foundation of the US capitalist society deters many and has effective limited the number of inpiduals who have had been unable to make good of the programs that have been established.

In this context the basic formulation of the movie Shaft appears in an extremely interesting note. This movie can easily be denoted as a basic model of genera of movies that later became known as blaxploitation films and the film noir elements are profoundly present in this movie. The story is a simple tale of a private detective John Shaft who is of African American origin. John Shaft is seen in the movie lurking in the streets of Harlem and encounters with Italian mafia groups to retrieve the daughter of a gangster who also belongs to the African American origin. In the movie the character of John Shaft appears to be a complete stereo typed of all movie crime busters in line of James Bond model.

Therefore, logically enough, it is obvious that detective in the movie would appear to us as a super cool but extremely sexy in nature. He is also very confident in the film but pattern where this movie outclassed other contemporary movies of its time was that it presented a specified point of view and this point of view is from the perception of the black community and Shaft appears to indulge everything that appears to be bearing the essence of the African American community in the movie.

This is the special essence of this movie. Shaft is predominantly black and all the perceptions and perspective presented in the movie is distinctively black in nature. This movie is specifically Afrocentric in presentation. It could be mentioned that this movie easily surpassed supplementary black stereotypes with its presentation of black gangsters and black activists at the same time along with urban junkies who are black. In the movie we see time and again that the central character Shaft is making it a point with specific measures that he is dead against racialism and all sorts of racial hypocrisy.

This Afrocentrism appears in the movie in a special scene with special emphasis where it is seen that a detective of the police, Lt. Androzzi, is comparing Shaft’s skin color with a black pen. To this Shaft’s answer to this act is sharp and presents the scene with a satirist approach as he points a white cup and indicates that the police detective is not that much white either.

This part of movie presents the basic essence of the movie and its stand point against racial discrimination with a strong point. This is where this movie ‘Shaft’ breaks all stereo types set in its previous era and became a trend setter all by itself. The pen and the cup scene is just a single example and it is enough to prove the point of the director and writers but it would be relevant to mention that such scenario and dialogues with ‘racial vengeance’ are tottered all over the movie.

For a democratic society with its democratic form of government system it is but an obvious choice to opt for a society that is mostly color blind. The basis custom of a democratic society is to provide its mass with a structural form that offers equality in terms of justice and social characteristic. It is an unwanted fact but it is also extremely true at the same time that racism is a curse that exists among us whether we like it or not. The curse of racial discrimination had always been there in the American society. The presence of racism is well documented in many societal domains including workplace, school, health care, and housing like simple dialogues such as “My little sister hangs around with a Mexican”. (Minton, 1993)

It is very peculiar to consider racism is an ideology where humans are separated into various groups in the belief that some people are superior because they belong to a particular ethnic or national group. It could be summarized that racism is the result of having negative judgments, beliefs, and feelings towards certain identifiable groups. For example, the way mass media represents facts by mentioning, “White girl raped by four Mexicans”. Here it is interpreted as “Mexican people, they are bad, black people, they are bad”. (Minton, 1993) The movie Shaft comes in the confluence of culture at this juncture.

The movie ‘Shaft’ became a runaway hit at the box office with a cumulative gross of about $12 million. For a relatively small budget film this was a huge success. Additionally, the music score by Isaac Hayes won the best music award at the Academy Award ceremony. This proves the tremendous appeal this movie had on the mass psychology. It was almost as “what they were looking for all these days”. (Lamb, 2004, 327) This was no astonishment. This is because dialogues in the movie by John Shaft like “You are one wise Caucasian” (Johnson, 1999, 59) are more than what the black community expected from a movie of its time.

The black community was hungry for a hero who was able to give back what they were used to receive. In a way Shaft became the icon of the black community. Shaft was that figure that every boy of African American origin wanted to be. This was their answer to racism. This was their response towards discrimination and inequality. The discrimination and inequality of the American society that they have taken head down and were not able to retaliate. They always wanted to retaliate and wanted so badly. Shaft was all answer to these reprisals, at least on the movie. The better part of the movie shows shaft fighting against allsorts of evils especially those with the undercurrent of undercover apartheid.

The best part of this film is that the hero fights this evil while staying inside the parameters of the society in his own way and never revolted against the society. This was another huge reason for the acceptance of this movie among black youths. They never wanted to agitate openly and vigorously against the government for the better part of their life but wanted some way to release the undercurrent of frustration that they are suffering from the evil of inequality. Shaft provided them the route. No wonder ‘Shaft’ was a success.

In the conclusion it would be relevant to mention that the reality that has to be faced is that many African Americans are still dependent on minimum wage, are disenfranchised and have very little social or economic mobility. Though the struggle for better opportunities for them has been a long one, very few have been able to truly achieve the same opportunities that non-African Americans have enjoyed. Though there has been significant effort from all sectors and abundance of programs, the vehicles by which they are channeled are unable to meet the existing demand in society today. The need for developing programs that truly address the pertinent issues that gang violence the African American community is a concern that has repercussions to the community, industries and the nation.

The greater awareness regarding issues, media recognition is proving to be effective in strengthening response and sensitivity to issues. However, this should coupled with the conscientious effort to essential sustain programs that are initiated across sectors. What is needed now in the community is a decisive and concerted effort to address an issue that maligns and deters not only African Americans but any inpidual for that matter. As a result it could be mentioned again that the aspect of racism and stereotypes within the perspective of the American society would continue to prevail and movies like ‘Shaft’ would be produced.


  • Giddings, Paula. 1994. When and Where I Enter: The impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, National Book Trust
  • Johnson, P. 1999. Shaft: The Complete Screenplay. National Book Trust
  • Lamb, Davis. 2004. Cult to Culture: The Development of Civilization on the Strategic Strata. National Book Trust
  • Minton, Lynn; 1993; Is it okay to date someone of another race; Parade, Issue December 15, 1993
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