African Americans Representation in Cinema in the 1960 and 1970


African American representation in films has always been a controversial subject because of the history of racism in the united states. This dark history was also present in the creative art industry as movies adopted the same ideologies. Before the 1960s black people were represented negatively as rapists, drunkards, savages, and mentally challenged people. In short, black people were portrayed negatively using the same ideologies that had been used for racism against them. In the 1960s black people became bold after years of experience working in cinema. Films such as Nothing but a Man had a cast made up of African Americans only. This period saw more blacks being recognized for their role in cinema. For example, Sydney Poitier was recognized for his role in the movie Lilies in the Field, which even won him an academy award for best actor. The 1970s saw a transformation in the way blacks were presented in cinema. Some films started showing the effects of racism from the perspective of African Americans. The movies also became more creative as African Americans started having an interest in cinema. Films in this era were classed as blaxploitation because African Americans were still being depicted negatively. Although the representation of black Americans increased in the 1960s and 1970s, they were still described using the same negative ideology used in prior years.


Nothing but a Man

Nothing but a Man represented a new era of films for the African American community. The film featured an all-black cast and a dramatic storyline that followed the life of Duff, a railroad worker. The movie was unique when it premiered in 1963 but may not have received the attention it deserved at that time. In the film, Duff does hard manual labor all day then goes to drink in the evening. When he goes to a church social meeting and meets the preacher’s daughter, he stops drinking in the evening and instead focuses on going out with the lady. Duff and Josie develop a relationship that Josie’s parent resents because of Duff low paying job. The film presents the emotional struggle experienced by Duff uniquely.

The depiction of black Americans in this film reflects the community at the time the movie was shot. In the movie, Duff is an absentee father and does not show love to his son. This was a common theme in African American families during this period. Duff’s father was also absentee and never cared about showing love to his son. The movie depicts the family as disoriented and failed, which was a reflection of most the African American families at that time (Kocić 87). Therefore, the film represented the true reflection of the family and father-son relationship in African American communities in the 60s.

It also depicted the struggle of black Americans to find well-paying jobs. Part of the reason why they would not be able to access better-paying jobs was racism. Also, the blacks were less educated due to years of struggle and disenfranchisement by the government (Kocić 89). Duff is only able to find a job as a railroad worker who is not well-paid. Josie’s parents disrespected him because of the job he was currently doing. They were of the view that they did not educate their daughter to be married to a railroad worker. Therefore, the film depicts the real situations that black Americans encountered.

The Interrogation Report 1

The Interrogation Report 1 was one of the first documentaries about the plight of black people to be produced by a black person. This film discussed the struggle for equality in Alabama, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C. It incorporates footage from black American heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Maya Angelou. The documentary was done by Madeline Anderson and was intended to present a detailed report about the fight for equality by black Americans. In the 1960s, black people were still fighting for equality and had started using the media to spread their message (Kocić 87). The film presents situations of black Americans protesting against the treatment of black people in institutions such as airports.

The film solely focused on the plight of African Americans, which was rare in this period. Movies would include African Americans and give them roles that made them look inhumane. The audience who watched movies was white; hence the producers ensured that they portrayed the blacks negatively to ensure the movie sells. Therefore, black producers and directors were unable to shoot films that became popular. The creation of a documentary brought to the front the issue of activism and how black people had used it to confront the evils in society. The documentary acted as a motivation for African Americans to continue with the fight for equality in every aspect of society.

Analyzing the film, one can see the similarities with current events in the country. Activism is still a political tool used by blacks to fight the issue of racism. In recent times, the focus is on the police who continue to be violent against minority groups. The documentary production was necessary to tell the story of African Americans from the perspective of a black person. This would provide a better picture of what was happening on the ground. It may have helped people develop different attitudes towards the plight of black people.

Lilies in the Field

The film is about an African American man who stopped at a farm to ask for water and meets three women who were nuns. The film was released in 1963 and was successful at the box office. The meeting turns to a long-term stay as they persuade him to stay and help them with building a chapel. The film presents African Americans as helpers, which were positive and different from many other movies. The African American man chooses to offer help to the nuns who wanted to build a chapel for the surrounding community. This was different as other films depicted African American males as savages who would kill and rape their white counterparts.

The notion that all movies involving black Americans had to include violence is challenged in the film. The movie depicts nuns who escaped from Europe and an African American man who meet and work together to build a chapel. Instead of the person being violent, he chooses to help the nuns even after they tell him they will not pay him. This challenges the idea that many people had of black people being violent. It was important for movies that depicted black Americans to change and adopt a different ideology that would change people’s perspectives about blacks.

The film also had a positive ending, with none of the cast experiencing trouble at the end. The change in the depiction of blacks was inspired by a new crop of directors who wanted to change the way people represented black Americans in films (King 32). A cheerful ending was not common in movies during the 1900s. Films involving black Americans had to use violence as people had been made to expect violence from black people. Films like Lilies of the Field changed the way movies positively depict black Americans.

Guess who is Coming to Dinner

The film premiered in 1967 and was the first movie to depict an interracial love story. Most of the films preferred to use the same race love story before 1967. It was impossible to think of a love story between a white and a black person, even though they happened. Movies had not become bold enough to depict love stories between whites and blacks. This is because previously, movies went with the notion that blacks were savages and rapists and could only be defined as violent (King 31). The film was crucial in broadening the representation of blacks in movies. More movies showcasing interracial love stories were created as the case became pleasing to viewers in the years that followed.

In the film, the interracial love story experiences criticism from the parents of the daughter. This was common in many homes as white children were forbidden from having relationships with black Americans. Society was not yet ready to accept black Americans as equal and deserving of similar opportunities as whites. The maids were black which was common in many white homesteads. The movie plot revolves around the issue of interracial marriage, which appears problematic to both sides.

The film tackles racism in two different ways: on one side, the director’s present white-on-black racism, and on the other hand, they present black-on-black discrimination. The main character accuses his father of being a negro first and a man next. This illustrates the deep hatred that the older folks had regarding white people. The daughter’s father also resents the marriage of her daughter to a black man. This illustrates the way white people viewed black people as not worthy of consideration. The film tries to fight the issue of racism between blacks and whites by presenting the idea of an interracial love story.

In the Heat of the Night

The film premiered in 1967 and was based on a police detective investigating crime in a small town in Mississippi. The film is unique in the way two detectives of different racial backgrounds work together to solve a crime. This movie was one of the first detective-based movies to include a black person as the top detective. Doing so portrayed black people as smart and able to work together with their white counterparts (King 31). However, at the start, the film reveals the racist side of the white partner, Gillespie, who is reluctant to work with Tibbs because he is black. However, the wife of the slain wealthy man insists on having Tibbs as the head detective.

Racism is prevalent in the movie because, at the start of the movie, Gillespie arrests Tibbs mistakenly, thinking he was the criminal. The reason for the arrest was because he was a black man who had a fat wallet. This perception was similar to what was practiced by many police officers in different neighborhoods. Police would arrest black males and implicate them in crimes that they did not commit ((King 33). Therefore, the main idea is that most police officers had and continue to have a negative perception of blacks which hinders their work. Arresting the wrong suspects has led to a rise in incarceration rates among black Americans.

Most of the characters were racist, which makes it hard for the detective to do his job. The film depicts the detective as having to confront the racism in the small town and at the same time solve the crime. The detective manages to solve the crime, which indicates a new way of portraying blacks as capable of doing positive things. The film is successful in showcasing a black person as a hero who was a move away from the norm.


The movie was produced in 1971 and featured a private detective working with police officers and criminals to help solve a kidnapping. The film also portrays a black person as a hero. The detective was tasked with finding the kidnapped girl of the leader of a gang in Harlem. The detective worked with officers of the law to help understand what is happening in the underground. The choice of a black person as a detective was crucial as it is difficult for gangs to trust a white person due to the history of racism. Therefore, the film represents black people as gang members mainly if they stay in poor neighborhoods such as Harlem.

The film depicts black Americans positively as a way of attracting more viewers to the film from the African American demographic. It was not easy to find blockbuster movies that involved black Americans as the main character in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1970s saw the introduction of a blaxploitation genre, which was made to appeal to black audiences (Kocić 87). The movies were transparent and illustrated the true nature of how blacks are perceived in society. The shaft was one of the films that defined the blaxploitation era as it depicted black Americans as heroes. It helped change the way black Americans viewed films in general. Therefore, the change in the way African Americans were represented as a way for the producers to attract more viewers from the African American demographic. The move worked as more blacks became interested in films and cinema.

The Man

The film is a political drama about a black person who can become president through succession as he was next in line. Throughout his presidency, he is tested on issues regarding the color of his skin. As a black American, being president was impossible in the 1970s because of the nature of politics. The film tries to change the way the blacks view the idea of the presidency as being a preserve of white people. This is important as movies may change the way people view a particular subject (Kocić 90). It was essential for the directors to show the possibilities of blacks reaching the top position to motivate them to be interested in politics. The movie portrays the way people in America would have reacted when an African American became president.

The film covers racism as the president has to confront people who think he will fail because of the color of his skin. This can be interpreted to mean that black people would not be able to succeed as presidents because they are black. This indicates the racism which was present in the 1970s when the movie premiered. The film depicts black Americans as capable of being at the helm of government. The movie succeeds in portraying black Americans as peace-loving and not violent. When the president is pressured to act with force, he responds by saying that black Americans are peace-loving people. This indicates that the directors wanted to differentiate the character of blacks from that which was famous with white audiences.

The Night of the Living Dead

The film is a horror film that depicts a black American man trapped in a rural farmhouse fighting against zombies. The movie was among the first black horror films that involved zombies. The film was among the first major films to have an African American as the main character. The film follows the classic horror storyline and falls under the blaxploitation genre. The older horror films heavily influence the film in the way characters are represented. The intention was to create a horror film that would advance the country’s genre of black horror films. This film is credited with having changed the way people viewed horror movies. The introduction of a black protagonist was instrumental in trying to change the way blacks were considered in the film industry. However, the stereotypes about blacks in America persisted in many movies that came afterward.

African American man is presented as the main protagonist and can fight against the white zombies, which is significant. Also, the film adopts the notion that blacks are dangerous. In one of the scenes, a white woman is left alone with the protagonist, and displays fear. It might have been fear of the zombies, but critics point to the director indicating the woman feared being left alone with the black man. In earlier movies, the directors had succeeded in employing the notion that blacks are violent and rapists (Kocić 87). These ideas were still present in many movies of the 1970s, even though there was black representation in the films.


In summary, African American representation in films in the 1960s and 1970s evolved as new concepts came up. The first movies depicted African Americans as violent criminals who looked scary. These stereotypes were based on the perception that was held by people about black Americans. Films have a major role to play in influencing the way people perceive issues. Most of the films analyzed positively portray black Americans. However, the films indicate the racist aspect that existed in the community during the time of production. Most of the movies try to confront the issue of racism by showing how the perceptions of blacks as violent impact their ability to exist harmoniously in society. The 1970s saw a change in the way films were made as more black actors started appearing in different movies. This growth led to a change in the way films portray African Americans. Also, in the 1960s and 70s black people started having an interest in cinema as a result of more movies having black people as protagonists.


King, L. “The media and black masculinity: Looking at the media through race [d] lenses.” Critical Education 8.2 (2017): 31-40.

Kocić, Ana. “From the violent “Black Buck” stereotype to the “Black Hero”: Representations of African Americans and Black masculinity in American cinema.” FACTA UNIVERSITATIS-Linguistics and Literature 15.1 (2017): 85-96.

Guess who is Coming to the Dinner. Directed by Stanley Kramer, Colombia Pictures, 1968.

In the Heat of the Night. Directed by Norman Jewison, United Artists, 1967.

Interrogation Report 1, Directed by Madeline Anderson, Icarus, 1960.

Lilies of the Field. Directed by Ralph Nelson, United Artists, 1963.

Night of the Living Dead. Directed by George A. Romero, Image Ten, 1968.

Nothing but a Man. Directed by Michael Roemer, Mono, 1963.

Shaft. Directed by Gordon Parks, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1971.

The Man. Directed by Joseph Sargent, Paramount Pictures, 1972

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