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When do stereotypes in movies become harmful?

Managing stereotypes in storytelling is key.

By Rebekah Hardwicke | Contributor

Film director D.W. Griffith is known for transforming cinema with groundbreaking technical advances. In addition, he is perhaps the best example of an artist who used harmful stereotypes in movies. His film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) is credited by sources such as the Los Angeles Times with rebirthing the KKK. The second wave of the KKK emerged the same year as the release of Griffith’s movie, continuing the horrific tradition of the first wave, which had ended in the 1870s.

Griffith followed this with the epic masterpiece “Intolerance”(1916)—made as a response to the so-called intolerance of those who disapproved of his earlier film. “Intolerance” differed from Griffith’s earlier work in its conscious lack (although not complete elimination) of stereotypes. When we compare the two Griffith films, along with other works, some indicators of negative stereotypes in film quickly stand out. Here are a few indicators of stereotype exploitations in film:

1. A film stereotypes a group of people when it portrays them as less than human. A film often implies this when it portrays members of a certain race, gender, religion, etc. performing harmful acts. “Birth of a Nation”portrays black people as sexually aggressive and less intelligent than other people groups. This consequently makes black people seem worse than other humans and denies the truth of universal human fallenness. Whether the film does so for comic relief or simply from pure ignorance, negative stereotypes devalue any films that exploit them.

2. A film stereotypes a group when it portrays certain group traits as absolute. This happens even if the writers attempt to fix the problem by giving a single negative trait to multiple groups. The movie “Amistad” avoids this. In this underrated gem of a movie, so-called Christians, along with other groups, are portrayed as racist. However, Spielberg avoided negative stereotypes by placing other Christians in the movie who are not racist. This idea is summarized by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “ . . . the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

3. It is impossible for a single film to accurately display every group and type of person in that group—but where is the line where lack of representation for a minority group becomes a negative stereotype? I’m not sure. However, filmmakers must choose their actors wisely, as people will take note of which groups are underrepresented in film casts. My fellow film major, sophomore Halie Owens, says that when a group is underrepresented in movies, group members might grow unaware of their own capabilities.

Obviously, it’s important to portray people and groups accurately. This has implications for filmmakers and other artists—and for everyone else. We must recognize the stereotypes in things we say and recognize why groups may be offended by their representation (or lack thereof) in film, art and society. Accurate understanding of negative stereotypes is essential for empathizing with and respecting people different than ourselves.

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