How American Cinema has tried to change the image of black folks in a white society
by Eleanor Hagenow
The concept of double consciousness was first introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois in his book The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. It seeks to capture a predicament many African Americans feel in a predominantly white society: wanting to be accepted but constantly experiencing oppression and depreciation. The “double” consciousness alludes to their awareness both of themselves as black people and of how white people stereotypically judge them. Let’s take a look at two films, both centered around interracial couples, to understand the changing portrayal of Black Characters in American cinema.
In Get Out (2017), Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer, meets the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). The black employees who work for Rose’s family exhibit extremely strange mannerisms from the moment Rose and Chris arrive. The Armitage family has robbed these employees of their strengths through hypnosis. Rose’s family attempts to do the same to Chris to steal his “eye for photography.” He kills Rose and her family before they succeed in doing so.
Rose’s family members, specifically her father and brother, attempt to disprove their racist attitudes through their conversations with Chris. In their initial conversation, the father explicitly tells Chris that he “would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could.” The brother, Jeremy, later attempts to compliment Chris during their family dinner by commenting on his stature. He states how Chris would be a “beast” at fighting because of his “genetic frame and makeup.” Chris is clearly uncomfortable in these scenes despite their intentions.
Initial conversation between Chris and Rose’s father
Chris’s character illustrates double consciousness. In the beginning of the film, Rose hits a deer while driving to her parents’ house. A white police officer comes to the scene and asks for Chris’s ID, despite the fact that Rose was driving. Chris, however, stays calm. He is aware both of who he is and how the white officer views him: as a black man.
Chris complying with officer’s request for identification
An important aspect to consider regarding double consciousness is whether white people are aware of it, and the Armitage family is. Rose apologizes for the behaviors of her father and brother when she and Chris are alone. Her character is cognizant of both the racist implications of her family and Chris’s inevitable struggle of fitting into white culture.
Now let’s travel back in time a bit. The second film we are looking at, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was produced and released in 1967, during the height of the Civil Rights Era.
In this film, a white woman, Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton), and a black man, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), become engaged after a trip to Hawaii. They go to Joanna’s parents’ house to share their news. Dr. Prentice tells Joanna’s parents, unbeknownst to her, that he will not marry her unless they approve without any reservations. Joanna’s father, Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy), does not approve of their relationship because of their racial diversity. Dr. Prentice’s parents then come to the Drayton’s house for dinner, having the same initial reaction as Joanna’s father. Through much consideration and conversation, the parents agree to allow Joanna and John to get married. The film then ends with both families sitting down together for dinner.
The Draytons and Prentices dining together
The presence, and absence, of Ebonics— dialect of American English spoken by a large proportion of African Americans— or African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black Vernacular English (BVE), illustrate double consciousness in the two films. This allows double consciousness to not only be seen, but also heard. Aspects of it include double negatives, omission of the verb “be,” and lack of subject-verb agreement. Here is a skit by the pair of black comedians Key and Peele that helps illustrate both double consciousness and AAVE.
Note the difference in how Troy and Mark, two men of color, talk to each other versus how they talk to their white friends. They call their white friends “buddy” and use very delicate and uplifting language. When they are left alone, however, their mannerisms change. They use terms like “thang” and “bouts” (when referring to the word “about”). They also swear at each other. The video illustrates their double consciousness as black men. The choice to delay using AAVE until their white friends leave likely comes from their mutual desire to assimilate into white culture. They do not want to scare their white friends through their aggressive dialogue.
The directors of both films illustrate awareness of how language codes color. Let’s look at a scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which exhibits this. In this scene, John and Lottie, the black housekeeper, are alone. Lottie uses double negatives, calls him “boy,” swears at him, and points her finger in his face. We never see her speak or act in this way to any member of the white Drayton family.
Lottie getting in John’s face
This scene allows viewers a chance to hear the double consciousness of the black characters. John and Lottie never use AAVE or swear words in front of the Drayton family. They speak very formally. This portrays them as respectable and as equals. We hear how their dialogue changes, however, when white people are not present. Only then do they feel it appropriate to remain faithful to their ethnic roots, and use Ebonics, and not use more formal speech. They are aware of both their identities as black people and the stereotypical attitudes of many white people at the time. Being more reserved in front of the Drayton family exhibits their desire to assimilate and be accepted into white culture.
We can also hear double consciousness in Get Out through Chris’s dialogue. Here are two scenes of phone calls between him and his best friend Rod, another black man.
The two black characters swear and use double negatives when speaking to each other. Chris does not speak in this way in front of Rose’s family. He, again, speaks very formally and respectfully. This portrays how he balances his racial identity and disproving the stereotypes held by a racist, white society.
These two films also analyze the evolution of generational bias. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner initially reinforces the traditional, racist bias of white societies. The interracial couple is first introduced to the white parents. The disapproval of the relationship portrays how white people of the era often viewed black people as being less than them. Get Out, on the other hand, blatantly betrayals this bias. It was written and produced by Jordan Peele, a black director. The white characters are envious of and steal black people’s features to better themselves. It is Chris’s cultural awareness and double consciousness which ultimately allow him to escape. Being written, produced, and directed by a black man, Get Out portrays how while white societies still have racist mindsets, they have evolved into coveting black people instead of looking down on them.
Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out
It is important to be aware of the challenge Black Americans face in white societies: remaining true to their racial identity while navigating a social environment prone to continued discrimination. More than a century has passed since Du Bois’s published Souls of Black Folk and half a century since Guess Whose’s Coming to Dinner. Yet Get out is still part of an ongoing project: increasing white folks’ awareness of double consciousness as one step toward racial consciousness, racial difference, and racial equality.