Representations of Black people in the dominant media

May 9, 2006 by  

“Within the logic of its narrative patterns, blacks tend to be depicted either as the source and cause of social problems – threatening to disrupt moral equilibrium – or as the passive bearers of social problems – victimised into angst-ridden submission or dependency” (Kobena Mercer)1

recent guardian newspaper image from article about homeless people. Photograph: Martin GodwinWe could argue that in an analysis of dominant media forms the black subject is still served up as a problem.

In the above quote from an article written in 1988 by cultural critic and author Kobena Mercer, he argues that black film practice comes up against the ‘official’ race relations narrative. It could be argued that this ‘official’ narrative is still in place.

Alternative representations of Black people need to be entered into mainstream cultural practices

The achievements of cultural theorists in creating a space in which an alternative view on ‘race’, gender, sexuality and identity can be achieved within an academic arena, needs to be moved into mainstream media as this alternative view is seldom depicted in dominant media forms.

Contemporary black film makers, many of whom are themselves beneficiaries of this discourse whether directly or indirectly, have continued to produce works that build on the efforts of their predecessors, and remain vigilant in producing work that seeks to contest and upset stereotypical representation.

It is however evident that limited access to these alternative conversations presents a problem that needs to be overcome through actively seeking out new means of distribution and the dissemination.

I would argue that there is a need to move from a purely theoretical or art-house site for conversations to more accessible mainstream media forms. I am not suggesting that this is not already taking place, however there is a distinct lack of momentum, highlighted by the huge gaps in time that occur between one production and the next.

To quote Mercer again ‘Such was the condition of black film production, the situation occurs whereby we grateful that another production has achieved release‘ (Mercer, 1988).

United or divided

There has been an uncoupling of the political framework the formally linked African, Caribbean and Asian hyphenated British people together as one cohesive force and the dissolution of the workshop and collective formats (due in part to changes in the funding structures available). Within the mainstream we have seen a number of films produced from an Asian perspective achieving prominence whilst former partners seem to be are lagging behind. Whether this is the result of the Asian perspective being ‘en vogue’ is debatable. The situation is changing and technological advances that enable film makers to produce work with a smaller budget have assisted in widening the field.

Film production in the 1980’s and 90’s saw a change in the types of work made by the black British film industry, to one whereby the black subject was made more complex. It also saw, to a greater extent, the abandonment of the burden to maintain a level of racial conciousness within their work. In light of the continuing struggle to fix meaning in representation, I would question whether the total abandonment of this burden is a wise move as the seemingly limitless resources of the dominant media will prevail in re-creating and re-presenting the stereotypical view, that identifies the black subject as a problem. However I would also conclude that simply squaring up in a never-ending ‘battle royal’ is counter-productive.

The ability for cultural artefacts to shift and transform perceptions is a real phenomenon (Mercer, 1988). In relation to the visual, which is seen as a privileged form of representation, one which is highly valorized within our fast paced, multi-media society, the creative has a pivotal role in creating the multiple and complex representations of the ‘black community’ that reflect it’s diversity. This challenge has been at the forefront of many of the film works created during the last two decades, when the structures of institutional funding were at their heights (in relation to minority producers) and the creation of newer markets in broadcasting and media presented ideal conditions for growth. The ongoing challenge is to continue and build on the works already created within a harsher funding climate that required product to appeal to the mainstream and so attract larger audiences and achieve commercial success. Some Asian perspective films have achieved this to a degree, however there is some way to go if we are to reach a point of saturation, which I would suggest at this point in time is more desirable than the relative drought we have been enduring.

We all have to shoulder the burden of responsibility

Whilst I have concentrated on film production, I would not limit the responsibility to solely film makers. Producers of all types of cultural artefacts have a role to play, it my view that in order to effectively saturate the dominant media with the pluralised black subject, ‘product’, whether film, music, photography, literature, or critical knowledge needs to be made available within the wider public domain. The examples set within the music industry, whereby control enables the artist, in a market sense, to mainstream his product (if sufficiently successful), present an alternative way of disseminating product for all producers, including the black British film industry.

In the wider black community I would argue that a better understanding of the regimes of representation that exist in our society would delimit the effects of negative representations. Negative representations have the affect of making the subject self-concious and one begins to doubt ones identity. If representation is diversified and alternative discourses are made available, negative representations become but one aspect of the complex social identity which characterises a group of people.

This article is © 2006 Morlene Fisher and is an excerpt from a longer essay entitled ‘The role of the creative in representing the black subject’. Morlene is a Photographer and writer. See more of her work at

1Mercer, K. (eds) 1988, Black Film, British Cinema, ICA Documents 7, BFI


One Response to “Representations of Black people in the dominant media”

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