Segments in this Video

Enduring Ethnic Caricatures (02:39)


Into the middle of the 20th century, Uncle Toms, Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning fools, savage brutes, and wide-eyed “pickaninnies" were popular depictions of black Americans. These images permeated mainstream American life.

Under the Shadow of Caricatures (02:06)

Images of black Americans as Sambos, Uncle Toms, faithful Mammies, grinning fools, savage brutes, and “pickaninnies" shaped gut level feelings about race. They affected how black Americans were viewed when it came to public policy.

Origin of the Sambo Image (03:00)

In the early 1900s, images and songs portrayed a simple, docile, laughing black man. According to legend, white comedian T. D. Rice modeled his blackface show on a dance step invented by blacks to skirt Jim Crow laws.

The Happy Sambo (03:09)

People who had never seen blacks bought T.D. Rice's image of the Jim Crow character. In 1843 a group of blackface performers created a popular minstrel group. The Sambo figure became one of the most potent forces in the politics of slavery.

Zip Coon (01:48)

Alleged sentiments of "happy slaves" were expressed in songs and novels before the Civil War. The myth of Sambo resolved the moral and political conflict of allowing slavery in a free society. Minstrels turned their attention to free blacks in the north.

"Judge Priest" with Hattie McDaniel (03:52)

By 1934, the black Mammie had become a staple figure of the old south. Like the happy Sambo, the nonsexual Mammie emerged as a defense of slavery. The Mammie strikes at gender concepts of societal norms in American society.

Savage Brutes (02:09)

Freedom brought hope to black Americans. Political debate manipulated public fears about the so called black menace. Old stereotypes were adapted to new politics. Racial hysteria permeated popular culture as seen in "Birth of a Nation."

"Birth of a Nation" (03:09)

Classic caricatures of blacks after reconstruction were captured on film. Emancipation was viewed as a tragic mistake. Brute Negroes played by white men in blackface pursued white virgins. These images incited and justified racial violence.

Savage “Pickaninnies” (03:14)

At the turn of the century, America experienced unprecedented race hatred. Violence and terror were acceptable methods of social control. Caricatures of child victims invoked the feeling that blacks were subhuman.

Black Men in Blackface (02:50)

As America crossed into the 20th century, racist images were heralded by Vaudeville and films. In the minstrel tradition, black roles in film were played by whites in blackface. When blacks began to play themselves they had to perpetuate the stereotype.

Urban Coon (02:25)

In the early 1900s blacks were moving to the city. Emancipation had disrupted the social order of the south. Migration and competition for jobs threatened the status quo of the north. Racial hostilities brewed and new caricatures emerged.

Reality of Black Servicemen (02:09)

The service and self-esteem of black war veterans was undercut through caricature as seen in a U.S. Army Film from World War I. These images reinforced white supremacy by fitting blacks with acceptable roles. Race riots broke out in 1921.

"Natural Born Gambler" with Bert Williams (05:18)

Over time, black performers brought elements of humanity to the caricatures. Popular entertainment remained doubled edged in its rewards, creating personal suffering and a cultural stigma as the price of success.

Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer" (02:13)

Hollywood emerged as the dominant force in popular entertainment. By 1927, more than 26 million Americans were going to the movies each week. What they saw reaffirmed the tradition of blackface entertainment that had prevailed since slavery.

"Judge Priest" with Stepin Fetchit 1934 (02:59)

Blackface in motion pictures warped images of blacks. Cartoons shaped impressionable minds with racial caricatures. Physical distortion and violence were comical. Businesses profited from public affection for these images.

Black is Ugly (02:15)

Destructive stereotypes shaped enduring notions of black culture, behavior, and appearance. The American standard of beauty was inherited from Europe. Africans were compared against this image of perfection.

Blacks are Savage (02:13)

Cartoons popularized the idea that black Americans had descended from savages. According to myth, slavery and segregation had domesticated black Americans "Emperor Jones" is an example of the new savage stereotype.

Blacks are Happy Servants (02:21)

Images of the Mammie, Sambo, and Uncle Tom posed no threat, as they happily entertained and served. Through this romantic fantasy, generations of Americans escaped concern or responsibility for racism. Even clothing showed happy subservience.

Civil Rights Movement Begins (02:30)

Ethel Waters Sings "Darkies Never Dream" Restrictive molds cast before the Civil War began to crumble. By the mid-1960s, the world was focused on the realities of brutal American racism. Popular culture adapted to the new tide in politics and attitudes.

Capitalizing on Old Stereotypes (02:02)

By the late 1960s, more extreme caricatures had begun a slow death. Hear examples of modern racial stereotyping in media. Psychological control is one of the best ways to maintain a system of oppression.

Considering Enduring Images of Black Americans (01:21)

This segment takes a critical look at how stereotypes and caricature have wounded blacks and considers what the future may hold.

For additional digital leasing and purchase options contact a media consultant at 800-257-5126
(press option 3) or

Ethnic Notions

3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



This Emmy Award–winning documentary reveals the origins of the dehumanizing African-American stereotypes found in popular culture, from the antebellum period to the era of the civil rights movement. Loyal Uncle Toms, carefree sambos, faithful mammies, grinning fools, savage brutes, and wide-eyed “pickaninnies” roll across the screen in cartoons, feature films, popular songs, minstrel shows, advertisements, folklore, household artifacts, and even children’s rhymes. Narrated by Esther Rolle and with scholarly commentary throughout, the film is a direct challenge to those who say “It’s just a joke.” (56 minutes)

Length: 58 minutes

Item#: BVL49775

Copyright date: ©1987

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

National Emmy Award   


“It’s nothing short of astounding.”  New York Post     


“Decades of studying Afro-American history did not prepare me for the devastating impact of one-and-one-half centuries’ worth of vicious racial stereotyping. Anyone claiming to understand our nation’s past must see this documentary.”  —Nell Irvin Painter, Professor Emeritus, Princeton University           


“Disturbing, but absorbing. With no rancor and considerable scholarship it lays out how stereotypes helped white society justify slavery, segregation, and even lynchings.”  Los Angeles Times    


“A classic! Should be required viewing for every American. It helps us better understand the dangers of black stereotypes so deeply rooted in our culture.”  —William Ferris, former executive director, National Endowment for the Humanities

Performance Rights

Prices include public performance rights.

Not available to Home Video and Dealer customers.

Only available in USA and Canada.