Over the past few months, a surge of protests has spread across the United States, and indeed across the globe, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. While much anger has been focused on overt systems of oppression like police violence, the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement has also stressed the role of harmful stereotypes in undergirding racist social and political structures. In response, Quaker Foods North America (part of the PepsiCo corporation) announced this June that they would retire their perennial icon of “homecooked” comfort food nostalgia, Aunt Jemima. In a statement explaining their decision, Quaker Foods admitted that “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype”. Despite her warm smile and kind eyes, Aunt Jemima does indeed owe her origins to racist ideas about the role of Black women in antebellum and Reconstruction-era America. First introduced as a character in popular nineteenth-century minstrel shows (essentially sketch shows in which white actors in black-face makeup would mock African Americans), Aunt Jemima was portrayed as a “Mammy” on a Southern plantation. Typical of the Mammy, Aunt Jemima was an overweight, dark-skinned slave who was utterly devoted to her white masters. Huge and perennially smiling, the Mammy was a stereotype created in the nineteenth century to “prove” that white slaveowners could never possibly find their female slaves attractive, thus obscuring the reality of institutionalised rape and sexual abuse experienced by so many Black women under slavery. The Mammy’s joyful demeanour also fuelled another insidious myth of the antebellum period: the belief that slaves were happy, well cared for and treated like members of the family by their owners.
Aunt Jemima was devised as a corporate permutation of the Mammy figure. Indeed, Chris Rutt, who co-created “Self-Rising Pancake Flour” renamed the brand “Aunt Jemima” in 1889 after attending a minstrel show. The following year, the Aunt Jemima brand was sold to the Davis Milling Company, who concocted an elaborate backstory for their logo, claiming that Aunt Jemima was a real slave who had lived happily on a Southern plantation. According to the company’s mythos, visitors came from far and wide to taste her famous pancakes, but after the Civil War the Davis Company tracked down Aunt Jemima and paid her in gold for her secret recipe. Although the character of Aunt Jemima was modified in 1989 – she was modernised, slimmed down significantly and her famous headscarf vanished – she nevertheless owes her origins to a racist stereotype created to bolster the oppression of Black slaves in the pre-Civil War South.
Stereotypes, although often posited as harmless images or conceptual shorthand, are powerful because of how they are used to justify oppression and violence. S.K. Jewell writes that “Racial stereotypes are constructed beliefs that all members of the same race share given characteristics. These attributed characteristics are usually negative”. Consequently, if such stereotypes encourage us to believe that all members of a given race are lazy, violent or buffoonish, it becomes much easier for us to dehumanise those people, strip them of their rights and expose them to violence. People of colour have long recognised the negative power of such stereotypes, with advocacy groups and activists working to dismantle these harmful ideas.
Concomitantly, artists and writers of colour have also worked to critique or subvert racist stereotypes. In Song of Solomon (1977), by the late Toni Morrison, the formidable bootlegger and sometime witch Pilate Dead physically transforms herself into a small, frail and deferential old woman in order to manipulate the police – her family members refer to this as her “Aunt Jemima act”. Pilate uses the racist stereotype of the submissive, kindly Mammy to her advantage and exploits police prejudice to achieve her own ends. In the same decade, the newly ascendant blaxploitation genre also worked to deconstruct stereotypes about people of colour and to expand their range of cinematic representations beyond the peripheral roles – butlers, sleeping-car porters and maids – that they had been consigned to during the classical Hollywood period.
Blaxploitation has long been a controversial genre. On the one hand, when it emerged in the early 1970s, it opened up a complex cinematic reality in which people of colour could inhabit the kind of nuanced roles once reserved for white actors: they could be heroes or villains, detectives or spies; they could even be suave vampires and tragic monsters. On the other hand, though, blaxploitation has been criticised for contributing to the rise of another set of negative stereotypes through its reliance on characters who were often criminals, prostitutes and pimps. The academic Adilifu Nama has also noted that the radical political potential of the genre was generally subordinate to its profitability as cheaply made, quickly produced exploitation fare:
“Despite the rise in black nationalism, which was ideologically fueling the justification of blaxploitation cinema, it was the profitability of blaxploitation, at a time when the film industry was experiencing a severe financial crisis, that made blaxploitation viable and valuable” (21)
Moreover, while many blaxploitation films were produced by black writers and directors – i.e. Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Gordon Roger Parks Jr’s Superfly (1972) – others were the work of white filmmakers who generally exhibited a far less nuanced understanding of Black life. Yet, for all its flaws, the blaxploitation genre regularly demonstrated a profound awareness of both the ubiquity of racist stereotypes and their capacity to bolster discriminatory socio-political structures. Some of the most ingenious examples of the genre explicitly call out, destablise and play with these stereotypes in a manner similar to Morrison’s subversive deployment of the Aunt Jemima figure.
One of the most unusual and overtly self-conscious blaxploitation films of the 1970s is probably Paul Maslansky’s Sugar Hill, from 1974. Steeped in theatrical voodoo iconography, Sugar Hill tells the story of Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey), an African American photographer whose boyfriend is murdered by a group of predominantly white gangsters. With the help of Voodoo practitioner Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) and the loa Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), Sugar raises a zombie army to exact revenge on the men who killed her lover. Throughout the film Sugar and Baron Samedi repeatedly employ racist stereotypes to lull their white antagonists into a false sense of security before dispatching them in a suitably violent fashion. Sugar Hill is therefore a film in which racist caricatures and stereotypes are weaponised by characters of colour. Moreover, such stereotypes are often summoned, played with, and ultimately unveiled as illusions or contrived spectacles that play quite deliberately on the ignorance of racist white characters.
Sugar Hill opens with an elaborate dance number. Set to the film’s theme song, “Supernatural Voodoo Woman”, the Black dancers are dressed largely in white – as Voodoo initiates often are – and appear engaged in a frantic occult rite. The scene is saturated with a thrilling exoticism, seemingly offering a voyeuristic glimpse of some “primitive” tribal ceremony. Yet, as the frenzied dance begins to calm, the scene is intruded upon by an enthusiastic off-screen applause. In this moment, the film reveals that the supposed tribal dance was in fact the floorshow at nightclub called Club Haiti, which is owned and operated by an African American man, Sugar’s short-lived sweetheart, Langston (Larry D. Johnson). Decorated in a pseudo-tropical style, the club profits by exploiting white interest in an exotic Caribbean Other. The voodoo ritual that opens the film plays on stereotypes about Black primitivism, just as the club itself flourishes by pandering to such simplistic caricatures.
Here, the white audience members who thrill to Club Haiti’s voodoo spectacle reflect a historical tendency on the part of white Americans to not only fetishize African American culture but to embrace it only in as much as that culture appears sufficiently exotic. In the early part of the twentieth century, wealthy white New Yorkers flocked to the nightclubs of Harlem, a district one newspaper columnist described as “a seething cauldron of Nubian mirth and hilarity”. According to Steve Watson, in the 1920s and 30s, most white visitors to Harlem commenced their foray into the local nightlife in a part of 133rd Street offensively christened “Jungle Alley”, where they could find a broad array of nightclubs and cabarets. Significantly, many of these clubs catered to a majority white audience and often presented carnivalized, highly stereotyped masquerades of Black culture intended for white consumption.
The white enthusiasm for Harlem’s Black culture also encouraged many wealthy whites to act as patrons for artists and writers involved in the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. However, many of these patrons were only happy to support Black artists as long as their work reflected preconceived notions about Black culture or evinced an exotic primitivist aesthetic. Langston’s club with its voodoo floorshows and Haitian theme represents an explicit attempt to cater to the white romanticisation of African American and Afro-Caribbean culture. Yet, while Langston might uphold this façade for the sake of profit, Sugar Hill never allows the audience to fall into the trap of believing that such stereotyped portrayals of the Black experience constitute the film’s reality. The opening dance number only goes on long enough for the viewer to become comfortable with the “voodoo ritual” they are watching, but once lulled into a false acceptance of the ritual’s reality, Sugar Hill pulls back the curtain to reveal that the scene was a highly-choreographed performance all long.
This process of playing into before ultimately demolishing racist stereotypes reoccurs throughout the film. Following Langston’s death, Sugar turns to experienced Voodoo practitioner Mama Maitresse for help. Although not completely eschewing the sensationalism associated with cinematic depictions of Voodoo, Mama Maitresse and her swamp-centric magic are far less spectacular than the gaudy dance number that opened the film. This more sensitive portrayal of Voodoo chimes with the reality of the faith. Jeffrey Anderson explains that “Voodoo proper is an African creole religion, meaning that it is a faith that began in Africa and adapted to new conditions in the American South” (n.pag.). Often conflated with Hoodoo and Conjure, which are not religions but magical beliefs and practices, Voodoo is a syncretic system born out of the violence of the transatlantic slave trade. African slaves brought to plantations in Haiti and the Mississippi River Valley were forced to adopt the Catholic faith of their masters, but in doing so, they often conflated or matched African deities with Catholic saints, creating a religion that merged their traditional beliefs with the Christianity of the New World. In Sugar Hill the secluded Voodoo rites that Mama Maitresse performs deep in the Louisiana swamps are far more reflective of that religion’s reality than the ecstatic floorshow that opens the film.
Mama Matriesse and Sugar employ Voodoo to summon the imposing Baron Samedi (literally “Baron Saturday”). The Baron is a loa (spirit or deity) revered in Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo. Commonly depicted in a top hat with a cigar between his teeth, Baron Samedi is a cohort of Ghede, God of the dead, and serves as a Guede (Cemetery Lord), guarding the crossroads where spirits cross between our world and the next. Samedi raises a cohort of zombies, the resurrected bodies of Guinean slaves who emerge from their graves still carrying the shackles they wore in life. Sugar Hill is a film keenly aware that Voodoo was a religion born out of the horrors of slavery. Alongside his role as the gatekeeper of the afterlife, the conduit who draws the living dead into our world, Baron Samedi also plays an active role in Sugar’s quest for vengeance. While Sugar is left in command of the zombie army, it is often Samedi’s role to lure the (mostly white) men who killed Langston to their doom.
Depicted here as a somewhat mischievous figure, Samedi repeatedly acts out racist stereotypes in order to set the gangsters up for deadly encounters with Sugar Hill and her zombie hit squad. In an early scene Baron Samedi disguises himself as a servile bartender, who gives his name as Sambo. This is significant because the figure of “Sambo” is one of the oldest racist stereotypes deployed against African Americans. Sambo has his roots in the early European colonisation of Africa when the first explorers and slave traders found it expedient to portray Africans as docile and simple. In the antebellum period the Sambo figure proliferated as slaveowners sought to justify the ownership of other human beings by portraying slaves as content, happy and childlike. Simple Sambo allowed slavers to defend their actions as a form of patriarchal care, arguing that their “lazy”, “foolish” slaves needed to be disciplined by a loving, fatherly master. During the period,
“White women, men and children across the country embraced the image of the fat, wide-eyed, grinning black man. It was perpetuated over and over, shaping enduring attitudes toward African-Americans for centuries.” (Green n.pag.)
By the late nineteenth century, after chattel slavery had been abolished, tourist promotions for Florida utilised images of happy former slaves to depict the state as an idyllic, peaceful destination. Describing a popular postal sleeve promoting the Sunshine State, Kenneth Goings explains that
“First, there were the images on the outside cover–The Happy South–no atrocities here. Just grey-haired older black men–no wild bucks–along with cotton plants which they happily picked, watermelon which they happily ate and the old slave cabins in which they now happily lived as free people.” (136)
The powerful Baron Samedi borrowing the name of a racist stereotype and adopting a servile demeanour in his role as bartender is clearly intended as a satirically jab at white America’s willingness to believe in the reality of such stereotypes. That Samedi uses these guises to aid Sugar in her crusade of vengeance against the predominantly white gang responsible for her lover’s death suggests a violent rejection of such stereotypes as well as an acknowledgement of their role in oppressing people of colour.
Later, Baron Samedi engages in even more explicit play with racist stereotypes when he adopts the role of an overly deferential cab driver, bowing and scraping as he ferries the gangster O’Brien (Ed Geldart) to his death at the hands of Sugar’s zombie army. Here, Baron Samedi plays the part of another insidious racist stereotype: Uncle Tom. According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia,
“The Tom caricature portrays black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, like the Mammy caricature, was born in ante-bellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies), were contented and loyal?”
The name Uncle Tom is derived from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Stowe’s book the eponymous Uncle Tom is a slave who remains loyal to his master in spite of the horrendous abuse he suffers. In subsequent years, the figure of Uncle Tom was distorted in stage plays and other media that rendered him increasingly weak and docile. Following the end of slavery, Uncle Tom was transformed from an unfailingly loyal slave to a dependable servant – usually a waiter, butler, cook or porter – who is always eager to serve white people, whether they are employers or customers. Significantly, Tom is unfailingly portrayed as kind and non-threatening, a middle-aged or elderly man who is comfortingly desexualised. One of the most well-remembered permutations of this figure is the character of Uncle Billy, played by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in the 1935 film The Littlest Rebel. Here, Uncle Billy – note the familial, asexual moniker “uncle” – acts as a sidekick to the mischievous Shirley Temple and is wholly devoted to the little girl and her white family.
When Baron Samedi assists Sugar by ferrying one of the gangsters to a secluded rural location, he adopts a persona very similar to the Uncle Tom stereotype. Acting as a taxi driver – another service role – Samedi purposefully changes his deep, booming voice to a caricatured manner of speech reminiscent of minstrel shows or popular cultural portrayals of Black servants. When the taxi arrives at its destination, Samedi announces “here we is”, clearly imitating the syntax and accent associated with Southern plantations. When O’Brien questions where he is going, believing he is being taken to meet another gangster, Samedi gently reassures him that “I is taking you to him”. Throughout the interaction Baron Samedi remains humble and deferential, lulling the gangster into a false sense of security by embodying popular stereotypes suggestive of Black inferiority. At one point, the Baron even hums the popular minstrel show tune “Camptown Races”.
As in other sequences where he transforms from a vengeful, charismatic deity to a docile servant, Baron Samedi plays his role with a knowing irony. He is clearly aware that the film’s antagonists are deeply racist and exploits their white supremacy to manipulate them. Indeed, as is common with blaxploitation films of this period, the villains not only profess their own individual racism (using racial slurs and discriminatory behaviours), but they also embody larger systems of systemic racism. The gangsters who fall victim to Sugar’s zombie army, are framed as explicitly racist. They use racist terms when addressing Sugar and other characters of colour, and they view the only black member of the gang, Fabulous (Charles Robinson), as inferior. In one scene gang leader Morgan (Robert Quarry) even forces Fabulous to engage in the humiliating work of shining his boss’s boots. The gang’s attack on Langston seems to allude to the broader systems of violence that face people of colour who attempt to succeed in business and industry.
In another sequence, gangster Tank (Rick Hagood) is seen forcing dock workers to pay him in exchange for being assigned to work-crews – if they don’t pay, they don’t work. Tank is particularly cruel to Black workers, taunting them and threatening to assign them to “banana boats”. When one of the Black dockers refuses to pay in order to work, Tank punches him. Here, Tank stands in for the wider system of racist discrimination of which he is a part by abusing people of colour in the workplace. Because the gangsters are framed not only as racist individuals, but as representations of societal racism as a whole, the vengeance wrought upon them by Sugar and Baron Samedi suggests a powerful attack on the broader infrastructure of racist oppression. Read within this framework, the Baron’s adoption of stereotypical, historically racist personas is especially powerful. He uses the bigoted stereotypes created by white Americans against them, and by slipping into these personas as if they were mere costumes, he calls attention to their essentially contrived nature.
By using these stereotypes to lure the film’s racist antagonists to their violent deaths at the hands of Sugar and a cohort of reanimated slaves, Baron Samedi enacts a violent rejection of such stereotypes. In the context of Sugar Hill these harmful caricatures are weaponised and used to wreak revenge on those who have historically benefitted from their use. Sugar Hill is therefore a film that draws attention to the fictional nature of stereotypes like Sambo and Uncle Tom, while at the same time – by allowing its characters to self-consciously perform these roles – exposes their falsity.
Sugar Hill is an interesting film to consider in light of the renewed scrutiny faced by corporations and the entertainment industry for the manner in which they have exploited racist caricatures for profit and cheap laughs. It is certainly not a perfect film. Like many blaxploitation films, questions of Black agency invariably arise when we consider that Sugar Hill was written and directed by white men. As Harry Benshoff notes in his analysis of the genre, “The question of African American agency is complicated by the fact that many of [these] films had white directors, editors, producers, and crews (217). Likewise, Robin R. Means Coleman observes in her book Horror Noire that AIP (American International Pictures), the studio that produced Sugar Hill, could hardly be said to have intentionally championed progressive causes. Means Coleman argues that “AIP could not be credited with being a film trailblazer. Rather, they continuously watched from the sidelines per their policy to ‘observe trends in emerging tastes’” (124).
Sugar Hill was only produced because of the success of films like Shaft (1971) and AIP’s own Blacula (1972). However, despite its status as the product of a predominantly white studio system, Sugar Hill is a deeply self-aware film. It demonstrates an awareness not only of the bodily violence experienced by people of colour – murder, assault, slavery – but of the psychic violence and repressive power of racial stereotypes. However, by repeatedly engaging in theatrical performances of these stereotypes before abruptly exposing them as illusions or acts, Sugar Hill highlights the fictive nature of such stereotypes, showing us that they are not real representations of Black Americans but rather caricatures created to further racist social and economic agendas.
By allowing characters like Sugar and Baron Samedi to play with these stereotypes as part of their plot to destroy racist villains, the film empowers them to perform a violent rejection of these stereotypes. Again and again, they cast off these personas just as they are about to brutally punish characters who embody complex forms of systemic racism. In an interview with Noah Berlatsky, author Tananarive Due claims that “Black history is Black horror”. While much of this horror was experienced bodily – through slavery, lynchings, mass incarceration – other forms of horror have long hidden behind the smiling face of the Mammy and the servile gentility of Uncle Tom. These caricatures have been used to justify countless atrocities. Yet, in Sugar Hill characters of colour, expose the falsity of these stereotypes, and redeploy them against representatives of racist oppression.
- Harry Benshoff, “Blaxploitation horror films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription”, in The Cult Film Reader, eds Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik. Open University Press, 2008.
- Noah Berlatsky, “Re-centering the Black experience in the horror genre, from ‘Beloved’ to ‘Get Out’. Document. 17 Jun 2020
- Sarah Doneghy, “Aunt Jemima: It was Never About the Pancakes”. Black Excellence. 30 Jan 2018
- Adam Gabbatt, “Aunt Jemima brand to change name and logo due to racial stereotyping”. The Guardian. 17 Jun 2020
- Kenneth Goings (2001) “Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose Travel the USA”, International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Administration, 2:3-4, 131-161, DOI: 10.1300/ J149v02n03_06
- Laura Green. “Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans”. Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
- Robin R Means Coleman. Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. Routledge, 2011.
- Adilifu Nama. Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. University of Texas Press, 2008.
- Steven Watson. The Harlem Renaissance, p.p. 124-44.
- “Baron Samedi, Baron Piquant, Baron La Croix and other Lords of the Graveyards.”
- “The Tom Caricature” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia