The brute caricature portrays Black men as innately savage,
animalistic, destructive, and criminal -- deserving punishment, maybe death.
This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are
depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims,
especially White women.
Charles H. Smith, a writer at the end of the 1890s, claimed, "A bad negro is the most horrible creature upon the earth, the most brutal and merciless."
There were Black rapists with White victims, but they were relatively rare -- most White rape victims were raped by White men. The brute caricature was a red herring, a myth used to justify lynching, which in turn was used as a social control mechanism to instill fear in Black communities. Each lynching sent messages to Blacks: Do not register to vote. Do not apply for a White man's job. Do not complain publicly. Do not organize. Do not talk to White women.
The brute caricature gained in popularity whenever Blacks pushed for social equality. According to Allen D. Grimshaw, a sociologist, the most savage oppression of Blacks by Whites, whether expressed in rural lynchings or urban race riots, has taken place when Blacks have refused or been perceived by Whites as refusing to accept a subordinate or oppressed status. many White Americans to examine their images of and beliefs about Blacks. Television and newspaper coverage showing Black protesters, including children, being beaten, arrested, and jailed by baton-waving police officers led many Whites to see Blacks as victims, not victimizers. Even militant anti-capitalism, anti-White protesters garnered some sympathy. The brute caricature did not die, but it lost much of its credibility. Not surprisingly, lynchings, especially public well-attended ones, decreased in number. Lynchings became "hate crimes," committed secretly. Beginning in the 1960s the relatively few Blacks who were lynched were not accused of sexual assaults; instead, these lynchings were reactions of White supremacists to Black economic and social progress.
The Brute caricature has not been as common as the Coon caricature in American movies. The Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first major American movie to portray all the major anti-Black caricatures, including the Brute. That movie led to numerous Black protests and Whites-initiated race riots. One result of the racial strife was that Black male actors in the 1920s through 1940s found themselves limited to Coon and Tom roles. It was neither socially acceptable nor economically profitable to show movies where Black brutes terrorized Whites.
In the 1960s and 1970s "Blaxploitation" movies brought aggressive, anti-White Black males onto the big screen. Some of these fit the "Buck" caricature -- for example, the private detective in Shaft (1971) and the pimp in Superfly (1972) -- but some of the Blaxploitation actors were cinematic Brutes, for example Melvin Van Peeble's character in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). Sweetback, the main character, is falsely accused of a crime. On the lam he assaults several men, rapes a Black woman, and kills corrupt police officers. The movie ends with the message: A BAADASSSSS NIGGER IS COMING BACK TO COLLECT SOME DUES. That frightened Whites. Young Blacks, tired of the Stepin Fetchit portrayals, flocked to see the low-budget movie. Although dressed in the clothes of a rebel, Sweetback was as much a brute as had been the lustful Gus in The Birth of a Nation.
American Gigolo (1980) had a poisonous and despicable Black pimp. He was one of the many Black sadistic pimps who have abused and degraded Whites in American movies. Mister---, the husband in The Color Purple (1985), is an angry and savage wife abuser so is Ike Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It? (1993). Their victims were Black, but Mister -- and Ike Turner were both brutes. Turner's real life criminal behavior (which predated the movie) gave credibility to his character's portrayal as a brute -- and, more importantly, to the belief that Blacks are especially prone to brutish behavior.
In the 1980s and 1990s the typical cinema and television brute was nameless -- sometimes faceless; he sprang from a hiding place, he robbed, raped, and murdered. He represented the cold brutality of urban life. Often he was a gangbanger. Sometimes he was a dope fiend. Actors who played the Black brute were usually not on screen very long, just long enough to terrorize innocent victims. They were movie props. On television shows like Law and Order, Homicide: Life on the Streets, ER, and NYPD Blue, nameless Black brutes assault, maim, and kill. On October 2, 2000, NBC debuted Deadline, a drama involving an irascible journalism teacher. In the first episode two young Black males brutally kill five restaurant workers. They kill without remorse...
© Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology Ferris State University Nov., 2000
For more on Brutes: http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/brute/more/brute_page.htm