Pop Culture

Race Porn – A Brief History of Race and Sex on Film

Race porn refers to the stag films that rely on racial fetishism as a site of racialized sexual encounters and sexual racism. When stag films emerged, they were illegal and circulated as part of an underground, male-dominated subculture. In regard to race porn, early videos depicted White men with Black women more frequently than they did White women with Black men.

Historian Mireille Miller-Young writes about race porn in her book A Taste of Brown Sugar. Race porn started to emerge during the late 1920s and early 1930s, during a time where ideas about racial difference and segregation abounded. Featuring either all-Black or interracial casts, the films were marketed to White men and often produced by them as well. Race porn tended to turn Blackness into an object of derision, using Black bodies to play out anachronistic fantasies. At times, race porn also had the potential to be transgressive, offering a social critique about race and gender. Either way, race porn started the commercialization of black sexuality on film.

Miller-Young explains that as silent movies, stag films used various tactics to highlight race and racial difference as a means to depict illicit sex. For example, most depictions of Black men in race porn showed them as sexual attackers or as service workers (like a handyman). They used titles that referenced “darkies,” a popular caricature of Black men as possessing natural, primitive rhythm. Sometimes they would give Black men characters names like Rastus, which was popularized during minstrel shows and depicted Black men as an object of amusement.

Race porn, like most stag films, used lewd humor to depict sexuality, thus using comedic distance to emphasize the racial difference of Black sexuality. Miller-Young states that for Black women, this included depicting them as trickster characters. Often they would adopt facial expressions like eye rolling or dismissiveness to poke fun about beliefs around women’s desires and men’s ability to satisfy them.

Thus, Black women were able to use bodily techniques like seductively engaging the camera or directly gazing back at a spectator in close-ups as well as purposefully drawing the gaze back towards her, thus making herself a spectacle. Doing so, Miller-Young argues, allowed them to turn stag film from voyeurism to exhibition. Further, Black women were able to perform within the sexual economy of desire that constrained through racialized sexuality with a form of agency that Miller-Young names “the competing gaze.”

Negotiating Violent Fantasies 

During the Jim Crow era, stag films proliferated about the taboo of interracial sex and denigrated black sexuality, often casting them as domestic figures. Often, these films played off White men’s fear of being sexually replaced by “superior” Black men by depicting them as Black as sexual attackers or house workers who enter White men’s homes that have their way with their wives.

Black women stag performers would play sexually passive domestic servants  to white men, a depiction that evoked the reality of Black women domestics in White men. In fact, according to Miller-Young, some of these films depicted White men sexually assaulting Black maids:

In all three films, coercive sex, and the woman’s performed resistance, is part of the fantasy. The black actresses in these films enact fear and distress just as they act out the subservience, attentiveness, and labors of maids. These roles as domestic workers provide a familiar rationale for proximity across race, gender, and class difference between black women and white men. Just as domestic work was the main form of employment for black women during the first part of the century, it was also a mainstay Hollywood representation of black women. Moreover, the sexual expropriation of black maids was commonplace occurrence that not only made clear the synonymousness of sex work and other kinds of work in the lives of black women, but defined the ways in which black women at the time sought to cope with and master a complex sexual terrain. (Page 59)

For example, one film Miller-Young discusses is titled KKK Night Riders (which bears an eerie resemblance to Ghetto Gaggers – watch at your own risk). The film depicts a white man in a KKK hood breaking into a Black woman’s home and demanding sexual favors from her. This film emerged during the time period where White KKK members did in fact break into Black homes, lynching the men and raping women. Thus, the film suggests true goal of KKK night rides is to have illicit sex with Black women. However, this particular film also pairs this suggestion with the notion that hypersexual Black woman is complicit and willing, thus its possible social commentary is limited by the racialization of sexuality. 

Miller-Young informs us that films like KKK Night Riders show that Black women in stag film had to do sex work in a coercive context. Black women are capable of evaluating the conditions of their work, particularly given their alternative forms of labor.Indeed, porn might have offered more negotiation of conditions of sexual labor rather than sexual violence of domestic work. Thus, Black actresses show that they can still assert erotic subjectivity due to complex personhood and ability to force social critique within their erotic performances  through the deconstruction and disidentification of dominating gaze. 

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