Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967 costumes by Joe King brought the racial tensions of the era into the theater. The film was groundbreaking for featuring a male lead, played by Bahamian Sir Sidney Poitier, in an inter-racial couple. The costume in the film however reveals how the African American male conforms to the white standard.
Above the father and future son in law face one another in suits, with the father's suit coming undone.
The African American couple is dressed very conservative, with the mother in pearls while the white mother wears a looser, almost non-western style dress.
Nearly 30 years later Will Smith portrayed a man claiming to be Portier's son, as an uninvited dinner guest in Six Degrees of Separation, 1993. The costumes by Judianna Makovsky emphasize the white WASP standard and suggest that racial tensions continue.
African American presence in media began to be transformed during the mid 20th century. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in 1952 was followed by Martin Luther King and then more militant groups like the Black Panthers. By the 1970's indie black films, also known as Blaxplotation, featured African American protagonists who often resorted to crime but were seen as heroic. The costumes fell more into a street and pimp style category.
Ganja & Hess, 1973, costumes by Scott Barrie
At the same time as the rise of Black indie films, Mahogany, was released in 1975. The film starred Diana Ross who also created the costumes, and offered a positive role model of a black female who rises to success through education and fashion design.
The 1980's were a moment of greater African American film blockbusters. Below left The Color Purple, 1985, with costumes by Aggie Rodgers. On the right, Coming to America, 1988, with costumes by Deborah Nadoolman helped popularize African kente cloth though the jewelry and coats were entirely invented for the film.
Below Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing from 1989 emphasized urban street clothing with baseball jerseys, Nikes and hip hop bling.
The 1990's through the present have seen an increase in more serious dramatic films about African Americans and their history. Malcom X, 1992, also by Spike Lee with costumes by Ruth Carter was based entirely on historic photos.
Based on both historic research and fantasy, Dreamgirls, 2006, costumes by Sharen Davis