Race and Perception of Film Characters
Student Researcher

Josephine Ann Dumas (PhD Student)
This paper is based on the author's Master's thesis.

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar

For a complete report of this research, see:

Dumas, J. A., & Sundar, S. S. (1998, July). Race and perception of film characters. Paper presented to the Sociology and Social Psychology division at the 21st General Assembly and Scientific Conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), Glasgow, UK.


Theory and research have indicated that the amount and type of racial representation in the media play an important role in the social construction of concepts of race held by audience members. This paper presents and discusses the results of an experiment designed to examine the effect of race upon audience perception of character appeal in film media. Specifically, it examines the effect of the race of audience member and the race and role of film character upon audience perception of character.


Discrepancies and similarities between race as the social construction of film and other communications media and race as the social construction of experience and self-definition are of interest in this study. Race is the social group identity factor which is operationalized in this research. This experiment operationalized concepts of not only audience race, but also character race, character role, and audience perception of character.

This study draws on a number of different theories such as identification theory, distinctiveness theory, social representation and dynamic social impact theory, and audience reception theories. Based on these different theories, the following hypotheses were generated:

H1: The audience members' perceived affinity for film characters will be greater for characters of like race than for characters of different race. The white audience members' affinity for white film characters will be greater than black audience members' affinity for white film characters. The black audience members' affinity for black film characters will be greater than white audience members' affinity for black film characters.

H2: Character appeal to black audience will be greater for black actors than for white actors; but, to white audience, character appeal will not differ based on race.

H3: The appeal of film characters will be greater for hero role portrayal (positive) and less for villain role portrayal (negative).


One hundred and forty-four participants took part in a 2x2x2 between-participants factorial experiment. Both black and white participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups (black hero, black villain, white hero, white villain). Each group was shown a separate 5-7 minute film scene where the main character engaged in an action-adventure struggle sequence and emerged victorious. Each scene had some humor included. Black hero and black villain were played by the same actor, Wesley Snipes.

White hero was played by actor Clint Eastwood,

while white villain was played by actor Jeremy Irons.

After viewing the stimulus film, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire containing measures of character appeal.


The dependent measure of character appeal was divided into six factors called 'Attractive,' Compelling,' 'Affinity,' 'Amusing,' 'Angry,' and ' Simplistic.'

H1: Supported for the 'Affinity' measure. The results indicate that black participants perceived greater affinity for black characters than for white characters and white participants perceived greater affinity for white characters than for black characters.

H2: Supported for the 'Attractive,' 'Compelling,' and 'Amusing' measures. Minority audience participants showed greater difference in 'Attractive,' 'Compelling,' and 'Amusing' appeal ratings between characters of different race than did majority audience participants.

H3: Supported for the 'Attractive' measure. White hero was perceived as just slightly more attractive than white villain by black audiences but much more attractive than white villain by white audiences.


The results show that character role significantly affects character appeal. The combined support for all three hypotheses additionally support the theory that the choice of race and role of character combined is significant in creating perceptions about the social construction of race. The policy implications of the results found in this study, particularly if replicated in more extensive research studies, involve four areas: appeal of diversity, education, economic investment, and social responsibility.

This study shows that diversity appeals to the audience. Striving for more equitable portrayal of minorities in the media is also politically correct. The film industry could show character, with minimum risk, by representing the rich racial diversity of the American population in American films. The empirical results of this study can also be used to assist in educating viewers, especially younger viewers, about how others perceive race and role of film character. By incorporating audience perception of race in film and other media curricula, we will not only foster better racial sensibility among future filmmakers, but also develop critical viewing skills in our next generation of audiences.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at sss12@psu.edu or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University