It’s now February 1st–Black History Month has begun. I admit to not being a ‘fan’ of BHM. I always feel more exposed than I need to be, but I understand the purpose of it.
Speaking of exposure, I have decided to address some popular portrayals of black people in Hollywood. In no particular rank/measure of offence:
1. The Cool black guy
The Cool Black guy is a character I often refer to as the ‘lazy, safe portrayal.’ This character, exemplified perfectly by the roles of Samuel L. Jackson, is often the result of Hollywood not knowing what to do with a black actor. They have no clue how to make this character ‘real’ but they don’t want to offend anyone, so they compromise for a ‘cartoonish’ character who is just ‘cool.’ See, for example, Shaft, both the original and the updated Samuel L. Jackson movie. Then there is the Samuel L. Jackson character in The Man. I remember Ebert and Roeper suggesting, during a review of the movie, that it would’ve been more interesting if Eugene Levy’s character played ‘the man’ and Samuel L. Jackson played the bumbling comedian. I agree with this because it would’ve shown Hollywood’s willingness to take risks. At the end of the day, the ‘cool black man’ is a safe bet. The problem is that he comes across similarly to the ‘Magic Negro’ character: not a real person.
2. The Magic Negro
Speaking of the Magic Negro. Many people (non-blacks) have difficulty understanding this character, even if he’s being played on a world stage by President Obama. (Disclaimer: I am merely referring to the way Pres. Obama’s seen as opposed to the way he is). The Magic Negro (or American Indian) is a parvenu who, in films, appears seemingly out of nowhere. He (often a male, but not exclusively) has no history, family, heritage, sexual needs, etc. He brings with him only his gentle smile, empathetic nature and seemingly magical abilities to heal [emotional or physical wounds] of his white costars. Often, he comes to his white costars in their time of conflict/trials. Will Smith (Legend of Bagger Vance), Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones and more recently Michael Clarke Duncan in the Green Mile, and countless Native American actors have played this character.
Writer David Ehrenstein made a fairly accurate comparison in his infamous L.A.Times article between the Magic Negro character and then Senator Obama. Obama had only been on a the world stage for a handful of years and not many people had heard of him prior to announcing his candidacy for president. But, the U.S. was in economic and political trouble and he was there, like Will Smith’s character was there for Matt Damon’s character when his golf game was suffering and his wife wanted to leave him.
The Magic Negro’s job is to fix the problems caused/faced by whites and make them hopeful and good, again. So far, Pres. Obama is struggling to heal the divided nation called the U.S.A. He was to be the first post-racial president and was to lead them out of economic sludge and he’s not doing that fast enough for them. They’re not feeling his healing power, which is puzzling to them. To conclude: like Chris Rock joked, loosely: “If Native Americans had magical powers, you think they’d use it to save themselves from near extinction.”
3.Angry, loud Black Woman/Sassy, Black woman
If the Magic Negro and Cool Black Guy are not real people, then the angry/sassy black woman is the mainstream’s attempt make black women real. Black women are among the most ignored; either that or they’re viewed negatively in society. Unlike the black man who may fit the model of masculinity and is valued for it, the black woman doesn’t fit the model of femininity and isn’t valued at all. See Sojourner Truth’s piece ‘Ain’t I a woman, too.” The framework in which the black female is viewed is one in which she’s de-feminized by the white mainstream. During the U.S. presidential campaign 2008, the media tried every which way to paint Michelle Obama as the militant, loud, black woman, which is the only way they can grasp or understand the black woman. In Judd Apatow movies or frat boy comedies, which appeal exclusively to white males, in whose eyes the black female is not really desirable, the black females are every bit a stereotype and nothing more. Case in point: Zack and Mira Make a Porno, The Hangover, etc.
If she’s not angry, then she’s sassy or has a lot of attitude, ready to argue or rude. Often, too, she is overweight, contributing to the undesirability of black women through perpetuating the ‘mammy’ image.
4. The Mammy/ The sidekick/Token Black Guy/Eunuch
The ‘mammy’ character is best exemplified by Hattie McDaniel’s character in Gone with the Wind. Like the angry/sassy black woman, she’s de-feminized, but she is much closer to the ‘Magic Negro’ character than the angry/sassy black woman. Like the Magic Negro, she lacks sex appeal, romantic connections and family history (some of these may be present while others may not be). She, like the sidekick character or token black person, is really just there to provide morale support for the white characters or to fill a [diversity]quota. Rarely is her personal life or history revealed, and rarely does she (or he) get a storyline that has any real meaning.
Furthermore, she rarely has romantic prospects. See, for instance, the character Bonnie Bennett on the Vampire Diaries. While her friends fall in and out of love/lust, no one appears to show interest in her, and the only person to do so, is up to no good. I am reminded of Beverly Tatum’s book: Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? In the book, she noted that when black children (including biracial or visibly part black children) are raised in white neighborhoods, they are often alienated due to stigma against blacks. While their friends date, no one shows interest in them. Likewise, it appears writers don’t know how to include black characters in their storyline.
5. The Gangster/Hustler
This is probably the most visibly problematic of black characters. The very realness of violence in black-populated low-income neighborhoods and the popularity of hip-hop contribute heavily to the persistence of this image. The black man has always been viewed as a threat, be it to white masculinity, white women or society as a whole. The portrayal of black thugs not only perpetuate the black man as ‘menace’ image but helps to define blacks, a whole. A show like The Wire with its ‘cops and robbers’ theme is praised for its realistic portrayal of criminal activity and its criminals are very black. Its realness is questionable, but hard to argue against when 7/10 black men (in the U.S.) have a criminal record. The main issue with the image is the way it dominates and dictates people’s opinion of blacks in general. It almost glamorizes the ‘thug,’ making it a credible profession for young black men. And, once again, it takes away the humanity of blacks.
Hollywood appears to have difficulty with portraying blacks as real people with desires and needs, which in turn, stems from white mainstream society’s reluctance to fully accept them and its desire to portray them as caricatures to amuse/entertain or scare whites.