The controversy surrounding the casting of Idris Elba as the Asgardian god, Heimdall, in the upcoming Thor movie, has got me thinking about the token-nature of black actors in Hollywood.
First, let me say, I am fine with the casting of Elba, and suspect that his “appearance” will be explained in the movie, unlike the Percy Jackson and the Olympian: Lightning Thief movie in which the black Olympian just existed.
I am just annoyed with the status of black actors as the designated racial tokens. There are pretty much two black characters on television/in movies: the generic black character, I’ll call token A, who’s safe and lifeless, and the character I’ll call token B, who’s a walking stereotype. Token B is usually played by a rapper or comedian, or just a regular black actor desperate for work (Taye Diggs in Malibu’s Most Wanted).
Token character B (and A) exists for the sake of quota fill (they need a black person to avoid accusations of racism). But, this character is a walking stereotype. He’s usually a thug, loudmouth/comic sideshow, or a hoodrat. Think of Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour movies, Martin Lawrence in Black Knight, any black comedian in any role (Eddie Murphy, Tracy Morgan, Mike Epps, etc). For the hoodrats–Halle Berry in BAPS, Monique in any role, including her Oscar turn in Precious, etc. What puzzles me is whether these characters are written this way, or if the actors improvise them; whatever the case, these characters get annoying really fast. The loudmouth/comic relief character is usually the most popular, the most annoying, and likely the easiest to portray, as it requires little acting. Maybe this is the problem. I am still annoyed with Martin Lawrence’s character Jamal Walker in Black Knight, ten years later. Why? Is it realistic for a black man who magically finds himself in 15th century England to behave like a loudmouth ass? No, yet this was how the character was portrayed.
Yes, it’s fictional, but, for many non-black people, these portrayals are considered realistic portrayals of black people. Furthermore, the roles aren’t getting better–they remain one-dimensional. Samuel Jackson still continues to play the one-dimensional “the man” characters. Will Smith is still the magic/happy negro. Halle is still the tragic mulatta, and Denzel, the one with the most diverse roles, still plays Mr. safe and perfect. And Morgan Freeman–he’s always god, the ultimate authority figure/wise old man. I need to see more diverse characters, and sadly Tyler Perry won’t do the trick. His characters are caricatures of black people, also.
Token character A is the opposite of B. This character can be seen on TV police dramas (CSI/Law and Order, Bones, etc), but also can be found on regular dramas (House, Castle, etc). In movies, they’re often portrayed by any black actor who’s not Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith or Halle Berry. They’re usually cast as the best friend, an authority figure who’s indifferent to the plot/storyline, but comes through to do the right thing in the end, or a sidekick. They have no personal or romantic life, are pretty, quite smart, clean and perfect, which is why they’re not real people. Case in point: the characters Lanie (Tamala Jones) from Castle, Dr. Camille Saroyan (Tamara Taylor) from Bones, or Astrid (Jasika Nicole) from Fringe, etc.
When I watch the actresses in their respective roles, I am just reminded of how cowardly Hollywood is, because each of the ladies could’ve easily been cast in the lead female roles on these shows, and in this sense, their generic roles just seem redundant; but, much of the the appeal of the shows lie in the tension-filled chemistry between the male and female leads, and shows will be damned if they cast a black female in a role opposite a white actor. So, rather than seriously consider them for lead roles, they create the mandatory sidekick/generic/token role for them, where they play attractive side pieces with no character development, personal issues or interests.
I am not attacking the actors who take these roles, because they need to work, too. I am just arguing that black actors should not be put in roles as tokens, to avoid charges of racism, especially if the role is generic, and these characters have no development. Tokenism is not equality or diversity.
The tokenism of black people has gotten so frivolous that there was a show in the Netherlands called ‘Now with a black guy.’ The joke is that you can’t make a show/movie without one black person, and any show that had no black person had to be revamped with a black person. It’s the quota fill.
This brings me to Idris Elba in the Thor movie. He’s playing the only prominent black character in the movie, which is based on the comic book, loosely inspired by the characters of Norse mythology (they are Asgardians–a.k.a aliens). Conservative groups are having a field day crying foul that the god known as the white god is being portrayed by Elba, a black British actor. And, since we’re dealing with Scandinavia, whose people are physically epitomized as “true” white people, the controversy is not going away soon. Critics of the casting of Elba say it’s political correctness and threaten to boycott.
I don’t know if they have a point; even so, the reaction is pointless. Would I go crazy if there were no black Asgardians in Thor? No. (Read: the black Viking) Would some black people question why no blacks were featured in the movie? Probably. Is this an example of tokenism? I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t say for certain how relevant Elba’s role is. However, Heimdall’s not the lead character; although, judging by the uproar on fansites, you’d think he was.
Anyway, the point of the rant is this. I hate token black characters. I don’t find them relatable, since they’re usually generic and uninteresting as personalities. Skin color is not a factor to make someone relatable. If Hollywood can’t find legitimate roles for these actors, then they shouldn’t bother. I cringe every time I have to watch a black actor in a role that he really shouldn’t have been in. Knowing he’s only there as a token is far worse to me than not having him there at all.