Monday, September 22, 2003

Cliches and Stereotypes and Magical Black Men, Oh My!

Craig recently wrote an interesting post about "Magical Black Men" movies. He seems to feel that they're a well-intentioned if slightly boneheaded attempt on Hollywood's part to make up for our racist past.

Adam replied with a reminder that Hollywood is focused on profits rather than social commentary and that he thinks the genre is so ill-defined as to be of questionable usefulness. His theory is that writers use black characters in this way as a kind of shorthand for "embrace otherness."

I don't think there's any question that the magical black man (or woman) cliche exists in popular culture (and not just in movies, Stephen King used this exact sort of figure in the Shining and The Green Mile). However, I'm not inclined to view this stereotype as benevolently as Craig and Adam. It reminds me of the Victorian "Angel in the home" view of women, in that it reduces African Americans into one dimensional good-hearted figures rather than acknowledging their complexity and varied motivations. The stereotype may appear to be positive, but it's still limiting and insulting. These characters have no conflict, no ambition, no desires beyond selflessly assisting the white characters (which is vaguely remniscent of the arguments many whites used to defend slavery - "My slaves love me. They're like part of our family! They wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they were free.").

It's also boring. You're never going to see a mbm as the central character in movie, tv show or novel, because the leading roles are those with conflict, tension and sex appeal. Craig accurately points out that mbm roles are among the most common African American roles in Hollywood and that almost all African American actors have portrayed this sort of character at one time or another. I'm sure these actors are glad to be working and getting a paycheck, but wouldn't they rather be playing real, complicated characters instead of benign helpers or object lessons?

In this month's Bitch magazine, there's an interesting interview with African American TV producer Mara Brock Akil in which she talks extensively about the ways in which African Americans are stereotyped in the media. This quote seems relevant to this discussion, "Even we, as African-American people - that's a part of the psyche of it that we have to shake - we're even buying into the oppression of [limited images] in that we aren't used to seeing ourselves in a certain light. . . .When the sex scenes come up. . .you notice the laughter and the discomfort from the black people in the audience. It's like we're not used to seeing ourselves make love onscreen." (This month's issue also has a thought provoking article about Bringing Down the House which touches on some of these points as well.)

I wouldn't avoid a movie because it had a mbm character in it, but it's not something I'd go out of my way to see. To me, it's such a tired, worn-out cliche that I can guess exactly how the movie will play out without bothering to see it (a fact supported by Craig's brilliant parody / summary of the genre).

p.s. Craig, would you please add a perma-link feature to your blog? It would make it easier for other bloggers to link to specific posts. . . .

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