The Guardian ran a piece earlier this week that I enjoyed. It addressed the phenomenon of Hollywood not writing good roles for nonwhite actors, which it portrayed as a problem that goes far beyond this year’s all-white Oscars.
But wait! you say. There are lots of great roles for minorities in the movies! Well, yes and no. The part of the piece I enjoyed was its list of Top 10 current stereotypes for “people of colour” (leave it to the Brits to take an already stilted-sounding phrase and make it more that way by adding a “U” to it).
Whether you think opportunities for minority actors are limited or not, you’ll have to smile in recognition at some of the categories, such as No. 1, the “Magical Negro:”
One of the most popular cliches for black characters, a wise, folksy black character with some connection to magical forces or spiritual insight. They only exist to enable a white character to grow as a person and/or reach their goal. Examples include Will Smith in Bagger Vance, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, and most of the roles that Morgan Freeman has ever played.
Or No. 5, “Awkward desexualised Asian:”
A man who is unlucky in love, though often played by extraordinarily good-looking actors. The character can never get a girlfriend, and if they do, it’s down to the intervention of the white protagonist. Generally nerds for good measure. Examples: Kal Penn in Van Wilder, Steve Park in Fargo, and special mention to Jet Li in Romeo Must Die who is in no way awkward but still can’t get a kiss from Aaliyah.
They forgot to mention Raj on “Big Bang Theory.” He exemplifies that type perfectly. (Maybe they were deliberately avoiding TV.)
And let’s not leave out one of my personal faves, No. “7. Jaded older police officer:”
Acts as a counterpoint to a younger, more energetic white police officer. Provides advice based on his own wealth of experience but is often ignored in favour of the white police officer’s instincts. Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, Reginald VelJohnson in Die Hard, Morgan Freeman in Se7en.
Or Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick or Clarke Peters in “The Wire.” Especially Clarke Peters, shown here with the requisite younger, brasher white officer. But Danny Glover is definitely the much-lampooned archetype of the category. Now in a way, I’m thinking that role may originally have been conceived by writers as a way of going contrary to type — with the black character representing the Establishment for a change. But yeah, it’s become a type of its own.
So there’s reason to believe this stereotyping thing is real, right?
But you know, in the spirit of “All Lives Matter,” we must acknowledge that Hollywood could stand to have more imagination when it comes to creating characters of all pigments and nationalities.
Here are a couple of types we can see out there for white men:
Idiot father and husband: The opposite of “Father Knows Best,” this guy is always wrong, and thank God he’s got a wife and kids to keep him straight. Think Archie Bunker in “All in the Family,” Doug Heffernan in “The King of Queens” (see the video below for the perfect example of the type), Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin in “The Family Guy,” Ed O’Neill as a dad in almost anything.
Feckless man-child — This guy is lost in time, lost in the culture, lives in a confused fog and has only the vaguest notion of himself as a man — either according to traditional or modern standards. Jesse Pinkman in “Breaking Bad,” Edward Norton’s character before he and Tyler Durden started the “Fight Club,” almost any character portrayed by Breckin Meyer (I’m thinking particularly of “Clueless” and “Kate and Leopold”), Seth Rogen in almost anything (but especially “Knocked Up”), Wayne and Garth of “Wayne’s World,” Bill and Ted of “Excellent Adventure” fame.
But of course, the roles for white guys don’t always belittle them, not by a long shot. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have:
Secular Messiah — Ordinary young man discovers, to his wonder and often his delight, that he is not ordinary at all, but The One — a completely unique and necessary hero with special, mystical qualities who is destined to deliver his people from evil. This is an old role dating back in our literature quite a ways, but the movies have enthusiastically embraced it. Think: Arthur in every story from Le Morte d’Arthur to Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone,” Paul Atreides in “Dune,” Neo in “The Matrix,” Harry Potter in all the books and films of that universe, Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars.”
The One doesn’t have to be a white guy, you understand, but somehow, in the movies, he always is.
Of course, Morgan Freeman got to play God… but that’s covered in the “Magical Negro” category…