Hey, Hollywood could use more imagination, period

Even when Morgan Freeman played God, it fit into one of the type categories...

Even when Morgan Freeman played God, it fit into one of the type categories…

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…

32 thoughts on “Hey, Hollywood could use more imagination, period

  1. Bryan Caskey

    How about:

    Denzel Washington in: Training Day, American Gangster, Inside Man, Remember the Titans, The Hurricane, Fallen (a favorite of mine), Philadelphia, Glory, and so on…

    Will Smith in: I am Legend, Hitch, Ali, Men in Black, Independence Day

    Morgan Freeman in: Million Dollar Baby, Shawshank, Unforgiven, Glory, etc…

    Samuel L. Jackson in: The Red Violin, The Negotiator, Jackie Brown, A Time to Kill, Pulp Fiction, (oh, and Patriot Games)

    Cuba Gooding Jr, in: Red Tails, Radio, Men of Honor, Jerry Maguire

    My point is that there are always great roles. African-Americans have always had a large role in the story of America. If you can’t find a good story to tell, don’t blame us.

    1. Barry

      to add to your lost- two of my favorites who are almost never in a bad movie

      Don Cheadle – weapons expert in Ocean’s 11, Hotel Rwanda, Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron,

      David Oyelowo – Rise Of The Planet of the Apes, Lincoln, Intersteller, Selma, The Butler,

  2. Lynn Teague

    And for women, there is the standard passage described by one actress as “babe” to “District Attorney” to “driving Miss Daisy.” Of course TV crime dramas now feature a standard “babe–assistant DA” character so there are permutations.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    The Guardian article says, complaining about the lack of black actors of LOTR: “The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy? Forty-seven seconds, but only if you count the orcs as black.

    Come on! It’s set in Middle-Earth! It’s not a real place! There are freaking trolls and dragons, and wizards and stuff. And why would you count the orcs as black people? They’re not any sort of people!

  4. Bryan Caskey

    “Since the 1980s, the Bechdel test has become the go-to method to measure whether women are adequately represented in film. It’s simple – two women must talk to each other about something other than a man.” -Silly Guardian article

    I’m a movie buff, and I’ve never heard of this silly “test”. This is the dumbest, most arbitrary test that I’ve ever heard of, and it measures a completely ridiculous thing.

    Let’s see if any great movies pass this test:

    1. Casablanca: Does Ingrid Bergman ever talk to another woman about Bogey? I don’t think so.
    2. Lawrence of Arabia: Hmmm, I’m not sure there are any women in this movie, so I guess it’s super sexist, or something.
    3. Bridge on the River Kwai: Not a bunch of women in this one either.
    4. 2001: Nope.
    5. Apocalypse Now: Other than the Playboy girl, I can’t think of any women in this movie, so this gets extra credit for being bad since the only chick is a sex object.
    6. Raiders of the Lost Ark: Just Marion, but she does have a cool part where she drinks a Tibetan tough-guy under the table.

    I could go on….but I mean, come on. Are these movies somehow oppressing women? Who comes up with these dumb little tests? Social justice people try to ruin everything. It’s entertainment.

    Lighten up, Francis.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You just made the list, buddy.

      There were women in “Kwai” — very lovely Thai women playing the part of native bearers. And wasn’t William Holden wooing a woman on the beach when the Brits recruit him for the mission?

      Neither of which passes the test.

      “Apocalypse:” Do you just not pay attention? There were THREE Playboy Playmates in that scene. (And a very weird interval involving them in the version in which deleted scenes were restored. I don’t like that version. Coppola deleted them for good reasons…)

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Bro, when the social justice warriors take over and start dragging people out of their homes, I’m on all the lists. (That’s when I’m gonna need that Garand.)

        As for Apocalypse Now, I stand corrected. To digress, when you have more than one Playboy Bunny, what do you call them? We need a good group word. (like a murder of crows).

        Let’s go with: A fluffle of Playboy Bunnies.

    2. Barry

      From Here to Eternity – the women were the only rational people in the movie.

      A Place In The Sun – again- women the only rational people in the movie.

      On The Waterfront – the men scared, and/or power hungry. Eva Maria Saint is tough as nails, not afraid of anyone, and leads the men to the answer they are looking for all along.

      You can find various themes – you just can’t prejudge the entire story beforehand.

  5. Bart

    Not a Sharpton fan but he had the gonads to bring the subject up and now the bandwagon’s wheels are collapsing because of the large number of “celebrities” jumping on it. Anything for publicity and displaying your social conscience bona fides, right?

    Okay, lets imagine for a moment the Academy Awards are not televised and all of the bandwagon riders don’t show up. In the scheme of things that affect our lives, I am referring to anyone who goes to movies or is a movie buff, exactly what will be lost and will humanity suffer to any significant degree if this should happen? I seriously doubt anyone who reads this blog would lose any sleep if the show is not televised or if the boycott works, that is unless making movies is your vocation and you are up for an award.

    Maybe the designers of clothes worn will suffer due to the lack of live television coverage but that is about all. Everything else will go on as usual, the after awards parties, the never-ending photos of celebrities walking the red carpet, the interviews, and the fashion police will go after the poorly designed clothes. Who knows, it may increase circulation of the entertainment oriented magazines and increase viewership on cable networks specializing in entertainment coverage.

    In retrospect, maybe it is time for the liberal entertainment element to be called out for the hypocritical accusations of racism and lack of diversity they constantly use against conservatives because in the end, they are perhaps more guilty of the practice than the ones they point their fingers at and call out when given the opportunity.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t think the point of boycotting is to have an economic effect. I think it’s to embarrass the Academy so that next time, those who vote on nominations think a little harder about maybe recognizing a nonwhite actor or two.

      That’s the only motive that would seem to make sense. But boycotts and such are not always about strategic, carefully reasoned goals. I suppose sometimes they’re just about dramatizing how ticked off you are…

      1. Annoying Social Justice Person

        Whoa, whoa, whoa! Boy-cott?

        Please. The preferred term is person-cott. Let’s not be so cis-normative.

      2. Scout

        I’ve also heard the criticism which seems like it could be valid that the problem is more with the studio execs who choose which movies will be made. I’m not clear on how the protests over the awards will much affect that. Seems a little like blaming the grocery store owner for not carrying what the farmer didn’t grow. I mean awards can only be given for what’s out there no matter how or why it happened, right? Not that it doesn’t need to be changed necessarily, but I just don’t see the lines of force adding up to produce any functional change, if that is where the problem is. I could be wrong.

  6. Barry

    “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),”

    Now let’s paint an accurate picture…

    Doug is also portrayed as a loving husband, a guy that works 40 hours a week, is willing to let his wife’s father live in the basement even though it has been difficult for him in many ways, and who when his wife had a miscarriage didn’t pretend he had the right words to say- but was just willing to listen and hold his wife close.

    He also happens to have a best friend who is black, and he’s not just “a black friend” but his best friend in the world who he will do anything for and vice versa- and who is portrayed almost always as the smartest, most grounded guy on the show.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ve never watched the show. I’ve just seen that hilarious “looking for the scissors” scene, which I love, because it’s so much like real life. I have done the same thing he does in that scene many, many times.

      It must be something hard-wired in men — or some of us, anyway. If it’s in the home, we want to delegate it completely to our wives rather than take responsibility for it.

      No… that’s not fair to us. Or at least, not accurate. I’m that about everything, and not just in the home. If there’s someone nearby who might know the answer immediately, I prefer to ask that person rather than looking something up myself. It comes across as lazy, but I find it saves time.

      To this day, I still ask Cindi Scoppe stuff about SC politics and government that might be hard to look up, and that she would know immediately. And poor Cindi — she knows me so well that I’m not embarrassed to ask her really stupid questions. For instance, though I have covered politics most of my life (or at least, supervised people who covered politics most of my life), there are some simple, basic procedural things that I can’t seem to hold in my brain. For instance, I never can remember whether BOTH houses have to vote to override the governor’s veto for it to be overridden. I think they do, but I’m never sure — I have some sort of mental block that keeps me from learning and retaining that — so before I write it, I email Cindi to ask. Again.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And recently, trying to remember an incident that happened long, long ago, I tracked down Charlie Pope to ask him. Because I was his editor — in the late 80s — and he was someone who would know, I thought.

        He didn’t remember. Poor old guy; he must be losing it. 🙂

      2. Scout

        Wow in their house, the scissors apparently stay in their designated place. Scissors in our house are really bad at getting back to where they belong, so the question is asked alot, but its not because we don’t know where they are supposed to be.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          But you can see how a woman who makes a point of always putting them in the same place would get REALLY irritated with someone who kept asking where they were…

          1. Bart

            We finally solved the problem in our house. We bought several scissors and placed them in different locations throughout the house. Now, if I can’t find a pair in one place, I go to another. Yet, scissors seem to have a herding instinct and come together in the same place and at times, I find most if not all in the same drawer in the kitchen. The only pair that remains in place is the pair on my work desk. Strange.

  7. Bart

    On a totally unrelated subject, climate change, I read an article reprinted in the NYT that is as good as any I have ever read about the subject. It is titled “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change”, dated November 28, 2015, written by Justin Gillis.

    Climate change is real, no one can deny this simple fact. If they do, their tin foil hats interfere with the ability to think and reason. Or they may be new earthers who believe the planet is only 6 to 10 thousand years old.

    The article does not insult anyone’s intelligence who may be a skeptic and it acknowledges that science does not have all of the answers and in fact, brings up some very good points about preparing for the pending changes if they actually come about.

    Just something I thought some of you might be interested in reading.

  8. Bill

    Most movies are awful and a waste of time,but it helps explain why America’s only original art form is more popular in Europe:

Comments are closed.