Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Magical Blacks

You know what movie I love? "Little Shop of Horrors." You know what my favorite part of "Little Shop of Horrors" is? (Except for the plant and Ellen Greene's hilariously breathy pronunciation of "Doctor", of course). Those Downtown doo-wop girls on the corner, singing and commenting on the crazy doings of the--white--cast of characters. But I always thought it was a bit problematic, even though I was only 9 or so when I first saw it. I mean, why is it that those three girls aren't granted characterhood? Why are they never even conceivable as potential food for Audrey II? Why is it that all they get to do is sing and dance?

Ultimately, Little Shop of Horrors is campy enough and stylized enough to get away with this borderline racist dynamic. But what the hell is "A Cinderella Story"'s excuse? Why is it that everytime Hollywood wants to hip up a square and uninspired romantic comedy, usually of the "urban and/or modern fairy tale" variety, they have to cast a black actor or actress in the role of "wisecracking, 'you-go-girl' best friend," "prophetic and wise homeless man," "sassy fairygodmother," etc.?

Think about it. How many movies have pulled this shit in the past twenty years? I don't have a figure offhand; I should've kept notes. But off the top of my head, there is: "It Could Happen to You" (Black homeless man narrating white lovers' story, directly addressing the audience about New York as the city of dreams), "Pretty Woman" (Black homeless man directly addressing audience about LA as city of dreams),"The Hudsucker Proxy" (Black man runs the clocktower; knows all; narrates the comic travails of the white--read actual--characters). These three--and there are others like it--are probably the most egregious. But there are also slightly more subtle variations on this: Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost," Djimon Hounson in "In America," Morgan Freeman in "Bruce Almighty". Not to mention that eternal character of the savvy Black homeless man in disaster movies, who always--correctly--prophesizes the imminent disaster, seen most recently in "The Day After Tomorrow."

Regina King is an entertaining and vivid actress--she was pretty terrific as Cuba Gooding Jr's grasping NFL wife in "Jerry Maguire"--and I'm not calling her an Aunt Tammy for taking this role. Actors need whatever work they can get. But the producers and screenwriters who perpetuate this crap need to be called on it. Middlebrow, risk-averse racial humor has been a drag on movies ever since Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy paired up in "48 Hours"--and even that had some kind of edge to it, especially compared to current race-based comedy, like "White Chicks." Does Regina King have to play sassy best-friend/fairy godmother to Little Miss Whitey-White and her beau, Master Whitey Corngood McWhite? Should she have to? What impulse or idea are HW suits trying to flatter by having these happy second-fiddlers cheer on our whitey-white couplings and romantic wish-fulfillments?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure the producers of Bruce Almighty would be shocked by your comments. "But . .. we cast a black man as God! Where's our NAACP award?"
I think you're really onto something here. I would also nominate as big racists: Bunim-Murray, for making sure that one of the real world characters always serves this sassy-black-commentator function.
"Problematic." Just the word itself reminds me of college.
xo emily

July 15, 2004 at 2:52 PM  
Blogger Bobo said...

Re: "Where's our NAACP award?"

Totally! Even the most blatant peddlers of the wise, prophetic homeless Black man narrator figures would probably counter my charges with: "But he's wise! And soulful! And funny!"

So very, very funny.

July 15, 2004 at 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

let us not forget THE PROPHET in the first matrix movie. what do you know?! the old black lady's sassy, folksy exterior belies her MYSTICAL MINORITY WISDOM. that is so multicultural.

July 16, 2004 at 8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love White Chicks. -F

July 19, 2004 at 1:58 PM  

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