ARTICLE / LONG READ
WOMEN of colour have always been subordinate in the film industry. To date, Halle Berry is the only black woman to win an Academy Award for an actress in a leading role for her performance in MONSTER’S BALL (Marc Forster 2001), suggesting institutional racism. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times investigated who “The Academy” was, and who was in control of voting. They found that only 2% of the Academy’s voters are black – despite African Americans making up almost 14% of the USA in 2016 according to the US Census Bureau. This raises questions about how representative of the country the Oscars are. In addition to this, black females have also faced hurdles when it comes to opportunities they are offered in the film industry.
It has been 80 years since Hattie McDaniel made history for being the first black entertainer and woman to win an Academy Award for her supporting role as Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND (David O Selznick 1939). But with this win came the narrow range of stereotypical characters black women could play. In TOMS, COONS, MULATTOES, MAMMIES AND BUCKS: AN INTERPRETATIVE HISTORY OF BLACKS IN AMERICAN FILMS, historian Donald Bogle claims early films limited black women to the “Mammy”- described as “big, fat and cantankerous” and happy to be to be of service to white people - and the “Tragic Mulatto” referring to children born to a white man and his black mistress who are generally likeable and sympathetic figures as a result of being “a victim of divided racial inheritance”. These are an unsuccessful attempt at representing black women because they reinforce stereotypes and preconceptions of black women limiting further opportunities in film roles.
A new racial stereotype has been repeatedly churned out on the contemporary screen: the "Black Best Friend". The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a surge of teen coming-of-age movies intended to highlight teen angst in highschool culture. SHE’S ALL THAT (Robert Iscove 1999) won various teen “Choice” awards. Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr) plays a high-school jock who gets challenged to get any girl to become prom queen after he is dumped by his equally popular girlfriend Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe). His target is Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook), a dorky art enthusiast. Zack gives Laney a makeover and both fall in love at the prom.
One of the film’s biggest stars, however, is Lil’ Kim, a black female gangster rapper in the prime of her career and known for her no-filter attitude and risqué clothing choices. She is ironically cast in a sea of whiteness as Alex Chason Sawyer, a plain-jane acquaintance, who refrains from rocking the boat. She is one of only two black women in the film. The other is Gabrielle Union who plays Katie Darlingson, another secondary cast member and Black Best Friend. Intriguingly, these characters are practically picked up, dropped in and then discarded by the narrative when it suits the central characters and white lead cast.
A NEW RACIAL STEREOTYPE HAS BEEN REPEATEDLY CHURNED OUT ON THE CONTEMPORARY SCREEN.
The Black Best Friend’s purpose in cinema is to revolve around the white lead and assist them in their misadventures. The opening scene, where Lil’ Kim and Gabrielle Union’s characters are first introduced, is the first of many examples where they are used for this exact purpose. Zack asks: “Hey, have you guys seen Taylor?”. He does not address them by name and no backstory to these characters is offered, making them seem like an inconsequential accessory.
In SCREEN SAVIORS: HOLLYWOOD FICTIONS OF WHITENESS, Hernán Vera and Andrew Gordon state: “Reduced to background figures, blacks appear primarily as slaves: loyal servants like Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), stupid and cowardly servants like Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) or clownish servants”, referring to two supporting characters in GONE WITH THE WIND. The Black Best Friend is a modern Mammy. She offers loyal service to the white characters and has no life outside of them, mirroring slave-like attributes. In an essay titled “The Ties that Bind: Cinematic Representations by Black Women Filmmakers” published in 1994, Gloria Gibson-Hudson states “Black women’s images are prescribed by narrative text that reflect patriarchal visions, myths stereotypes and/or fantasies of black womanhood”. The character stereotypes and tropes that black women represent in films are not being written and created by black women, but rather white men with preconceptions, or lack of attentiveness to life as a black woman.
THE BLACK BEST FRIEND IS A MODERN MAMMY.
The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that in 2018, for the top 250 grossing films only 16% of writers were women. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative also reports that “Less than 6% of all positions across the C-Suite, Boards, and Executive Teams were held by women of color”. Such statistics confirm that these characters are being created and green-lit by a majority that is pale and male.
However, when looking at modern pop culture and current affairs, we can see that progress has been made and women of colour are being given recognition for performances in film. The Black Lives Matter movement and #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag contributed to highlighting institutional racism, from police brutality to the lack of black nominees at award shows. The past 15 years has presented a new wave of success for black women. They have been more prevalent in the “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar wins, with Jennifer Hudson for DREAMGIRLS (Bill Condon 2006), Mo'Nique for PRECIOUS (Lee Davis 2009), Octavia Spencer for THE HELP (Tate Taylor 2011), Lupita Nyong'o for 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen 2013), Viola Davis for FENCES (Denzel Washington 2016) and, most recently, Regina King for IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (Barry Jenkins 2018). While a great achievement, this is still no Best Actress.
In 2017, Netflix released THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES (James C Strouse 2017). The black eponymous lead played by Jessica Williams is both charismatic and vulnerable. She is a struggling playwright overcoming a painful breakup by bonding with Boone (Chris O’Dowd) who was also recently dumped. The two end up falling in love with each other. The film received mixed reviews but was applauded for being important in its representation of black women. In a review for women’s lifestyle magazine Elle, Otegha Uwagba writes: “In JESSICA JAMES we meet a perfectly ordinary twenty-something woman grappling with love, life, and professional fulfilment. And in a world where black women rarely get to do that on screen, that in itself, is kind of incredible”.
Interracial dating in movies almost always highlights the elephant in the room: race. GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (Stanley Kramer 1967) was one of the first films to positively portray interracial marriage. The film challenged social norms by having an African-American man (played by Sidney Poitier) being brought home to his white girlfriend's parents’, at a time where interracial sexual relations or “miscegenation” was still illegal in some states in the USA. What is striking about THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES is that it does not explicitly highlight race or even mention it. Chris Witherspoon, a correspondent for the movie site Fandango states: “Films are tackling the issue of interracial romances as a non-issue...so many people don’t see love as a colour. They see love just as love”.
This goes against expectations of familiar rhetoric that audiences have seen previously. EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING (Stella Meghie 2017), SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING (Jon Watts 2017) and UNFORGETTABLE (Denise Di Novi and Lee Eun-hee 2016) are just a few films featuring interracial couples, but where race is not the plot point. According to the logic of JESSICA JAMES, for race to be normalised it should not be highlighted and black women can be leading ladies without race being a contributing factor to the plotline. Although Netflix shows and films are being acknowledged for major awards, they are not big-budget blockbusters. Are films that feature African-American themes seen as an investment risk for studio executives?
HOW CAN A BLACK WOMAN RELATE TO A TEXT WHEN IT IS NOT AUTHENTIC TO THEIR WORLD-VIEW?
The critical and commercial success of films like 12 YEARS A SLAVE and BLACK PANTHER (Ryan Coogler 2018) shows that execs are either willing to take the risk, or the mounting pressure is becoming inescapable. The Directors Guild of America released a report in 2015 stating that in the two previous years, 82% of feature film directors were white males. If, as media theorist Lev Manovich writes in his essay “What is Digital Cinema”, “cinema’s identity lies in its ability to record reality”, how can white males create films reflecting the experiences, struggles and perspectives of black women? How can a black woman relate to a text when it is not authentic to their world-view?
In a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter in 2013, director John Singleton argued: “Hollywood execs need to realize that black-themed stories appeal to the mainstream because they are uniquely American. Our story reminds audiences of struggles and triumphs, dreams and aspirations we all share. And it is only by conveying the particulars of African-American life that our narrative becomes universal”. These films give an insight into black culture, and not make it seem so foreign.
So how can executives make sure the few black female characters they have do not conform to stereotype? New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has proposed “The DuVernay Test”, derived from the Bechdel test and named after African-American director and advocate for racial equality in film Ava DuVernay. Dargis suggested a series of questions should be used to determine if characters conform to black stereotype, such as: “Does your character exist to serve white people or aid them in a quest for fulfilment?” and “Do they have other friends, family members, or a life outside the world of the white characters?” While tongue-in-cheek, this could actually serve as a guideline for executives to follow. SHE’S ALL THAT significantly fails the DuVernay Test. The black characters are there to assist and there is no indication of life experience outside the leads they serve. JESSICA JAMES passes the test. Jessica is a leading lady with a detailed backstory and we meet her family and friends. SHE’S ALL THAT forces black women into the shadows while JESSICA JAMES brings them center stage.
When looking at both THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES and SHE’S ALL THAT, the black female character has come a long way and representations appear to be progressing. But does that mean the end to racial stereotyping in film is near? Film characters should not exist merely to check a diversity box and the questions suggested in the DuVernay Test are not nearly enough. Executives need to diversify actors and writers need to create diverse characters and storylines. Without this diversity, the sad reality is that these characters are only tokenistic attempts at seeming diverse.