African Americans may be scoring more substantial parts in film and television, but many continue to play roles that fuel stereotypes, such as thugs and maids. The prevalence of these parts reveals the importance of #OscarsSoWhite and how African Americans continue to struggle for quality roles on both the small and big screens, despite having won Academy Awards in acting, screenwriting, music production and other categories.
"The Magical Negro"
"Magical Negro" characters have long played key roles in films and television programs. These characters tend to be African American men with special powers who make appearances solely to help white characters out of jams, seemingly unconcerned about their own lives.
The late Michael Clarke Duncan famously played such a character in “The Green Mile.” Moviefone wrote of Duncan's character, John Coffey, “He's more an allegorical symbol than a person, his initials are J.C., he has miraculous healing powers, and he voluntarily submits to execution by the state as a way of doing penance for the sins of others. A 'Magical Negro' character is often the sign of lazy writing at best, or of patronizing cynicism at worst.”
Magical Negroes are also problematic because they have no inner lives or desires of their own. Instead, they exist solely as a support system to the white characters, reinforcing the idea that African Americans aren't as valuable or as human as their white counterparts. They don't require unique storylines of their own because their lives simply don't matter as much.
In addition to Duncan, Morgan Freeman has played in some such roles, and Will Smith played a Magical Negro in “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
"The Black Best Friend"
Black Best Friends typically don't have special powers like Magical Negroes do, but they mainly function in films and television shows to guide white characters out of a crisis. Usually, female, the black best friend functions “to support the heroine, often with sass, attitude and a keen insight into relationships and life,” critic Greg Braxton noted in the Los Angeles Times.
Like Magical Negroes, black best friends appear not to have much going on in their own lives but turn up at exactly the right moment to coach white characters through life. In the film “The Devil Wears Prada,” for example, actress Tracie Thoms plays friend to star Anne Hathaway, reminding Hathaway's character that she's losing touch with her values. Also, actress Aisha Tyler played friend to Jennifer Love Hewitt on “The Ghost Whisperer,” and Lisa Nicole Carson played friend to Calista Flockhart on “Ally McBeal.”
Television executive Rose Catherine Pinkney told the Times that there is a long tradition of black best friends in Hollywood. “Historically, people of color have had to play nurturing, rational caretakers of the white lead characters. And studios are just not willing to reverse that role.”
There's no shortage of black male actors playing drug dealers, pimps, con-artists and other forms of criminals in television shows and films such as “The Wire” and “Training Day.” The disproportionate amount of African Americans playing criminals in Hollywood fuels the racial stereotype that black men are dangerous and drawn to illicit activities. Often these films and television shows provide little social context for why more black men than others are likely to end up in the criminal justice system.
They overlook how racial and economic injustice makes it more difficult for young black men to evade a prison term or how policies such as stop-and-frisk and racial profiling make black men targets of the authorities. They fail to ask whether black men are inherently more likely to be criminals than anyone else or if society plays a role in creating the cradle-to-prison pipeline for African American men.
"The Brash Woman"
Black women are routinely portrayed in television and film as sassy, neck-rolling harpies with major attitude problems. The popularity of reality television shows adds fuel to the fire of this stereotype. To ensure that programs such as “Basketball Wives” maintain plenty of drama, often the loudest and most aggressive black women are featured on these shows.
Black women say these depictions have real-world consequences in their love lives and careers. When Bravo debuted the reality show “Married to Medicine” in 2013, black female physicians unsuccessfully petitioned the network to pull the plug on the program.
“For the sake of integrity and character of black female physicians, we must ask that Bravo immediately remove and cancel 'Married to Medicine' from its channel, website, and any other media," the physicians demanded. "Black female physicians only compose 1 percent of the American workforce of physicians. Due to our small numbers, the depiction of black female doctors in media, on any scale, highly affects the public's view of the character of all future and current African American female doctors.”
The show ultimately aired and black women continue to complain that depictions of African American womanhood in the media fail to live up to reality.
Because blacks were forced into servitude for hundreds of years in the United States, it's no surprise that one of the earliest stereotypes about African Americans to emerge in television and film is that of the domestic worker or mammy. Television shows and movies such as “Beulah” and “Gone With The Wind” capitalized on the mammy stereotype in the early 20th century. But more recently, movies such as “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Help” featured African Americans as domestics as well.
While Latinos are arguably the group most likely to be typecast as domestic workers nowadays, the controversy over the portrayal of black domestics in Hollywood hasn't gone away. The 2011 film “The Help” faced intense criticism because the black maids helped catapult the white protagonist to a new stage in life while their lives remained static. Like the Magical Negro and the Black Best Friend, black domestics in film function mostly to nurture and guide white characters.