The Portrayal of Black Characters in Teen Movies

Think about your favorite teen movie. Are there any black character's in it? Can you think of a teen movie that has a black character as the main character that doesn't have an all black cast? Better still, can you think of teen movie with an all black cast that isn't rated R and doesn't deal with gang violence or drugs? Let's talk about the portrayal of black characters in teen movies.

Introduction

I want you to take a minute to think about the movies that defined your adolescence. Which characters were you favorite? Least favorite? Now tell me, are those characters the same race as you? Can you name characters in the movie that are a different race than these characters? Despite the fact that the U.S. is quickly becoming majority minority, our movies still relegate minorities to back court. Since it's black history month let's talk about the portrayal of black characters in teen movies (we'll get to TV shows next time).

Race in Teen Movies

Photocredit: Mean Girls (2004)
I was trying to come up with a list of movies about the teenage experience that had a black main character and struggled so hard I had to enlist Google for help. My mind kept going to the "classics" like The Breakfast Club, Grease, and Mean Girls. Eventually I found a list on BET's website entitled "Ten Best Black High School Movies."[2] BET, which stands for Black Entertainment Television, was co-founded by Robert "Bob" Johnson in 1980 specifically for promoting entertainment that caters to black audiences.[7] So you would think that this would be a solid list right? Except Bob Johnson sold BET to Viacomm, the white owned company that also owns MTV, VH1, and Nickalodeon, in 2000.[8] The list was not at all what I expected.

BET's Top Ten

BET's list has quite a few movies I've never seen (such as Lean on Me and Stand and Deliver) because they came out the same year I was born. Other movies they list, I simply missed because they weren't promoted the same way "mainstream" movies are (part of my whole point). They included movies like Dangerous Minds (white savior trope), Clueless (black character is the best friend of the white main character trope), High School Musical (same trope), Bring It On (aren't the Clovers actually the antagonists?), and Boyz in the Hood.

Movies I Remember

As I thought harder, I came up with Dope, Take the Lead, Light it Up, Let it Shine, Cheetah Girls, Remember the Titans, and Radio.

Tropes

The tropes in these movies are overwhelming. Most of them feature characitures of black life, rooted in stereotypes. A lot of them are the same recycled plot lines and themes. They don't explore the full range of experiences we have as black people.

Inner City Struggles

Photocredit: Dope (2015)
The inner city experience is important to depict and acknowledge, but must it be the only image of black youth we see? Where I grew up, there's really no such thing as a "city," the kids who grew up in the city limits would be considered from the rural in places like Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York. To be honest movies like Boyz in the Hood, Dope, and Light it Up are just as alien to me as The Breakfast Club, Easy A, or The Princess Diaries.

What I find interesting however, is that while I'm comparing these movies, the only similarities they have is that they're about kids in high school. When I think of teen movies, the likes of which churn out teen heart throbs (like the movies that starred Lindsay Lohan, Chad Michael Murray, etc., during my teen years), I think of movies that are targeting teenagers. The target audience is kids, that means 13 - 18 years old; needless to say most of them are rated PG-13. There's something angsty, a romance plot (probably even a triangle), and adults getting in the way of your dreams. Boyz in the Hood, Dope and Light it Up, contain these themes, but are all rated R. This means that to see it in theaters, you had to be 17 or your parents had to buy the ticket for you. It also makes you stop and ask if it was actually made for black youth or for black adults reminiscing about their youth?

Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed movies, but I'm pretty sure I was out of high school before I saw Boyz in the Hood and I was definitely out of high school when I saw Dope. Regardless, these movies are serious social commentaries on the serious struggles facing teens in the inner city; they're nowhere as lighthearted as say Freaky Friday or 13 Going on 30.

White Saviors

Photocredit: Freedom Writers (2007)
Notice anything interesting about the movie poster?
Since Hollywood decided we're all living on the streets, struggling with gangs, and living with drug addicted parents, we must need stories that show us overcoming these struggles, right? And who better than to pick us up out of the gutter than a well intentioned white person from the upper middle class? Take the Lead, Freedom Writers, The Blindside, Radio and Dangerous Minds, all tell this sad story. Ok, so in Take the Lead, Antonio Banderas is the "white savior" and some people might not consider him "white" but he's not white passing—he's from Spain; he's white.[3]

I've seen all of these movies—I actually own Take the Lead (awesome soundtrack!) and Freedom Writers—but once again, they pigeonhole us (and other minorities, because those are usually the other classmates shown) as being misunderstood hoodlums that need white people to show us better.

In Take the Lead and Freedom Writers, the lone white student is met with open hostilty, which is probably why Mean Girls refers to the black people as unfriendly in the infamous cafeteria scene. They always paint us as rude, mean, and unaccepting, but in movies like High School Musical, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Clueless, the black best friend exists in a world where there is no racism... How Sway!?

Black Man = Athlete

Photocredit: She's the Man (2006)
No black main characters,
but the love interest has black friend on the team
If we're not in a movie about the inner city, you can best believe sports are involved some how. According to Hollywood, black people can definitely be found in your high school's athletic department. No? Radio, The Blindside, Remember the Titans, Jump In, Coach Carter, and High School Musical all feature sports. I'd give High School Musical credit for the character of Taylor, a black female in the science club, but I had to look up her name and the franchise didn't launch her career the way it did for Vanessa Hudgens, Zac Efron, Ashley Tisdale, and Lucas Grabeel.

Think about this: in both High School Musical and Jump In, Disney cast Corbin Bleu as an athlete, first as a basketball player, then as a boxer. Corbin Bleu is a professional dancer, singer, and model; while he's in shape, he doesn't looks like a jock at all.

Think about this: Michael Oher, the man The Blindside was based on, doesn't really like the way the movie depicts him.[4].

Do you think it's a coincidence that all my black male friends who went to college with me were asked what sport they play on a regular basis? I mean, what kind of black man goes to school and doesn't play sports, right?

Entertainers

Photocredit: Bring it On (2000)
At least Gabrielle Union made it on the poster
When we aren't being portrayed as athletes, Hollywood ops for entertainers instead: You Got Served, Roll Bounce, Cheetah Girls, Drumline, Let it Shine. These movies focus on showmanship and the fact that "all black people can sing and dance." You Got Served manages to throw in some inner city drama, show our mostly black main characters trying to overcome the mostly white group that stole their moves, and provide horrible acting (I'm ashamed to say I liked this movie when it came out!). It's basically the male version of Bring it On told from the black team's perspective.

Speaking of Bring it On, it fits in this category too. You could argue the Clovers (the black cheerleading squad) are athletic since they do flips and stunts, but the crux of the movie is on their dance moves, style, and of course, attitude (re: showmanship). Plus, the Clovers are portrayed as the antagonists even though they're the underdogs? Yet, the movie wants us to root for the white squad as though they're the underdogs... Why couldn't we get the movie as an underdog story from the Clover's side instead?
I know you didn't think a white girl came up with those moves Gabrielle Union's character Isis

As a band geek, I love Drumline. We get to see an HBCU and a band director who wants to focus on music over showmanship. I used to be able to quote this movie word for word from beginning to end. The point of this post isn't to say these are horrible movies, but to remind you that this isn't the only type of movie we should get. Drumline features a predominately black cast and focuses on black musicianship at HBCUs, but how does a talented black musician, like Devon, fit in white musical spaces? Movie wise, think Raise Your Voice, a movie about teens at an elite music camp staring Hilary Duff. The black character is pushed off to the side. It's not her story, it's Hilary Duff's; she just happens to be there. Real life wise, I want to see the come up story of someone like Misty Copeland.

Photocredit: The Cheetah Girls (2003)
The Cheetah Girls is another series that I enjoyed. Even though it's about entertainment, the cast is diverse both ethnically and economically. For once, the minority characters are the ones with money, and it's the white character who lives in a foster home. Thankfully, they still give her great story lines and make her the stellar dancer of the group. Each girl has her own personality and style. Of course, there are still things to mention. For one, Aqua (played by Kiely Williams) is the only character in the group that is fully black and we never meet her parents. She also tends to get attitude-y (sassy black girl stereotype). For two, over the course of three movies we get 2 white love interests and an Indian love interest, but no black love interests. (Yay, for interracial dating though!) The only black guy to show up in the series is the sidekick of the love interest, and of course he's a hip-hop DJ.

The Best Friend

Photocredit: Clueless (1995)
Most mainstream teen movies feature a white character main character who has a black best friend. Clueless, High School Musical, Another Cinderella Story, Starstruck, Freaky Friday, Step Up, etc. If the black character is the main character, there's a big chance the whole cast is black and most white people have never seen it. Buzzfeed made a ranking of 27 "classic" teen movies from 2000,[5] can you guess how many of them have a black main character? None of them feature a black character as the main character and only 7 of them have black characters at all. Of those 7 movies, 6 feature a black best friend. The exception is Bring it On which features the mostly black cheerleading squad as antagonists. Save the Last Dance has a mostly black cast, but stars Julia Stiles as the main character learning to fit in to their inner city world, and naturally she makes a black best friend. Buzzfeed also has list of "classic" family movies, it garners slightly more movies that feature a black main character, but not many.[1] There's also Seventeen Magazine's list of 20 must see teen movies. 3 of those movies have black characters (still all secondary characters). It also has contains 17 Again, not to be confused with the mostly black Seventeen Again staring Tia and Tamera Mowry with basically the same plot.[6]

The Bigger Issue

Despite the fact that we shouldn't try to emulate TV, there's already proof that images in the media negatively affect the way young girls see themselves. Negative body images are a direct result of the media promoting certain body types over others. Black teens have even less positive representation in the media. These movies reinforce stereotypes and even worse, heavily favor lighter skinned black women over dark skinned black women. We know major networks like Disney churn out teen stars; from Justin Timberlake and Brittany Spears to Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. But what about black teen stars? Can you name any black teen stars backed by these networks? Did they end up successful? Just think about the multiple movies and shows afforded to the Olson twins versus the few movies that featured Tia & Tamera Mowry. I can't tell you if life is imitating art or if art is imitating life, but it definitely says some thing that when you think classic teen movies, black characters are either absent all together, or playing second fiddle.

References

  1. Ellie Bate. "Have You Seen At Least 50/98 Of These Classic Family Movies?". Buzzfeed. February 9, 2018
  2. "Ten Best Black High School Movies". BET. September 6, 2012
  3. "Antonio Banderas". Wikipedia; visited February 2018
  4. David Newton. "Michael Oher doesn't like 'The Blind Side,' but Panthers teammates love movie, and him". ESPN. January 21, 2016
  5. Tabatha Leggett, Rossalyn Warren, and Ailbhe Malone. "A Ranking Of 27 Classic ’00s Teen Movies, From Worst To Best". Buzzfeed. July 18, 2014
  6. Noelle Devoe. 20 Best Teen Movies You Can't Grow Up Without Watching". Seventeen. October 3, 2017
  7. "Robert L. Johnson". Wikipedia; visited February 2018
  8. "Viacomm". Wikipedia; visited February 2018

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About

Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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