- The Token Black Character
- The Magical Negro
- Tragic Mulatto
- Sassy Black Woman/Angry Black Woman
- Sambo/Coon and Uncle Tom
- Other Themes/Tropes
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I can't really dive into the topic of how black people are represented in the media, specifically in movies and on TV shows, without talking about some of the most popular (and stereotypical) tropes Hollywood uses for black characters. While some progress has been made, many movies and TV shows usually fall into 1 of three categories: there are no black characters, the cast is majority black, or the only black character is a token character that plays into a stereotypical trope. Below are some—but not all—of the popular tropes prevalent in Hollywood. Some of you are probably familiar with most of these, but I want to make sure everyone understands these tropes because I'll be referring to them throughout the series.
This list is not exhaustive, it is merely meant to provide a background for the discussion that will emerge in this series. The references section contains more in depth articles about tropes; there are many other articles and analyses of these tropes online and within the scholarly community. Some of the examples listed for each trope are satires or period pieces, as such the character intentionally falls into the trope to bring awareness to the issue, however, these are still valid examples of the trope.
The Token Black Character
The token black character is always second fiddle to the main character and usually the only minority in the movie or TV show. This character usually isn't fleshed out much, and/or falls victim to one of the stereotypical characteristic of one of the other tropes presented below. The token character is really there to keep the studio from being sued for not having a black character.
One of the issues that ties in with the appearance of the token black character is the question of whether every movie/show should have a black character. Personally, I think there are times when it is perfectly reasonable to not have any black characters, but there are definitely times when it's odd that there aren't any black characters.
For example, the movie version of Grease staring Olivia Newton John and John Travolta has absolutely no black characters. Considering the time period in which the story is set, segregation would have still been in full swing and the characters probably wouldn't have socialized with black people.
In contrast, you have shows like Boy Meets World and it's spin off Girl Meets World. Both shows are set in the present era (mid 90's and mid 2010's respectively), but both shows struggled to include minority characters. Despite being set in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the US, Girl Meets World struggles to introduce minority characters and when they do, both fall into stereotypes.
Boy Meets World
10 Things I Hate About You
The Magical Negro
Spike Lee popularized the phrase "Magical Negro" in 2001. This trope describes a black character who uses all their resources (usually magical, but not always) to aid the white main character(s). This character only appears when the main character needs their help. A classic example is the character of Bonnie Bennett in The Vampire Diaries. While there are several examples of why she falls into this trope, the best happens when Bonnie gives her life to bring the main character's younger brother back to life. After sacrificing her own life to save this character, Bonnie's death goes unnoticed by the other main characters until they need her to save them again. This is the essence of the Magical Negro trope.
The Vampire Diaries
A Cinderella Story
D2: The Mighty Ducks
The original go-to stereotype for black male characters was that of the athlete. In the 90s shows were making an effort to include a black character, but often the character was a one-dimensional athlete. A great example of this is Vince LaSalle from Recess, a popular cartoon I grew up watching. I feel like this is most popular in teen or children's movies and shows. The reason this trope stays in the movies made for younger audiences is because they can easily put the character on a school team, whereas an adult character would need to be on a professional team which changes the dynamic drastically.
Lately, I've noticed the athlete trope has been morphing in to the rapper trope. Teen movies like Another Cinderella Story or Disney's Starstuck are now casting the token black character as a wise cracking rapper.
High School Musical
Rickey D'Shon Collins
Girl Meets World
Brandon Mychal Smith
The Tragic Mulatto stereotype began with the short stories of Lydia Maria Child. This trope portrays a person (usually a woman) of mixed race torn between two worlds. The character can often pass for white, but not always. Monster’s Ball is a legend for falling into this trope, as it is also the movie that won Halle Berry the Academy Award for Best Actress, a first for black women.
Tessa Thompson (movie)/Logan Browning (show)
Dear White People
The Imitation of Life
The Mammy trope has roots in American slavery and the Jim Crow South that followed. A mammy, is a black female character who diligently takes care of the white children in the film. She is always portrayed in an asexual or undesirable manner; this portrayal is usually aided by the casting of an older and/or heavyset woman.
The Secret Life of Bees
Sassy Black Woman/Angry Black Woman
This character is "sassy" or angry for most of the movie. The speech of the character is often heavily laden with slang to make her "hip" and "validate" her sass. The angry black woman may be shown to be a bit more articulate than the sassy black woman, however both generally prove to be unsympathetic characters.
Saved By The Bell
Jo / Red
For Colored Girls
Sex and the City
Sambo/Coon and Uncle Tom
Both sambo and coon are highly derogatory terms in the black community. In literature, movies, and other forms of media, the sambo or coon character is a good for nothing, idiot. This character is usually the butt of jokes or a clown. In contrast, the Uncle Tom character is a suck up to the white characters. This character assimilates into white character and eschews black culture.
Dear White People
Marcus T. Paulk
Another Cinderella Story
In addition to those mentioned above are movies that promote the white savior complex (e.g., The Blind Side, Radio, Freedom Writers). These movies present a black person or group of black people (or other minorities, such as in Disney’s Gotta Kick It Up) that are stuck in poverty and homelessness until the white main character saves them from themselves.
Women in general suffer from being over sexualized in the media. Many black women have also suffered this fate. I plan to talk about this more in depth in a dedicated post.
- David Pilgrim, PhD. "The Tragic Mulatto Myth". Jim Crow Library of Racist Memorabilia, via Ferris State University. November 2000
- El Noeme Zaire. "Exposing the Tragic Mulatta in Film". The Artifice. June 12, 2016
- Robert W. Pineda-Volk. "Exploring the “Tragic Mulatto” Stereotype Through Film History". National Association of Social Science; visited February 2018
- Richie Bernardo. "2017’s Most Diverse Cities in America". Wallet Hub. May 4, 2017
- "Sassy Black Woman". TVTropes; visited February 2018
- AFP. "'Magical Negro': the racist cliche Hollywood won't drop". The Daily Mail. August 8, 2017
- "Stereotype of African Americans". Wikipedia; visited February 2018
- "25 Token Black Characters from 90s Tv Shows and What Happened to Them". Complex. March 2013
- Gena-mour Barrett. "Every Single Black Character In A White Movie". Buzzfeed. September 26, 2016
- David Pilgrim, PhD. "The Coon Caricature". Jim Crow Library of Racist Memorabilia, via Ferris State University. October 2000
- The term “coon” actually come from the practice of hunting black people the way they would hunt a raccoon, or “coon.” The practice was dubbed “coon hunting” with the black person as the coon. Because of this history, I personally find this term to be more offensive than the n-word, but people use it today to call someone a clown.
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