By Amy Nicholson
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Last summer, at Phil Spector’s murdertrial, the defense played a video made by Spector’s alleged victim, actress Lana Clarkson. The half-hour character pastiche was intended to showcase Clarkson’s versatility by having her portray a range of social stereotypes, including a surly security guard, an over-caffeinated talk-show host and a Vegas showgirl. It was obvious why Spector’s attorneys wanted certain jurors to view the video: In one of Clarkson’s sketches, she performed a black-face, pop-eyed impersonation of Little Richard selling cosmetics on TV to African-Americans. This minstrel show only ran three minutes, but as I kept glancing over at the jury’s stone-faced black members, it felt like sitting through an Amos ’n’ Andy marathon.
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Eddie Murphy takes the low road in Norbit.
You might wonder of Clarkson, “What was she thinking?” were it not for the fact that she’d smartly pegged her intended audience of Hollywood casting directors and agents. They, after all, would almost certainly be Caucasians less inclined to judge her performance in terms of “cultural sensitivity” than upon its market potential. There is no space to cringe in the jury box of commerce. Still, in 21st-century America, there’s no room for Amos ’n’ Andy either — or is there?
Officially, stereotypes don’t exist in Hollywood, only archetypes — representative characters based on real people. The funny thing about “real” people in movies, though, is that when they are nonwhites, a surprising number turn out to be black pimps, Mexican gangbangers, greedy Korean liquor-store owners or Arab terrorists. African-American characters in particular seem to be trapped in a phantom zone between a cloud ceiling and the asphalt pavement. When they aren’t thugs or rascals, they are Magical Negroes — saintly guides placed on Earth to redeem troubled white folks. Consider Lilies of the Field’s Sidney Poitier or, more recently, Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance and Morgan Freeman in practically anything. Decades may separate the “well-spoken Negro” Poitier represented during America’s civil rights era from a contemporary badass like Smith, but as Magical Negroes, they both pose no threat to white order.
If it’s too much to expect the current hierarchy of Hollywood machers to grasp this dichotomy, there’s little evidence to suggest that their successors-in-training are aware of it, either. A while ago, I found myself talking to a pair of USC film-school students off-campus, when the discussion turned to race. “Blacks are ruining the economy,” one young man fumed as his classmate nodded in agreement. “The government should put them all on planes and send them back to Africa.” After a short tirade along these lines, the student abruptly returned to discussing the three-act screenplay structure. I was shocked but mostly by the outburst’s familiarity — I’d heard this kind of stuff growing up in rural Long Island in the 1960s from people who, frankly, were no cineastes.
To complain about movie stereotypes is to risk being labeled a humorless, P.C. crank. Many cultural stereotypes of blacks are promoted by blacks themselves, the argument goes, and if you’re not a member of the club — which I’m not — you can’t criticize its rules. Wildly successful gangsta-rap music celebrates pimps and violence — particularly against women — but has been sanctioned as part of some artistic evolutionary process. Dr. Dre’s early 1990’s ghetto-dämmerung anthem, “Rat Tat Tat Tat,” opens with dialogue sampled from the 1973 blaxploitation classic The Mack, in which a young man (played by Roger E. Mosley) expresses that era’s determination to break out of the old ways:
“In order for us to make this thing work, we gotta get rid of the pimps and the pushers and the prostitutes and start all over again, clean.”
“Nigga, is you crazy?” asks an incredulous voice in Dr. Dre’s recording studio, as though dismissing the long-gone optimism of an entire generation.
No one forced Eddie Murphy to create the obese drag-show nightmare known as Rasputia in last year’s Norbit. Ditto Martin Lawrence and his recurring Big Mama character. It’s safe to say that these two fat-suited figures would never have been green-lighted had they not been attached to two of Hollywood’s most successful African-American actors. Rasputia and Big Mama don’t merely poke fun at black women — they reduce them to a pile of cellulite-riddled flesh and smelly body functions. But who am I to complain about black writers and directors creating jobs and wealth for a few bankable African-American stars? (Although, in Murphy’s and Lawrence’s cases, their writers and directors are often white.) Besides, isn’t a Wayans brothers project like Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood just a playful way of dispelling stereotypes by anthologizing them?
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