By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The danger, as with gangsta rap, is that movie stereotypes allow whites to feel comfortable with their inner racist — and to reintroduce discredited cultural clichés back into the pop imagination. Marc Klasfeld, a white NYU film-school grad, went from making music videos to writing, producing and directing a 2005 feature called The L.A. Riot Spectacular, an execrable comedy starring Emilio Estevez and Ronny Cox. Narrated by ur–gangsta rapper Snoop Dogg, Klasfeld’s film reimagined this city’s 1992 riots as a slapstick battle royal among urban and media clichés, including a Korean-owned convenience store called Mr. Kim’s Riquor. While the Koreans operating the store were at least played by Asian actors, their performances seemed to channel Jerry Lewis’ early forays into Orientalism. (L.A. Riot’s tag line seemed to anticipate potential objections by calling the movie “An equal opportunity offender” — another way of saying, “Look how un-P.C. we are!”) Norbit has a similar “rickshaw Chinaman” portrayed by Murphy: Apparently, holding a card in one ethnic club permits its holder to mock members of other groups with impunity. “I’m just messin’ with y’all,” you can almost hear Murphy saying.
Likewise, 2004’s Soul Plane, again featuring the ubiquitous Snoop Dogg, was a kind of Flight Cabin in the Sky that provided a rainbow coalition of stereotypes, from bling-heavy hustlers and mincing gays to spicy Latinas. It may be argued that for every Soul Plane there is a female-empowering Beauty Shop or one of Tyler Perry’s transvestite strength-through-archetype fables. Still, sitting in the multiplex these days, one gets a definite sense of cultural bodysnatching through the return of stereotypes.
Perhaps the best thing to be said about Hollywood’s new stereotypes is that they’re non-ideological — for all the big screen’s legions of sadistic, craven or criminal Arabs, there is never going to be, say, an Islamic-villain version of Jud Süss. Instead, stereotypes are mostly found in comedies and provide moviegoing’s comfort food. They flatter insecure audiences with grotesque images of people lower on the popularity chain than themselves, or assure us that it’s okay — and oh-so-un-P.C. — to view others through the same simplistic prisms used by our parents or grandparents.
In the wake of the recent PR rehabilitation of Uncle Ben, the African-American mascot of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice, radio humorist Harry Shearer mused on his nationally syndicated NPR program, Le Show, about the possible rebranding of another black-domestic icon: Cream of Wheat’s Rastus the Chef. Rastus himself was no stranger to Hollywood, having evolved from a minstrel-show figure into the star of a series of silent features (How Rastus Got His Chicken, Rastus Among the Zulus and, perhaps his most political meditation, Rastus Runs Amuck). These movies, far from introducing white Americans to a three-dimensional black character, gave them one more stereotype against which to measure all Negroes.
In case it seems that I’m taking this too seriously, it’s worth remembering how the occasional malarial outburst of a Don Imus or Michael Richards offers glimpses into the secret thoughts of white media and entertainment figures. Not to mention an essentially overlooked incident that occurred almost in Hollywood’s backyard. Last July, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported the appearance of soft-drink container lids, imported from China, that bore pickaninny-like images of black children. The lids, ironically, were placed on drink cups at a Louisiana Fried Chicken franchise owned by a Cambodian — and located in Watts. In a time when Charlie Chan is about to return to the big screen, can a Rastus revival be far behind?
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!