Last summer, at Phil Spector’s murder trial, 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.
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?
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.
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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?