Where's Spike Lee when you need him?
Updated: May 11, 2022
Last night I watched the Amazon Prime original movie, Master. (I know, I'm a little late to the party.) Three African American women grapple with being Black at a predominately white college. Master falls right in line with the trend of Jordan Peele-esque horror movies that provide social commentary on what it's like to be Black in America. Racism is the antagonist, personified by a hauntingly eerie shadow. As a young adult navigating college and work, I didn't have Peele movies to provide words and images to my feelings. I discovered American film historian and scholar Donald Bogle in college classes on race and cinema. He put a label on the stereotypes I saw growing up on my parents' big-box television. Today, I don't need a supernatural being but rather more writers and producers like Issa Rae and Lena Waithe. I want to scream "Wake up!" to filmmakers just like Samuel L. Jackson in School Daze. The old archetypes of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks have new counterparts. There's the black-stabbing cousin, the magical mulatto pixie girl, the segregationist and assimilationist, and the narcissist.
The black-stabbing cousin is the relative who throws shade over spades. He/she/they have perfected the stank eye and are the personification of “nasty-nice.” The black-stabbing cousin and our protagonist grew up together and, perhaps, their rivalry has been passed down by their parents. The black-stabbing cousin, however, takes the feud to new heights which of course produces disastrous results. In Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Martin Lawrence’s character faces off with his cousin Cedric,
played by Cedric the Entertainer. The two literally get into a fistfight and wreck the house. In the 2011 film Jumping the Broom, two estranged sisters harbor secrets and grudges that destroy their daughter/niece’s wedding day. And then there’s Anthony Anderson’s character in Barbershop. Anderson shows no remorse for using his cousin’s truck to steal an ATM machine. This crime ultimately results in his cousin's arrest. With two strikes already his cousin will be in jail for a long time. The problem with the black-stabbing cousin trope is that it perpetuates the idea of a fractured black family. While it can be concluded that Black families are no more one-dimensional than other families, it is hard to break long-standing misrepresentations. The stereotypes presented in television shows and movies of the 1970s also live on today. If viewers were to believe Good Times, What’s Happening!! and Claudine, Black people live in the ghetto and most single Black mothers are on welfare.
In the wake of Will Smith smacking comedian Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards, Jude Apatow tweeted that Smith could have "killed Rock" and that Smith’s rage and violence were "out of control." Critics condemned the tweet, likening it to the notion that Black men are bucks, hot-tempered and prone to violence.
In contrast to the black-stabbing cousin, there’s the magical mulatto pixie girl. She’s naturally beautiful and eclectic, lighter-skinned, and unlike her white counterpart who plagued movies in the 1990s and early 2000s, she has her shit together. She still has an alternative look of dyed hair, bold prints, or bulky jewelry and accessories. Her occupation is art. She’s a muse. She’s opinionated even though her lifestyle is sustained by imaginary income. She “claps” back at her male love interest which in turn results in their breakup but eventually she comes back and soothes his male ego. Think, of Bianca in Creed 1 and Creed 2. Unlike the magical negroes who helped their white counterparts overcome obstacles with the aid of superhuman non-herculean powers (The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance), these magical mulatto pixies are helpmates. Black women are capable of much more!
A spin-off to magic mulatto pixie girl is the segregationist. She’s a privileged black girl who finds herself dramatically impacted by prejudice as a result of her dual identity, being both black and female. She wants to change the world but doesn’t know how. She’s dependent on relationships and male attention. She ultimately embraces and celebrates her “otherness” which puts her at odds with her white classmates/colleagues/professors/managers who don't understand her duality or dilemma. The segregationist also struggles with whether or not she’s Black enuf. She’s oblivious to how her skin color affords her privileges that her darker skin sistahs don’t get and of course must be taught. The segregationist’s righteous anger eventually defines her. Think of Samantha White in the film and television series Dear White People. Kin to the segregationist is the assimilationist, an emasculated black male who doesn’t know about or like “black” things. He is quirky. This character has existed on television and in film for a while. Junior Johnson has portrayed this trope on the show Black-ish since its inception in 2014. In the new reboot of Cheaper by the dozen, the eldest son enjoys cosplay and is not good at sports although his father is a former NBA champion. The assimilationist is misunderstood by older men, particularly his father. Unlike the cliché character of a “fish out of water,” both the segregationist and assimilationist are second or third-generation Black middle-class youths. They don’t relate to the struggles of their grandparents or care about how their parents overcame adversities that have provided them with the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed. Their peers “don’t see color” (ha!) and therefore the segregationists and assimilationists experience what it’s like to be Black in America in their teens or while attending college.
Lastly, there is the narcissist. He’s a black male who has achieved the American dream. He’s a public figure. He brags about his sexual prowess and may have children with multiple women. He is a cheater but also a provider. Additionally, although he does good deeds, those he has helped will never hear the end of how he came to their rescue. The narcissist is physically non-threatening. He’s street-wise and funny. The problem with this trope is that the narcissist cares more about self than anyone else. He is often portrayed as a morally corrupt father figure who treats Black women as sexual objects. He can easily manipulate them with money or flattery. Comedian, Kountry Wayne perfectly embodies this trope in skits on his Youtube channel. The skits center on his relationship with his five babies’ mamas and his active dating life.
Why bring up these new archetypes? Because representation matters especially in television and in films. Venus and Serena Williams inspired black and brown girls to participate in tennis, a historically underrepresented sport; as did Tiger Woods with golf and Misty Copeland with ballet. What will young black and brown children believe if movies and television shows with characters who look like them are bitter and spiteful like the black-stabbing cousin? Will they see themselves and family members that way too? Will they go out into the world with an us versus them mentality or believe they must assimilate completely to fit in? Will young girls seek out flashy, fast-talking men and accept cheating in exchange for money and expensive clothes and accessories? Will these girls devote their lives to helping their partner even if it means putting their own aspirations and desires on hold? What are boys being taught? By naming stereotypes and by critically examining their impact, change happens. As a parent, I'm here for it. I can use all the help I can get!