“See, it’s not enough for the new black kid on the team to be just as competent as everyone else on the team, oh no. He has to be Super Negro and beat the snot out of everybody else in the entire gymnastics world“— The Agony Booth‘s recap of the Mister T episode “Mystery of the Golden Medallion”.
Post-Civil Rights Movement, many writers realized that African Americans were given a pretty bad shake when it came to cultural depictions. They were at best benign pets and at worst, savages. As such, many tried to rewrite the image of blacks in the media through “ positive discrimination ”. Whites (particularly heterosexual male WASPs) are independent entities in the minds of most Americans. The default audience is white, therefore whiteness has become the “non-race” of America. Race was only pondered when whites came upon others who were not them. This is why many misguided youths often want to appropriate culture from other races in order to be part of a “cause” so they can feel distinguished in some way (a phenomenon dating back to the first ” hipsters ” during the rise of jazz). Because whites have no “culture”, their flaws are viewed as individual and not representative of a whole. In contrast, other races appear homogeneous (hence stereotypes). Therefore, if a minority is portrayed as having ANY flaw, this becomes a commentary on minorities in general.
This issue vacillates heavily: The Cosby Show was accused of portraying an “unrealistic” African American family because they were upper middle class, nuclear (mother, father, daughter, son), and college-educated. On the other hand, shows like House of Payne are often thought of as going too far in the other direction by over-representing African American cultural tropes such as being loud and boisterous. It’s much easier to deal with singular blacks in terms of narrative; and since this is still a man’s world, these singular blacks will more than likely be men. On the other hand, we’re still dealing with mainstream (i.e. white) media, so that singular black is more than likely going to be surrounded by plural whites. As such, it’s hard for the black guy to not be discriminated against, even tacitly. And here’s where positive discrimination comes in: what if the one black guy is actually BETTER than his peers? What if he’s stronger, smarter, and more noble than they can ever hope to be? This satiates the audience’s desire for “diversity” and “acceptance”. As with many narrative tropes, there are several problems with this narrative device.
Probably the first consistently positive black male actor in America was Sidney Poitier, an academy award winner who was most prominent from the mid 40’s till the late 60’s. As a character actor: Sidney was typecast as intelligent, authoritative, and all-around awesome professionals. In The Heat of The Night ( 1967 ), he played a high ranking police officer who goes to the district of a racist slob of a sheriff. In All The Young Men , he played a hyper-competent Sergeant to a bunch of idiot white privates. If you’re in a film with him, he’s better than you. Given the romance of Poitier, it was inevitable he would end up in a film that centered on a romantic conflict.
In one of his most famous films, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), Poiter drops by the home of Spencer Tracy as his daughter’s fiancée. She of course neglects to tell her father about his chronic skin condition, which he doesn’t take well. Now let’s be honest; in real life this situation statistically would have had an African American of average means, average looks, and average averageness. But since this is SIDNEY FUCKING POITIER, he’s an Ivy League educated physician. Spencer Tracy is portrayed as having a huge crisis over their engagement because of his blackness, completely ignoring that he’s significantly more successful than most white men. Hell, the couple don’t even seem to have sex (neither of them seems to care that they sleep in separate rooms during their visit), implying that he’s even chaste enough to wait for marriage. Tracy’s turmoil is portrayed sympathetically, as most whites at the time would have been taken aback at the notion of interracial marriage. Sidney’s obvious superiority, however, has a very unfortunate implication. Most Romance films focus on protagonists with flaws that obstruct a relationship. In the film She’s Out Of My League (2010), 50% of the main cast (the dorky Jay Baruchel) is vastly outclassed in every conceivable way by the other 50% (the luscious Alice Eve).
It’s not just looks either: he doesn’t have advanced education, is the butt of his friends’ jokes, and has no career trajectory. Despite being so lacking, Jay is still accepted by Alice throughout most of the film, which he eventually accepts as true love. The general idea is that when someone loves you, you have objective value. By extension, Romantic film affirms the value of the audience, since most people have felt like they were in love, and most people would like to be objectively valuable no matter how unattractive or batshit crazy they are.
Positive discrimination subverts that idea, as we see in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Poitier’s fiance loves him, but he’s such a paragon of manhood that we never feel it’s because of who he is as a person. In any other romantic film, he’d be a better fit as a romantic rival given his awesomeness. Spencer Tracy’s character being suspect of someone arguably more successful than himself is laughable. As such, it’s difficult for an average man (black or white) to relate to Poitier’s character. This points to the larger issue of many of his roles (and Hollywood in general): Sidney Poitier was more of a “model minority” than a foil for the audience. This happens even today: if not funny/thuggish/poor, a black actor pretty much has to be infallible (Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, etc). For fear of racial backlash, creators feel that a black man in fiction has to be AMAZING in order to be a respectable character.
One of the most common instances of this occurs in modern mainstream superhero comics, where token black characters are often even more heroic than other heroes.
In the series Reign of the Supermen (1993), four super-powered dudes attempt to become the protector of Metropolis after the death of Superman (he got better). Most of them fail to live up to the legacy: one of them is a kryptonian clone who nukes muggers, two of them attempt to actively subvert the legacy of Superman in order to boost their own cred, and one is a cyborg (inventively named “Cyborg Superman”) who ends up becoming a mass murderer.
Of course, the only one who is heroic happens to be John Henry Irons aka “Man of Steel” – which was later shortened to just “Steel” (yes, that Steel) – an African American engineer who builds a suit that allows him to be a Superman stand-in ( albeit at a drastically lower level ). Despite being the only human in the bunch, Steel is not only capable, he’s arguably more heroic than Superman himself. After being orphaned at a young age, Irons realizes that (according to his origin story) “ the only way to protect his family was to become rich and powerful “. Well obviously. So he got into Yale on a football scholarship where he studied engineering, got money, and started developing weapons for the government. He then uses his money and resources to become a hero.
This character’s primary trait is his perfection: he’s a self made genius millionaire athlete superhero who takes up the mantle of SUPERMAN, yet is humble, pacifistic, and always deferential. And he’s boring as shit. Few writers delve into how ANY of these elements affect the character’s personality. Does he have a chip on his shoulder due to having to struggle so much? Is he cocksure due to his vastly superior abilities? Does he date/have sex? How does he feel about violence? Mind you, this is a character who debuted in the nineties, where every hero who wasn’t comically intense was at least fleshed out a bit more than before. Like Steel, Iron Man is an industrialist who’s inability to control his products led to the series Armor Wars (1987-1988) where he became paranoid about who was using his weapons. Like Steel, Batman lost his parents and had to forge himself at a young age, which is heavily implied to have given him a very abnormal mental state, which we see in series such as Arkham Asylum (1989). I’m not saying Steel should mimic these heroes, but I do think the lack of equivalent character exploration is suspect. Steel has no more depth than a superhero version of the ” Successful Black Man ” meme. Characters such as Black Lightning, Black Panther, and Luke Cage similarly tend to be written shallowly. Even black villains aren’t immune to this.
The Thor villains dubbed the “ Wrecking Crew ” consist of a bunch of working-class hoods who accidentally got empowered by an Asgardian goddess. All of them are white except Eliot Franklin aka ” Thunderball ” who’s a fucking physicist who invented a gamma bomb superior to Bruce Banner’s. He’s only in the crew because he committed robberies to fund his experiments, which landed him in jail with the rest of the team (because it’s not like anyone would PAY a genius level nuclear physicist for R&D). And of course, he’s the only character who considers it blasphemous to attack Thor’s homeland of Asgard, so he’s even the most moral of the thieves. Not only is the juxtaposition of a genius level physicist street thug extremely silly (even by comic book standards), it’s not even at least handled sincerely. Thunderball never parlays his genius into becoming a more effective villain, at best he attempts to overthrow his boss in order to become leader of a shitty gang. He only serves as a token and as a “testament” to the writers’ lack of racism. As with Steel, the desire to make a non-offensive character eclipses actually making a good character.
While seemingly innocent, positive discrimination is often caused by discomfort with race rather than acceptance of it. Political correctness requires people to ignore race, to ignore people in favor of a two dimensional image that “equalizes” us. True diversity requires a recognition of humanity not avoidance of it. In the play/film A Raisin In The Sun ( 1961 ), protagonist Walter Younger ( ironically, played by Sidney Poitier ), is the patriarch of a black family living in the impoverished south side of Chicago. Unlike Poitier’s other roles, Walter is a established early as a schlub: his introduction parallels his difficulties getting out of bed with that of his son’s, equating him with a pre-pubescent child.
African-American men’s ” arrested development ” is a commonly touched upon topic socially, but rarely in media (at least not explicitly and especially not in regard to fathers). Here we see a man who’s immediately painted as being not much more mature than his own son: he hides his inadequacies through misogynist remarks, he constantly obsesses over his own success over others’, and he avoid responsibility whenever possible. He’s several black male stereotypes given form.
Many writers would have dismissed the character as a two-dimensional asshole. For example, it’s tragically common in Tyler Perry films that black men who are flawed are portrayed as unsympathetically as possible. In I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009), Taraji P. Henson’s boyfriend is so laughably evil that in his first appearance he lobs racial slurs at a guest, threatens small children, and even implies raping one of said small children.
Rather than making Walter a one-note stereotype, the film establishes sympathy for him by expanding on what made him who he is. His mother Lena (to the left in the picture) describes a father who passed on his own unattainable dreams to his son Walter, who had no more resources than his father. Walter’s so poor that he can’t afford to give his son $8 for school, signalling a continuation of poverty for his son as well. As such, Walter’s obsessed with using his dead father’s will money to open a liquor store, which would give him the fiscal autonomy he or his father never had. His mother objects to this immediately. Walter continues to perform several selfish acts throughout the film, including using the money to fund a liquor store anyway, only to be robbed by his supposed partner.
What makes Walter such a great character is that he’s pathetically human. He embodies several of the challenges black men (and men in general) face even today. As such, his personal journey throughout the film is compelling. His triumph over his own compulsions at the end is impressive due to his weaknesses: when offered enough money to recoup his losses from a white man who wants he and his family to not move into his neighborhood, he considers then rejects his offer for the sake of his family.
The film’s realism doesn’t presuppose the family or Walter go on to success, what it gives us at the end is a man willing to try to do what’s best. Walter isn’t perfect, and the film wants us to sympathize with him anyway. The film acknowledges some of the hard truths of black manhood while at the same time making a nuanced character, something several black directors (*cough*Tyler Perry*cough*) have either avoided or failed at. Race will always continue to exist no matter how many writers try to ignore it. Rather than attempting to whitewash the notion, I believe it’s more important to recognize it, or at least not be afraid of invoking it.
For more thoughts on African American race relations: