By MOE POPLAR @MauricePoplar
The 1980’s brought us hip-hop, some cool people… and the rest was kinda BS. Hairstyles were bad, fashion was bad and the media wasn’t great for black folks. One of the worse cinematic tropes invented - ‘just add a black guy’. Somewhere, somebody thought an amusing turn of the ‘fish out of water’story, would be to add a black guy and you’d have instant comedy classic. This formula was amusing at first, but wore thin pretty quick because it’s pretty damn racist and depressing.
It might have all started with 1982’s 48 Hours. Now, this is a damn good movie. The plot is dumb, but Eddie Murphy is brilliant as a convict who gets to play a cop for two days. Some decided this was an excellent formula - two cops, one good, one bad trying to solve a crime - and the buddy cop genre was born. But also born was the idea that a cop movie is funnier if you add the antics of a poor, uneducated, black guy to the mix. That is… a regular black guy. And with that, the ‘Just Add a Black Guy’genre was created.
Then we get a slew of movies that rely on the fact that America is super-segregated and loves to make comedy from stories of black men in white spaces. In 1982, we getThe Toywhere a wealthy white father gives a black man as a toy to his son. In ’83, here comes Trading Places, a black guy working as a stockbroker, and Superman III, a black man as Superman – sort of. In ‘84, Beverly Hills Cop, a black cop invades the Beverly Hills Police department. In ’85, Brewster’s Millionspresents a black guy with three million dollars who runs for President of the United States. We get the 1986 two-piece of The Golden Child, a black guy as pulp adventurer, and Jumping Jack Flash, a Black woman (originality, y’all!) as a spy. 1987 brings Critical Condition, a black guy who’s a doctorto the theaters. In 1992, it’sDistinguished Gentleman, a black man as a political insider, and Sister Act, a black woman as a nun. In 1999, we see Wild Wild West, a black guy in the old west, and 2002 delivers The Adventures of Pluto Nash, a black guy in space.
The premise is simple: things go awry when a black person, full of sass and urban flare, dances and stumbles through situations they absolutely don’t belong in. The problem with these films is they work on the premise that black people, outside of an urban context, are a joke. In 1966, Greg Morris plays a black spy in 1966’s Mission ImpossibleTV series with all the gravitas the profession implies but Whoopi Goldberg as a spy in the ‘80s is ammunition for laughs. In real life, Daniel Hale Williams performs the first successful open heart surgery in 1896; 100 years later, Richard Pryor is cast as a black doctor. Theses films don’t just disregard history; they are outright racist in their imagery, and perpetuate segregated spaces.Honorable mention goes out to Caddyshack(1980) and Back to School(1986), Rodney Dangerfield films with the exact same shtick, only played for class instead of race.
Fortunately, this theme starts to run out of steam in the 90’s. Gone from the television screens were the Give Me A Break, Different Strokesand Webster. In came The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Once again you have a black kid playing the fish out of water, but this time the context is class - he lives with different black people, not white people. His wealthy California cousins can learn to appreciate Will, and he can learn to appreciate them. There are no seeming indelible barriers of race that the ‘put a black guy in it’ troupe lives by. Likewise, Will becomes ‘The Fish’ in this fish out of water story, not an entire race of people out of water. Just like The Beverly Hillbillies, Will has a choice to code switch and pass or not. He is not permanently ‘othered’. Even Eddie Murphy came correct with Coming to America, a hysterical Pan Africanist fish out of water story in scope. Boomerang, Harlem Knights, and The Nutty Professorproved that he grew to know better.
Just like the Jheri Curl and new wave, I’m really glad we’ve outgrown this cinematic cliché. Today there is plenty of black centered cinema and television. Look at the work of Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Ava Duvernay and the late John Singleton. Hollywood, seeing better, is doing better. Hopefully, unlike Hammer pants, we don’t see this particular style make a comeback.
Moe Poplar is a husband, dad, writer, filmmaker, Micheaux Missionary, habitual line stepper, and former bed wetter.