Moe Poplar

And in comes THE BLACK GUY by Micheaux Mission

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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.

Eddie Murphy was literally THE fish out of water in  Trading Places  (1983),  Beverly Hills Cop  (1984),  The Golden Child  (1986) and  The Distinguished Gentleman  (1992).

Eddie Murphy was literally THE fish out of water in Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), The Golden Child (1986) and The Distinguished Gentleman (1992).

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.



 

The Magic Negro and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Micheaux Mission

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By MOE POPLAR @MauricePoplar

Hollywood is so equitable, you don’t have to be a negro to be a Magic Negro. Sure, the cliche is so typically a black dude, hence the name, but Mr. Miyagi is also playing the Magic Negro role.

The problem with the Magic Negro role is he doesn’t have a goal of his own; he sacrifices his life for the hero and he lacks community, history and his own story. One of the oldest examples of this is possibly “Nigger Jim” from Mark Twain’s 1884 classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yup, this cinematic trope comes from the great American Novel. But more precisely, it’s a thing of the American imagination: black people don’t have histories, they’re just here to help us, and we get the credit. Three guesses on who ‘we’ are?

There are tons of cinematic examples of the Magic Negro from Morpheus in the Matrix, Will Smith’s character from Bagger Vance, Morgan Freeman from Driving Miss Daisy AND Shawshank Redemption, Michael C Duncan in the Green Mile and plenty others. In the remake of Robocop, Michael K Williams literally dies twice so that our hero can live. And you don’t have to be a dude to be a Magic Negro: Hattie McDaniels, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer won Oscars being agenda less, sexless and sacrificial to help some white folks get over the hump. I don’t mean to suggest that these women are not amazing, award worthy actresses, but it’s noteworthy that these are the roles they’re recognized for.

The same is true for the Manic Pixie dream girl. Think Natalie Portman from Garden State, Angelina Jolie from Wanted or Zooey Deschanel from 500 Days of Summer. Another way to describe this cliche is the ‘hooker with a heart of gold.’ These women have nothing to do in their lives but sleep with a loser guy to make him feel better about himself, no strings attached. Again, this character seems to exist as extremely attractive, available and aggressive in pursuing and encouraging of our protagonist, usually a man.

Curiously, the Magic Pixie Dreamgirl is rarely ever a sista. Only Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man comes to mind. This film is so problematic… of course it checks all the boxes. Serpent and the Rainbow and Angel Heart are pretty foggy in my memory, but I seem to recall them fitting the bill too. Is the issue that black women aren’t easily imagined as ‘quirky, and supportive,’ or is it that in order to have a Magic Pixie Dreamgirl, you need a white man as a protagonist?

This tradition is old and played out. There is an idea that race IS background, history, description, etc. That frumpy quirky girl or sage black/ Japanese/ Latino/ Native American dude who seeks to rescue our hero and make him better. They pour everything they have, know and are into the white guy, because that’s how the world should be. Regardless of how lazy and undeserving this makes the hero look, it’s OK, he’s ‘chosen.’ A film like Django Unchained tries to flip the trope on its head, to marginal success. The problem isn’t race, it’s poor storytelling. But the race stuff is a problematic too. Even Howard the Duck gets the treatment. And he’s a duck.

If this were the 80’s, I’d turn and say, “Brotha’s need idle, helpful, white women to support their inadequacies and desires too.” But alas, we’re more woke than that these days.  (And if it wasn’t clear, that was a joke, folks.)

Ironically, we can look to the 1980 for a great couple examples of minorities; race and gender,  in cinema. 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back includes Lando Calrissian and Princess Leia. Both have backstories, goals and agendas that don’t necessarily correspond with the protagonist. Lando is Han’s old friend but he’s got responsibilities now so he sell’s Han out. Leia isn’t just available for any old guy to pick up. She’s got a rebellion to lead. Sometimes she’s helping Luke and Han… sometimes they’re helping her. Leia is an example of how a woman can be a romantic interest, an enabler and a whole person. Lando is an example of how ‘The Other’ can be normal, interesting and not just a throwaway character. One typical trope of the magic negro is that he’s neutered. Lando is not Neutered.

Now Yoda, is a whole different story. Yoda is chillin’ on Degoba, waiting for a young helpless (white) boy to show up. Then the Jedi Master teaches Luke everything he knows, imparts some sage wisdom, and, his work being done here… promptly dies. If that ain’s some movie n!&&@ s#!+, I don’t know what is. Equal rights for puppets, yo! Puppet lives matter!

So, my point is, Hollywood knows better. And on occasion, Hollywood does better. But typically, in the movies black folks and cute white women are just scaffolding to help white boys become men. And the sistas. The sista’s don’t exist unless they’re light skinned, or playing Mammy.  What’s really funny though, is when you meet a white boy who’s seen too many movies, and thinks you’re going to be their footstool to greatness. Yeah, that’s real funny, until one gets elected.


Moe Poplar is a husband, dad, writer, filmmaker, Micheaux Missionary, and habitual line stepper.