Racial Tropes and Tokenism

How do the racial disparities within film affect the audience it’s marketed to?

by Renee Crozier

It has always been about race whether we realize it or not. As a middle class white woman growing up in a primarily white neighborhood the issue of race rarely came up. It wasn’t spoken of and thus nobody thought there were any problems; it was a bubble of ignorance that no one even attempted to pop, not even in the pop culture of the day. But in this pluralistic age of media dissection these representations of minority groups, of diversity, are anything but mindless fun in our digital-download-video-streaming age. Even within this introspective age the fictional world of movies, during the epoch of popular demand wish fulfillment, the black man still dies first (Cheu).

The phenomenon of black characters being the first to die was first identified in Hollywood horror movies of the 1930s and since viewers have noticed the short shelf-life of black characters. In the first half of the twentieth century, black actors often had little name recognition in Hollywood, and audiences weren’t invested in seeing them on the screen for an extended period. Their role was to relieve the unremitting whiteness of the casts, die early, and then leave the field clear for the white hero to save the day (Snyckers).

In short, it was an egregious form of systemic racism and blatant tokenism.

Sidenote: Tokenism refers to the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a body of work. While it is a widely known and ridiculed trope it still persists today strong as ever if only having taken on new forms and subgenres.

Since the advent of social media though viewers are far less forgiving of this blatant tokenism and call it out when they see it as they see fit (Snyckers). And the response has been mixed to say the least. To combat the perceived racist behavior Hollywood naturally overcompensates thus the new trend is to cast “Ambiguously Brown” actors to avoid being completely whitewashed, but only by increasing diversity in the vaguest sense (Misra).

Sidenote: Ambiguously brown refers to a skin tone that’s definitely not Northern European, but it’s not entirely clear what ethnicity they are supposed to be. However, Hollywood has come to use it as a synonym to “mixed heritage” which is not always mutually exclusive to “ambiguously brown”.

Ambiguously brown character representation within film is important because many different ethnicities can relate to said character with all the vagueness their skin tone provides, touching upon a much wider audience but posits a number of problems as well (Misra).

While employing actors and actresses of mixed heritage is a noble sentiment it is not as genuine a gesture as one would assume. Filmmakers have been very deliberately casting people from marginalized groups but only casting light-skinned, mixed-race actors in prominent roles such as Keanu Reeves, Chinese-Hawaiian, Oscar Isaac, Guatemalan-American, and Dwayne the Rock Johnson, Black Nova Scotian and Samoan (Davis). Essentially casting actors who could potentially pass as white or just barely scratch the brown, let alone ambiguously brown, threshold with no recognition of their race perpetuating the idea of a colorblind media.

Sidenote: Colorblindness refers to the racial ideology that proposes the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity and subsequently erases identity and the struggle of the race depicted.

And while Hollywood’s well-meaning but ill-advised racial double jeopardy bandaid points out how “the minority”, generally depicted as the ambiguously brown than committing to a specific race, dies, the darker man still dies first.

But what excuse can there be for a modern director to treat black characters as canon-fodder? It is just as bad to include a black character to a film if directors don’t know how to write for one as it is to suddenly kill them off. It reeks of an attempt to add diversity without committing to any in-depth or long-term development of the character (Snyckers). Though I suppose these motifs make sense when over and over black people, no matter where they’re from, are cast in fiction as society’s victims. Like all horrible stereotypes, there’s a hidden truth behind it.  Black people are supposed to be history’s victims, and victims, in the eyes of the oppressors and privileged, aren’t supposed to have agency. You’re supposed to politely sit and wait for President Abraham Lincoln to come save you, for a white man to save the day even if in the end they couldn’t save you (Belton).

The “black guy dies first” trope is offensive when the character is used as nothing more than a vehicle to move the plot to a point where white characters can fulfil their heroic destinies. And perhaps that is the best test for whether the death of a black character is mere tokenism or not. If the character, however minor, has been thoughtfully drawn, with proper research and respectful attention to detail, then we are probably not dealing with tokenism (Synckers). However, the fact that movies, the mirrors of our inner most wants and desires, still kills off the black man, the minority, if not first than early on, shows a fundamental problem within our society as a whole if that is what Hollywood feels it must cater to. It is not only perpetuating bad examples to future generations but we are.

Works Cited

Belton, Danielle. “Slave Revenge & ‘Django Unchained’: In Film Fantasy, Slaves Finally Give the Master His Just deserts.” TheGrio. TheGrio, 28 July 2012. Web. 17 Mar. 2017 <http://thegrio.com/2012/07/28/slave-revenge-django-unchained-in-film-fantasy-slaves-finally-give-the-master-his-comeuppance/#s:jamie-foxx-kerry-washington-django-unchained-comic-con-16×9>.

Cheu, Johnson, ed. Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. Print.

Davis, Vero. “Keanu Reeves vs. Oscar Isaac: Ambiguous Race in Film – EDGE.” EDGEEDGE, 25 Aug. 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2017. <http://sites.dartmouth.edu/edge/2016/08/25/keanu-reeves-vs-oscar-isaac-ambiguous-race-in-film/>.

Misra, Sulagna. “Ambiguously Brown – The Archipelago.” Medium. The Archipelago, 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2017. <https://medium.com/the-archipelago/ambiguously-brown-3f525d6100d5#.yknrusp3u>.

Snyckers, Fiona. “The Black Guy Always Dies First, and Other Problematic Literary Tropes.”Thought Leader. Thought Leader, 12 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Mar. 2017. <http://thoughtleader.co.za/fionasnyckers/2017/02/12/the-black-guy-always-dies-first-and-other-problematic-literary-tropes/>.

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