“Henry Joseph Church could have been anything he wanted to be, but he chose to cook.”
This phrase bookends “Mr. Church,” which marks the return of Eddie Murphy to the screen after four years spent in purgatory, following the notorious failure of 2012’s “A Thousand Words.” Its director, Bruce Beresford, brought “Driving Miss Daisy” to the screen more than two decades ago, and Mr. Church is a character Beresford is more than familiar with (Indiewire dubbed the new film the "spiritual sequel to 'Driving Miss Daisy'.") As the cook for a white family, he’s around whip up an Instagram-perfect meal or lend an ear. Like Morgan Freeman’s genial chauffeur before him, Mr. Church isn’t so much a person as a compendium of tropes about black servitude.
“Mr. Church” screened at the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival along with “Wolves,” the Bart Freundlich-directed sports drama that shares its same issues. These are movies that depict their black characters as stock types, rather than fully formed human beings. The “Magical Negro” and the “Black Best Friend” should have died out decades ago, yet they continue to persist, driven by laziness and lack of imagination on the part of Hollywood directors and screenwriters.
If you’re a writer or producer working on your latest project, here are six questions you should ask yourself to avoid making your black character into yet another unfortunate trope.
1. Does your black character die? (Bonus: Do they die first?)
In Ivan Reitman’s hit-or-miss alien invasion comedy “Evolution,” Harry Block, a college professor played Orlando Jones, refuses to come to the rescue. Why? He knows how this turns out for people of color. “I’ve seen this movie,” Harry says. “The black guy dies first.”
As a 2013 survey from Complex discovered, that rule—one of the most time-honored horror movie tropes—both is and is not true. Of the 50 movies they surveyed, black characters were the first to go just 10 percent of the time, but their mortality rate in these films nonetheless was very, very high: Two-thirds of horror movies sacrificed at least one of their black characters. In “Scream 2,” both Maureen (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Phil (Omar Epps) are killed off before the opening credits. The masked killer even makes time for another black murder, saving Hallie (Elise Neal), the token best friend to Sidney Prescott, for last. Meagan Good, the former Disney Channel star, has met her demise in four different films: “One Missed Call,” “The Unborn,” “Venom,” and “Saw V.” In two, Good dies first.
On television, “The Walking Dead” and its recent spin-off, “Fear the Walking Dead,” have a marked habit of introducing black characters just to kill them off. In the first season of “Fear,” the first three characters to bite the dust were all men of color. These patterns, if an unconscious bias on the part of writers, directors, and film producers, teach black audiences that their stories and experiences are expendable. In Hollywood, white people’s lives matter more.
2. Does your character exist to serve white people or aid them in a quest for fulfillment?
In a 2001 speech, director Spike Lee coined the phrase “Magical Negro” to describe the phenomenon of black characters whose only job in life is to the servants, mentors, and spiritual guides for white people. The most famous example is the jolly, apple-cheeked “Uncle Remus” from Disney’s “Song of the South,” who reads the stories of Brer Rabbit to a group of white children. The TV Tropes website sums up the awfulness of Disney's Remus in its entry on this trope: “Even the horrors of Jim Crow can't dampen his determination to be a cheerful mentor for the children.”
Lee, however, called attention to movies like “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “What Dreams May Come,” and “The Green Mile,” which respectively cast Will Smith, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Michael Clarke Duncan as Christ figures that come to earth to teach white people about forgiveness and redemption. If they are not literally God, like Morgan Freeman in “Bruce Almighty,” they act as his messengers or stand-ins. In “Dreams,” Gooding Jr. plays Albert, a guide tasked with helping the film’s Dante character, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), find his Beatrice in the afterlife. Albert doesn’t have depth, flaws, or conflicts because he’s a ghost; ghosts don’t need character development.
In these movies, the “Magical Negro” type doesn’t even need to know the white characters before stepping in to offer life advice. See the aforementioned “Wolves,” a former basketball player (John Douglas Thompson) who magically materializes like one of those apparitions in “Ghostbusters” — as I wrote in an earlier review of the film for Consequence of Sound, it would actually make more sense if he were a ghost. If you were wondering if the character exists only to be a white person’s teacher, the answer is right on the label: His name is “Socrates.”
3. Do they have other friends, family members, or a life outside the world of the white characters?
In “Mr. Church,” Eddie Murphy plays the title character, a mysterious cook who insists on keeping his private life private. Whenever his white employers ask what he does for fun, he shuts them down. All they know about Mr. Church is that he goes out a couple times a week and comes home intoxicated. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) You would think that this mystery might be a chance to break down boundaries for relationship building or trust falls, but that’s not the case. Mr. Church grows old and dies, without becoming any more of an actual person to those around him. A friend of Mr. Church’s shows up to his funeral to deliver his backstory. Mr. Church played piano twice a week at a jazz club called Kelly’s Place. It sends a sad and troubling message: In Hollywood, black characters become human by dying.
As a character, Mr. Church is both a “magical Negro” and a “token best friend” to the family he serves. You’re familiar with these characters: They don’t really have parents, home lives, or interests that don’t involve hanging on white peoples’ every word. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” what do we know about Lily (Tracie Thoms)? In the novel on which the movie was based, she’s a graduate student at Columbia who studies Russian literature. But the film adaptation, directed by David Frankel, makes her into a sidekick and sassy sounding board. When Andy starts dressing differently and taking work calls during dinner, Lily calls her on her bullshit. When Andy isn’t around, however, Lily may as well not exist.
The “Token Black Friend” was a particular staple of teen-oriented movies and TV shows from the 90s and early 2000s, including “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” In “She’s All That,” we get two for the price of one: There’s the cool school DJ (Usher) who doesn’t need to attend the prom, because he’s emceeing it, and Alex (Lil’ Kim), a popular girl with almost no lines. She’s pretty much just there.
4. If they have a love interest, are they paired up with the only other person of color on screen?
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a show in possession of two black characters must force them into a relationship at some point. In “Veronica Mars,” Wallace (Percy Daggs III) always got short shrift. Whereas the other characters had exciting subplots and dilemmas, his role in the show was to tag along on the titular protagonist’s schemes. Daggs has great chemistry with Kristen Bell (in her breakout role as a tormented teenage detective), but Wallace was more a getaway driver or a right-hand man than a person. He’s also—you guessed it—the star player on the school basketball team.
Executive producer Rob Thomas (no, not that one) attempted to expand and deepen Wallace’s storyline by giving him a love interest—Veronica’s best frenemy, Jackie Cook. Like her nemesis-cum-friend, Jackie is complex and wounded; she’s also one of the only other black characters on the show. In the show’s second season, Wallace strikes up a romance with Jackie, played by Tessa Thompson (“Creed”), after he takes a case for her. It might be cynical to say that the main thing the two have in common is melanin, if this weren’t always the story.
For instance, let’s examine “Felicity.” In the J.J. Abrams-produced drama, our curly-haired protagonist gets to have complicated relationships with two men: Ben (Scott Speedman), her former high school crush, and Noel (Scott Foley), a nerdy resident advisor who really likes Apple products. Although Elena (Tangi Miller) has a storied affair with an older, white professor (that largely takes place off camera), the majority of her relationships are romances with black characters introduced to give her something to do. There’s Blair (Shan Omar Huey), the unfaithful boyfriend she drops in the show’s first reason, and Tracy (Donald Faison), to whom she eventually becomes engaged.
5. Are they the only black character in the entire movie? If there are other black characters, do they talk to each other?
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Bechdel Test, a handy rule of thumb when looking at women’s representation in film. There are three rules: 1) Does the movie have two or more female characters who have names? 2) Do they talk to each other? 3) Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? The Bechdel Test’s popularity has spawned a number of spinoffs, including the Vito Russo Test (for LGBT characters) and the DuVernay Test (for characters of color). The latter was coined by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis. Based on the recent Sundance hit “The Birth of a Nation,” films that pass the test are those “in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories."
But what the Bechdel Test, first posited in the “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic series, powerfully points out is that female characters are rarely portrayed on screen with depth. When they are, they rarely interact. The same is true about movies with characters of color. Take the Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Starring Matt Damon, the movie casts actors of color in a number of key roles, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Michael Peña, and Benedict Wong, but their characters rarely exchange dialogue. The film isn’t about their relationships; they are there to spend $200 billion of taxpayer money to save a white guy from Mars.
Although there are exceptions to the rule (on TV, “New Girl” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” stand out), it’s still too rare for movies and television shows to have two people of color in key roles—especially black characters. A famous example is “Ghostbusters,” in which Ernie Hudson, the only black face in the group, also happens to be the castmember with the fewest lines. Television shows like “House” and “NCIS” both had room for exactly one black character in their recurring cast: Eric (Omar Epps) and Leon (Rocky Carroll), respectively. These characters allow producers and writers to check off the token minority box and leave it at that.
6. Are they a supporting character in their own story?
“The Help,” simply put, should not be about the person it’s actually about. Tate Taylor’s film takes place in the heart of the Jim Crow-era South, set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. This was a time when black people across America were staging sit-ins and marching for civil rights, but “The Help” does not detail their efforts. Instead, the protagonist is Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a budding journalist who interviews domestic servants about their experiences with racism. Skeeter seems like a nice girl, but the problem with “The Help” is that black people didn’t need white people to tell their stories. They were doing that just fine on their own.
“The Blind Side” has a similar issue. Based on the Michael Lewis book, its source material boasts dueling narratives: one about the development and history of the offensive line in football and the other about Michael Oher, a troubled youth who beats the odds to become a successful pro football player. John Lee Hancock’s film, however, shifts the book’s perspective. Sandra Bullock—in an Oscar-winning role—plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a straight-talking Southern mom who adopts Oher and saves him from a life of poverty. To illustrate her all-sacrificing love, Tuohy even takes on a gang of street toughs. What started out as a story about black success became a story about white benevolence.
Michael Oher deserved better, and so do audiences.