This weekend will see the takeoff of Robert Zemeckis's new movie, Flight, which stars Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, and John Goodman. Washington plays a pretty conflicted character: Whip, a star pilot who also happens to be an alcoholic with a cocaine problem. He parties hard with one of his flight attendants before going up in the air one morning, and of course, shit gets unfortunately real with a crash landing. He's a hero for a minute, but that all changes wtih the investigation into the emergency landing.
It's a great performance from Washington, but, as with nearly all Hollywood products, it toes the line on negative racial stereotypes: in this case, the black substance abuser and absent father. In the name of Sydney Poitier, these challenging roles have got to be out there for people of color. But how do we determine if a movie is actually doing justice to its representation of members of a marginalized group? I'm going to share a few rules I've developed to help explain whether or not a character is more than just a stereotype. Feel free to add a few of your own in the comments section.
1. S/he's the only person of color in the movie. Points for Flight, since Whip is, in fact, not the only person of color in this story. Cheadle plays a lawyer, imperfect in his own way, who's out to save Whip. Whip's flight-attendant fellow-addict girlfriend is played by a Latina. His dad makes an appearance, as does his son and ex-wife. Whip's chemical dependencies are portrayed as one individual man's problem, not as a characteristic of being black. Phew.
2. S/he's the only person of color in the movie, and doesn't even have a speaking role. It is much easier to make the token (insert your nonspeaking actor here) a stereotype. The character isn't fleshed out, so their character trait tends to be what "sets them apart," usually a negative stereotype like hypermasculine butch lesbian or model minority Asian. It's a trap many a filmmakers/scriptwriters fall into. These actors can read lines, and might even have a Screen Actor's Guild Card. Don't leave them backstage!
3. Everyone in a group of marginalized folks is pretty much the same. So, for instance, except for that one black cop in the background during that one police-academy scene in End of Watch, every African-American actor in the movie is a gang member. Props to the filmmaker for making only people of color the criminals in the movie. Like, I think that takes effort, to arrest that many nonwhite folks and not arrest one white guy. Oh wait, never mind.
4. The stereotype is the punchline. The recent release Darling Companion has a magical gypsy who sees dreams. Modern Family has the unintelligibly thick-accented Columbian sex-bomb mom who has frequently referenced criminal and drug ties thanks to her ex-husband. If you're confused about what qualifies as an ethnic stereotype, let this clarify: Ethnically based "funny" accents are not funny. That includes you, Rob Schneider.
5. The film is directed by Michael Bay. If I ever have to see another "Transformers" movie...
6. The role was whitewashed. Ben Affleck probably shouldn't be playing Tony Mendez in Argo. Avatar: The Last Airbender was an atrocity in casting history. And 21 shouldn't have cast a slew of white actors for a story based on real-life Asian-American students at MIT. That's whitewashing, and it's been going on since the dawn of cinema. Just stop it already.
Bonus: What if a white character is a stereotype? There are more TV shows and movies led by white protagonists in a weekly basis than some marginalized groups have in a decade. You've got your pick: Ben and Kate, Girls, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls (which is awful on several levels), Pawn Stars, Cajun Pawn Stars... Interested in movies whose main character is a cynical, grizzled drunk? Plenty of others on the way, but as far as I know, Denzel Washington just played the last nonwhite grizzled drunk for the year. That's the problem when media and pop culture lacks equal representation. We get that one impression for months (possibly years)—and if it's a bad impression, then it's just discriminating business as usual.
That said, are you looking forward to Flight?
Previously: Problems with The Paperboy