Gabrielle Union. Wanda Sykes. Stacey Dash.
What do these three actresses have in common? They've all played roles that fit into the black best friend archetype, otherwise known as BBFs. These characters exist to comfort the white heroine when she's down, to egg her on when she needs motivating or to tell her off when she loses integrity. Sometimes, though, these characters aren't black, but other women of color. Think Keiko Agena's character Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls or Mindy Kaling's character Shira in the new film No Strings Attached.
So, what's the problem with these characters? For one, they perpetuate old racial stereotypes. They amount to sort of updated mammies. They may not be maids, cooks or other domestics, but they function first and foremost to be caretakers to the white leads.
As Los Angeles Times writer Greg Baxton explained in a 2007 article called "Black Best Friend—Buddy System":
They live or work with their friend but are not really around all that much except for well-timed moments when the heroine needs an eating companion or is in crisis. BBFs basically have very little going on, so they are largely available for such moments.
But the problem with these friends of color roles isn't just their stereotypical nature, but that their persistence means that studios are unwilling to bet on someone such as Mindy Kaling to perform in a leading role. Kaling, for example, has worked as an actress, writer, producer and director and has a cult following, thanks to her contributions to The Office. She may not be as bankable as Natalie Portman, the female lead in No Strings Attached, but no actress of color will be bankable until studios make the leap and transition such women out of supporting roles and into lead roles.
In a Los Angeles Times article published two years after "Black Best Friend—Buddy System," Rutina Wesley of True Blood is praised for evading the BBF role. She counts herself fortunate for being an actress of color who landed a multidimensional role. Even Wesley faces limitations, though.
When asked the kind of role she'd like to play in the future, Wesley replied, "I would love to do something like Notting Hill. That's my favorite movie. I want to do parts that are outside of the box."
Unless studios transform their casting practices, however, there's little chance Wesley or any other minority actress will end up in a mainstream romantic comedy as a lead.