Sometimes talking about diversity in media seems like a really bad game of “spot the minority.” Countless TV shows and movies have had just one visible person of color in their casts, if at all, and we’ve currently reached the point where a number of movies have one white woman and one Black man and are content to call that “diversity.” Whatever little progress we’ve made, it’s become clear that even if we include people of color in our stories, we’re still not dedicating ourselves to telling their stories.
If there’s a token minority in a story, it used to be that they were the villain or helpful sidekick; nowadays it’s more likely that they are the leaders of the group. At first glance, that sounds like a good thing—showing that people of color can be competent in places of authority can only be good, right? Maybe so, but we inevitably see a large number of Black leaders, not Asian or Middle Eastern or Latinx leaders, and, again inevitably, these Black leaders are often the only Black characters or characters of color in the story at all. This phenomenon ties into a number of tropes and poor writing choices that highlight the insidious problem of having your single solitary Black man or woman be the boss or leader for your ultimately white protagonists.
We used to be surrounded by stories of the Magical Negro trope—white protagonists with Black characters who give them advice or teach them before dying or just fading away into the ether. (Think Morgan Freeman in most of his movies.) We still have this trope, but we’ve seemed to move on to tropes like the Black Leader Guy and Black Boss Lady. These characters are less overtly magical and fulfill the authority figure role in a story. Theoretically, I could see why a writer might want to do this—it’s the ultimate “I’m not a racist” move because it places a Black character as the leader, thus showing that Black people are both capable of leading and of doing a good job at it.
But in a more practical sense, the trope of the Black leader ties into pre-existing negative stereotypes about Black people. Leaders are supposed to be authoritative, in control, and in media, are sometimes determined to the point of asserting violence as a means to solve a problem. Black men are already viewed as hypermasculine in their performance of masculinity, and Black women, similarly, are often viewed as strong enough to not need protectors or love interests. Making the sole Black character the leader follows these stereotypes almost exactly—if we really wanted to see people of color as leaders, why haven’t we seen any Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latinx leaders? It could be that for writers looking to inject some diversity into their stories, the Black character as the leader is the only role that makes sense to them, much like the way the “techy sidekick” role is an “Asian” role to those who haven’t thought about it.
Now, I’m not saying that having Black leaders is a bad thing. Showing that Black people can be capable leaders is only good. But this doesn’t show the full range of the Black experience. When a Black leader is your sole source of Black representation in your story, it is lazy representation. Tropes aside, when writing a story, only some characters get character development, and those characters are the protagonists. Any other characters, like the sidekicks, the family members, and the bosses, are what are known as “static” characters—these characters don’t grow because they don’t need to. So the protagonist gets a character arc in which we can see their personal life story, their emotional growth, their struggles, and their agency; other characters don’t get this sort of illustration.
We’ve had a number of pop culture movies that show that this trope is alive and well. The recently released Arrival features a predominantly white cast; its one Black character of note is Colonel Weber, who recruits both Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and then alternates between giving them orders and/or learning stuff from them for the rest of the movie. The even more recently released Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also features one Black character of note—Seraphina Picquery, the head of MACUSA. Similar to Colonel Weber, she exists to hold our four main white characters to an authoritarian standard and not much more than that. Finally, we have the Avengers franchise, which at first was a team of white people with Nick Fury, a Black man, in command. (Marvel, at least, is making minor strides in this regard: Rhodey and Sam Wilson were visible Black sidekicks to Iron Man and Captain America, but Black Panther, which will finally star a Black protagonist, will be out in 2018.)
In all of these movies, the Black leader was one of the only people of color, and all of the leaders fit snugly into their tropes. Colonel Weber is a hardass who yells at his team for faster results, Seraphina Picquery is so concerned with solving a mystery that she misses the main plot when the protagonists arrive at her office, and Nick Fury mostly exists to be an extremely hypermasculine Black guy with a gun and an amazing jacket.
These characters are Black representation, but they’re still indicative of tokenism in a way. When we look at the other characters in these franchises, we can clearly see that our Black characters are the static ones in their stories. Arrival’s Louisa Banks gets to decipher an alien language, come to terms with her future, find love, and save the world. Fantastic Beasts’s four white protagonists get to catch a lot of magical creatures, find love, and save New York. The Avengers all get several movies dedicated to their own character arcs, with Steve Rogers and Tony Stark notably swapping the roles of big government shill and individualistic soldier over the course of several movies. Through it all, our Black leaders are in the background, making appearances when the white protagonists either need support for their actions or an obstacle to overcome. There’s no need for them to ever have any character development, because they are not the heroes of their own stories, and Hollywood can check off their diversity boxes without having to put much or any thought into it.
But Black leaders can certainly be great characters if they’re ever allowed the room to be more than static characters. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Raymond Holt is a fantastic example of this. He’s the captain of the Nine-Nine, and white protagonist Jake Peralta is his protege. However, Jake doesn’t get all the character beats of the story. We learn about Holt’s past and his struggles with being discriminated against as a Black man and as a gay man; we get to meet his husband and discover Holt’s fears and insecurities. In short, he’s allowed to be a fully-realized character. And it’s not just TV shows that have the room to do this—2013’s Pacific Rim also did a great job with its Black leader, Stacker Pentecost. We also learn about Pentecost’s past and his personal life, and his relationship with adopted daughter Mako Mori is the emotional through-line of the whole film. Neither Holt nor Pentecost were reduced to being the static characters in an inevitably white male protagonist’s story.
We keep having conversations about diversity, and through the years we’ve seen more and more characters of color on our screen, which has generally been a good thing. However, I think it’s equally as necessary to think about what kind of representation we’re getting, and how to hold our writers to higher standards. Having one Black character is better than having no Black characters, but having the one Black character be an underdeveloped trope is no good. The easiest way to fix this would just be to have more characters of color—why not (shockingly enough) have more than one Black character, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine does with its Captain Holt and Terry Jeffords? Or why not make your Black character the protagonist—The Force Awakens’s Finn comes to mind—thereby ensuring that they will have a character arc? There are many ways we can go about showcasing the full range of Black stories and experiences, but the first thing we have to do is stop patting ourselves on the back for having one static Black leader and leaving it at that.
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This is a trope that’s been around for a while but not seen too much til now. It used to be a staple of the Buddy cop movies of the 80s, and was famously parodied in the movie Loaded Weapon, where the Captain of the precinct is a raging incoherent yeller.
Yeah, I’ve noticed this trope too and getting more than a little tired of it. It’s just an excuse not to give PoC any more character beyond being in charge of things, sometimes in opposition to the white protagonist.
For the record, Brooklyn 99 is my all time favorite show. This show gets it right. I’d love if it had more black women in it but the WoC representation that it does have is excellent.
Thanks very much for taking the time to describe this. I’ll keep a closer eye out for it from now on.
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