The Minority Checkpoint: Always the Black Supporting Character, Never the Bride
Over the years different films and television series' have stuck out to me.
Watching Scandal as a young teenager and hearing Olivia Pope’s dad remind his black daughter she had to be 'twice as good, to get half of what [white people] have'. It might seem harsh and based in self-victimisation to some, but to the average black person in the western world, it’s a commonly spoken truth.
As a second generation Nigerian, working twice as hard has been a consistent part of my parent's pep talks for as long as I can remember. While my white counterparts were told to do their best, I was told to always be better than the rest. Interestingly enough, this piece is not about the psychological issues within the adult western black community stemming from the competitive mentality forced upon us at an early age. That is a conversation for another day. Instead, this is about fake representation; the minority checkpoint, if you will.
Though there are blessings like Scandal, with its ~ fairly ~ realistic representation of the mental pressure black parents emit on their children to protect them from a white privileged world; this is, of course, omitting the fact Olivia’s father was a secret government-controlling, murderer.
At the same time of this appreciation, I also began to notice when being black was a diversity checkpoint. Scrubs is one of my all-time favourite comedy shows, but this doesn’t negate that in Season 4 JD’s dating of a black girl was nothing but an interracial exclamation mark to emphasise the show’s modern diversity. Sadly, a common truth with this type of situation is that we knew the relationship would be short-lived simply because she was black – and the black girl’s don’t become main characters. More recently in Riverdale, in Season 1 Archie began to date one of the ethnically ambiguous but most likely black background characters. He cheated on her, and two seasons later it was like she never existed. A very cute plot point, piquing the black interest, but nothing more than a minority checkpoint.
This is why Shondaland is my favourite fictional playground. Grey’s Anatomy can pretend it’s about a white woman, but it is the BAME actors and actresses which are carrying the show. They have weighty storylines, complicated characters and most importantly are not there to further the white character’s story as some type of ‘Magical Negro’.
Do not be fooled! A black character having a ‘personality’ does not mean this isn’t false representation. In the New Normal, NeNe Leakes' character was to be the sassy black best friend… for 22 episodes. That is a long time to go without a fully developed character. She had all the AAVE (African-American Vernacular English), to make the character humorous but none of the good writing to make the character more than a minority checkpoint. It’s worth noting Token Black from South Park, whose entire existence is a mockery of tokenistic black characters, has dealt with more complicated social issues and enjoyed more character development than shows I see actually professing to do just that. From a film perspective, I to this day could not make a viable argument for Nicki Minaj’s character’s existence in The Other Woman, other than to be ‘black’ next to Cameron Diaz.
One of the issues with the diversification of white spaces is the pointless existence of a single representative body, which is held up as proof of modernisation. We ask to see ourselves and they give us one dimensional, unmemorable storyline blips. That said, it’s important not to dwell completely on the missed marks. As creatives come and go, there are always gems which do hit the positive representation mark correctly. So this week have a look at some of my favourite black girl led films:
1. Hidden Figures (2017) – This movie is one of those ‘I wish I had this when I was a kid’. Black women being smart, progressive and showing white men up. Need I say more? It’s an inspiring, moving film which really brings to life the fact that black girls are magic
2. Girls Trip (2017) – The black girl’s answer to Bridesmaids.
3. The Color Purple (1985) – This film dealt with so many controversial topics within the black community – many of which are still taboo today – but over 30 years ago. It’s Whoopi Goldberg in her debut performance, and it’s beautiful.
4. Cinderella (1997) – My dad describes this as his favourite movie from my childhood solely because of the casting. In an explicable context, we have a black Cinderella, one white step sister, one black stepsister, one white (ginger) stepmother, a black fairy Godmother, an Asian prince charming with a black mother queen, and a white father King. It’s wonderfully ridiculous.