Friday, May 8, 2009

spice up blandly white entertainment with humorous characters of color

I've written before about how a lot of white entertainment (that which appeals to largely white audiences by centering on white characters) uses minor black characters. I wrote in that post about how those minor characters are often there solely to help the central characters, and the audience, get in touch with their emotional and/or spiritual sides.

But I haven't written yet about another way such characters add spice to blandly white entertainment--as comic relief. These characters tend to appear as humorous, racially distinct sidekicks.

Although Disney's Mulan is not technically a "white" movie in this sense (since the central character is Chinese), the character voiced by Eddie Murphy--a tiny dragon named Mushu--nevertheless fulfills this kind of comic, racially marked function. I remember wondering when I saw this movie back in the day, "Why the hell did they insert this markedly black American character into a movie about ancient China?"

Mulan was released in 1998, and we might hope that movies are better now--that entertainment made for kids offer less of this "whites at the center and darker folks pulled in from the margins when we need some laughs" kind of thing.

But alas--it looks like another dose of (white) "family entertainment" that's coming down the pike takes this thing to a whole new level of crass stupidity.

In Tommy and the Cool Mule, a whole bunch of white folks get their hijinks going, all with the help of a mule that's "cool" because it talks like a stereotypically "black" man.

Tommy and the Cool Mule looks so terrible that I have trouble believing it's real. But the Internet Movie Database says it is, and that it's set for release on May 26. The following trailer says that the mule's voice is provided by . . . Ice-T?!

What do you think--Is this movie another nasty case of Magical Negroism? And does this look like a movie that you'll soon be enjoying with some young ones?


  1. I also have a hard time believing that the 'cool mule' movie is true. It seems like a spoof of the kind of racist Disney crap in the first cartoon.

  2. Here's the dilemma that I believe a lot of black folks might have with a movie like this or others like it. The very obvious stereotypical way that the make use of black people and black American culture, why was there scratching in the background? Versus the fact that at least Ice-T has a job. There are tons of movies that I just will not see because of the horrible stereotypes that are featured in the freakin commercials, Dance Movie anyone. However, many say, if we support the bad films then those same producers might be a little bit more inclined to give money to the "good" ones.

    This is a philosophical argument because in no way in hell would I see or take young impressionable children to see that crap. Beyond the jive talking donkey, oh excuse me, mule, the acting is unbearable. Oh Kevin Sorbo, why?

  3. I could be wrong like, but it seems to me that the "cool mule" thing is actually meant to be a satire of the very thing you are describing in this post.

  4. I hope you're right, Corsican153. But Christian Cinema Dot Com doesn't see it that way:

    Sometimes we all need a little help to believe in ourselves. This comical movie about a young boy and his talking mule will undoubtedly make you laugh. It brought back memories of another talking mule in the movies I saw when I was a kid. Jackie A. just wants to help Tommy with some of his problems, especially dealing with the bullies from school, and Tommy just wants to help his family. Together the two unconventional pair show everyone that anything is possible.|

    This is a cute and comical movie for the entire family. Dove awards this movie our Dove "Family-Approved" Seal.

    Sounds like traightforward family fun! Despite this list of troublespots, also provided by Christian Cinema Dot Com:

    Sex: Sexiest comments about being a woman; teenage couple kiss.

    Language: Jackass used to describe animal; Jesus used in reference to the person, Dang-1; Butt-1; Booty used as description; "Shut-up"-3, O my Gosh-2; "Thank God"-1

    Violence: Sounds of war; bullying; boys shooting younger boys with paint guns.

    Drugs: None

    Nudity: Women in tank tops, woman in Sun dress; cleavage.

    Other: Loss of a parent in war, a man trying to con a woman out of property; mule flatulence.

    I guess Jackie A.'s flatulence is okay because he politely excuses himself?

  5. A little research about the film leads to some clarity. I think it's real, but I don't know the actors are entirely proud. Kevin Sorbo's website references it, but Siri Baruc's does not. It's just a very strange cast as Sorbo does a lot of these cheesy movies these days, and Baruc is also a Reiki practitioner. I don't know if that means anything or not.

  6. The Little Fetus That CouldMay 8, 2009 at 12:51 PM

    How 'bout the "Latino" penguins in Happy Feet?

  7. That cool mule looks terrible and I agree about Mulan even though the main character herself is sorta cool.

  8. This is a good one to point out, especially because it "feels" to me like something we should be past, but it's still so prevalent, especially in animated movies.

    Another good example--this one an explicitly racial one--is the black sidekick character in The Incredibles. At one point in time, that character says something to his wife like, "Where's my costume at, woman?" I remember flipping out at that--other than just how stereotypical it is, they would NEVER have let a white character say something that harsh to his wife, or call his wife "woman."

  9. On the other hand, who'd watch blandly white entertainment without humorous characters of color. On one hand, I despise the stereotypical, "side kick" nature of the portrayal of black people and blackness in these movies. I definitely do. I wish more white comedies were like "Accepted" which had a request black cast member, but he wasn't a source of humor. You know? So, don't get me wrong, I definitely take umbrage at this stuff.

    On the other hand, I probably wouldn't have watched "Monster-in-Law" the one and only time I've watched it completely through if it weren't Wanna Sykes.

    And what's Shrek without Donkey but a movie with a bunch of ugly shreks?

    Yeah. White comedians/entertainers/movie producers need to be more creative.

  10. no1skate,
    I think it's a bit different if the "sidekick" is already known as a comedian rather than a poc acting comedically.

    The Little Fetus That Could,
    Good point about those pegiuns. Moreover, they were voiced by Robbin Williams

  11. Roxie - I think it's worse. At least some random poc is trying to break into the bizz. The reason for hiring someone well known as a side-kick . . . I've seen lots of movies with A-list white leads and A-list poc sidekicks. I haven't seen the reverse. It's usually an A-list black lead with some b/c/d-list white sidekick.

    Compare monster-in-law to daddy day care. Or something like that.

  12. no1kstate said...
    On the other hand, who'd watch blandly white entertainment without humorous characters of color.
    or how about making the entertainment not bland in the first place by writing good characters who are funny regardless of their race. or better yet, characters who are interesting in their own right as people rather than their race (or rather a stereotypical representation of it) being the only characteristic they're given?

    i know this is probably ridiculously idealistic, but one can always hope...

  13. I hate to say it, because I totally agree with the post in general, but in fact the anachronistic slang-spouting dragon voiced by a popular black comedian (Eddie Murphy) in Mulan was simply an attempt by Disney to recreate the box-office magic of the anachronistic slang-spouting genie voiced by a popular white comedian (Robin Williams) in Aladdin. A cold, commercial decision, no more, no less.

    Unfortunately, it kick-started a wave of Funny Negro Sidekicks in animation that has lasted all the way up to today. Got a movie about an ogre with a terrible Scottish accent? Give him a funny sidekick who just happens to be black. I hear Eddie Murphy was pretty good for Mulan, let's see if he's available.

    A movie about a penguin who dances his heart out? Yeah, that penguin needs both a funny bunch of Latino sidekicks AND a Magical Negro sidekick.

    White superhero family? Give them a funny black best friend. (Although I have to say, I think Frozone was more of an homage/parody of the limited roles available for black superheroes during the Silver Age of Comics, every other aspect of which was also parodied in the Incredibles, so I think there is some artistic integrity behind that one).

    How about Transformers - these guys are a bunch of robots without much of a visible personality, so why not make one of them a black guy who uses "urban" slang. A hip-hop loving black robot who worries about his paint job, shoot me now please. Oh, and guess which robot dies at the end of the movie?

    And then we have Madagascar. What can I say about this one? Madagascar is, in my opinion, one of the worst offenders in modern kids' movies. A movie about zoo animals going to Africa? Great concept, let's make the true hero of the movie, the lion, be a white guy we can all identify with, and he can have THREE sidekicks - a funny, wise-talking zebra (black), a hypochondriac, cowardly Jewish giraffe, and a hippo who is really a BBB woman who can say "OH NO YOU DI'NT!" And when the Americanized heroes get to Africa and meet the real Africans, let's make them completely and irredeemably stupid, superstitious, primitive black people who do nothing but dance all day long, throw around words like "sissy" and dress up in drag - that's always funny stuff. And let's let our American heroes save the primitive Africans from the badguys in the end, just in case all the other racist touches were a little too subtle.

    Every single person acting in Madagascar is talented and funny, but the whole movie is like a textbook on racism in cinema. Likewise, the Shrek movies, the Incredibles and Happy Feet are all good movies that carry nurturing, empowering messages - as long as you aren't one of the minorities that get used as funny sidekicks for the white action heroes.

    (And yes, I realise that Ben Stiller is also Jewish, but he's not playing a Jewish stereotype, he's playing Anglo Hero.)

    Slightly off topic, I read a book the other day that completely subverted most of the tropes of the fantasy genre, including the "POC as funny sidekick". It's Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I refuse to spoil the plot, but if you have kids in elementary that need some minority role models in their fantasy fiction, or if you just wish Harry Potter wasn't such a wishy-washy little ass who had the entire world handed to him in a prophecy, Un Lun Dun is the antidote.

  14. black people spice up blandly black entertainment with humorous white people.

    happens all around.

    Tyler Perry sells to white people. That's what made it a hit.

    It's not about race, it's about mediocrity.


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