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Let’s “Fix” Racism in Movies and TV

From ‘Soul Man’ to ‘White Chicks,’ Steve Urkel to Tilda Swinton, three intrepid Ringer staffers try to determine how to bring some of Hollywood’s past sins up to 2016 standards

Ringer Illustration
Ringer Illustration

By Jason Concepcion and Allison P. Davis and Shea Serrano

This is a conversation about allowable racism in movies and television. “Allowable racism” is a term that we came up with (at least, I think we did). In this particular space and time, it means, “instances in which racism is exhibited but is not the exact point.”

A good nonexample would be any time Michael Scott did something or said something on The Office regarding race that was tone-deaf, because any time that happened it was the point. The same goes for any time that Archie Bunker said anything on All in the Family about anyone who wasn’t white. His racism was the point there, too. We’re not talking about those instances. We’re talking about the opposite of those times. Good examples include the times Steve Urkel dressed up like Bruce Lee and spoke with an “Asian” accent, or some of the Transformers speaking jive and then saying they don’t know how to read very well.

The goal of this conversation isn’t just to identify those instances, though, because that’s easy. The goal is to take the scenes (or movies), almost all of which mentioned here occurring between 1986 and 2006, and see if they can be shaped and future-fitted (or fixed) to work as viable pieces of nonoffensive pop culture today. So that’s what Jason, Allison, and I did. Or attempted to do. I’m sure we were at least a little bit accidentally racist during this process. Maybe someone will come along in a couple years and shape and future-fit (or fix) this conversation.

— Shea Serrano

Shea: A time period that’s interesting is that strange grayish area when the United States was beginning, at least in some forms, to try to figure out how to deal with race on television and in movies. I don’t mean the early shit, like in the ’50s when things were just very obviously racist, and racist on purpose. I mean around the mid-’80s, when movie producers were like, “OK, we’re going to still do blackface occasionally, but look how aware of it we are now,” like what they did with Soul Man in 1986. Do you remember Soul Man?

Allison: LOL. YES. You mean Rachel Dolezal’s handbook?

Jason: How could I forget Soul Man, Shea?

Shea: Fair. In Soul Man, a wealthy young white man pretends to be a young black man so he can get a scholarship to Harvard Law School because the thought of paying for it himself is more obscene than pretending to be another race. While attending HLS, he meets — and eventually falls in love with — a (single black mom) student named Sarah, and guess what. He finds out she was the one who would’ve gotten the scholarship had he not blackfaced his way into it.

By the end of the movie, he confesses to everyone that he’s white and then has a very profound sit-down with his (black) professor (James Earl Jones), during which his professor tells him that he has learned a great deal, that he has “learned what it feels like to be black.” The wealthy young white man considers the moment for a beat, then responds, “No, sir. I don’t really know what it feels like, sir,” and then he takes a very enlightened breath, and then he finishes, “If I didn’t like it, I could always get out.”

It’s incredible. This happened only 30 years ago; a whole bunch of people not only thought that it was OK as a major motion picture, but that it was meaningful. And let me mention that this is the movie’s least offensive scene. There’s one part where he sleeps with a white woman and she tells him afterward the she could “feel 400 years of oppression and anger in every pelvic thrust.” There’s another part where he goes to dinner with her at her family’s house and the mom, younger brother, and dad all take turns imagining him in different daydreams: in the first he’s holding a knife in his teeth while tribal music plays in the background, and in the last he’s dressed like a pimp eating watermelon.

But I don’t want to just pick apart all the little pieces of a little movie. I want to fix it. I want to change whatever it is we need to change so that it can be hypothetically released in a hypothetical movie theater this hypothetical Friday. How does that happen? How do we make Soul Man 2016 starring Zac Efron? Or is that a thing that can never even happen?

Allison: My first instinct is to (a) make sure the director/screenwriter is a person of color. Then I would (b) make it a Parent Trap–situation. The guy and the girl both go to Harvard, but decide they want to do a race swap — maybe it’s like a project they cook up for their Sociology final. They both learn about what it’s like to be the other race. It’s like a woke-ass Trading Places. And then they fall in love because of all the open, honest dialogue they have about race relations in America.

Shea: So the guy pretends to be black and the girl pretends to be white? That’s a great fix. I’m all for Black Zac Efron.

Jason: At the heart of Soul Man is a well-worn and universal storytelling device: What if the roles were reversed? The problem with race-role reversal in movies is, ironically, diagnosed perfectly at the end of Soul Man, in that scene you mentioned between Professor Banks and his blackface-wearing student, Mark — a white person can’t know what it’s like to be black because a white person in blackface is not a black person. Taken further, a white person trying to make a movie about a white person discovering what it’s like to be a black person will invariably be trash. Not because the idea isn’t, at its core, universal and theoretically interesting. Soul Man is trash because the people who made the movie, as Mark admits to the professor at the end of the movie, can’t possibly understand the black experience.

Shea: My favorite example of the role-reversal thing isn’t even strictly an example of it. It’s the movie Heart Condition, which is about a racist cop who has a heart transplant and is given the heart of a black lawyer he hates. But more: The lawyer’s ghost haunts the cop. More still: Denzel Washington plays the ghost lawyer. Anyway, sorry, please continue.

Jason: That’s why Soul Man is offensive. Because it’s an important question asked in a pointless and totally surface fashion. The movie’s big observations are things like, “Actually, all black people aren’t good at basketball,” and, “Many black men aren’t pimps,” and, “Blacks can be lawyers too.” Like, say what you want about that “400 years of oppression behind every pelvic thrust” line (spoken in a scene that is probably rape since the reasons for the woman’s consent aren’t true), but that was, like, the only time the movie hinted at a larger framework to American race relations.

I guess what I’m saying is you make Soul Man 2016 by making sure the creative team behind the movie isn’t just white folks whose big takeaway might tend to be “obvious racism is bad LOL.” Because there are some interesting topics lurking under all the brown makeup. Soul Man 2016 would have to be a movie about appropriation. What Mark is really doing when he takes those tanning pills is straight-up stealing. He’s stealing a scholarship, and potentially millions of dollars in future earnings, from a prospective black student. I think if you make Soul Man for today, you make the movie about that student.

That’s my pitch: A promising young high school student of color discovers that his/her full ride to Harvard got ripped by some wealthy white kid in blackface and the student’s ensuing mission to expose the con.

Shea: How’s this for a theory: If you take any movie where a white person does racially insensitive things toward a person of color and reverse the roles — make it so that the person of color is in whiteface, or whatever — then it instantly becomes OK. Is that bad?

Jason: Like anything, it depends. There’s a spectrum with Eddie Murphy’s classic SNL skit “White Like Me” and Dave Chappelle’s Clayton Bigsby (the black white supremacist) on one side and, like, White Chicks on the other. So, yeah, I guess it probably is bad.

Shea: Yeah, it felt wrong as soon as I said it. Let’s try to fix another one of those scenes.

Jason: My favorite type of racist moment in a movie is the one that you realize only much, much later is totally racist. An example: Three Days of the Condor. It’s about a New York City–based CIA analyst named Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) who’s on the run from the agency’s assassins after seeing something he shouldn’t have. I love spy movies in general, and movies from the ’70s, especially those set in New York, are among my favorites.

But most movies from the 1970s and ’80s that are set in cities have white flight and fear of black and Latino crime as at least part of the subtext. Escape From New York, another movie I love, is basically about middle-class white people fleeing the city and letting the criminals have it. Fort Apache, the Bronx equates the South Bronx to the Wild West, and the area’s residents to Native Americans. In Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman is in constant danger of getting mugged by his Puerto Rican neighbors across the street. National Lampoon’s Vacation has one of the most trope-packed racist scenes ever, set to a wailing rhythm and blues saxophone, when the Griswolds’ station wagon gets robbed in St. Louis as Clark and family are sitting in it!

Shea: Oh shit. I remember that.

Jason: The dude who distracts Clark by giving him directions to the highway is carrying a basketball. The guy who Clark asks for directions before the basketball guy is an obvious pimp. This movie got made and is considered a comedy classic.

Shea: In fairness, I think it was pretty clear that those were racist things at the time.

Jason: Anyway, Condor’s racist scene is slightly more subtle. Slightly. At one point, about an hour in, Turner needs to leave an apartment building, but he knows a sniper is waiting to take him out the second he steps out the door. Clearly, he needs human shields to walk between himself and the assassin. There are four teenagers loitering in the building’s lobby — two of whom are black. Turner walks up to the kids and goes, “Hey, I need someone to break into my car. Anyone here good with a coat hanger?” Then, directly to the black dude, Turner says, “You can’t tell me you never busted into a car before.” And offers him $5 to do the deed, which the kid happily takes!

Shea: That’s great. But so this particular scene is an easy fix, right? All we have do is either make it so that Redford says that to one of the nonblack kids, or make it so that Redford has some sort of slightly cagey backstory and so now the kid can respond back with something like, “Aren’t you the only one standing here that’s a criminal?”

Allison: Wow. That’s a bad one. What the hell, man? How did these movies get made? My fix is for the black kid to say something to the effect of, “I’m an engineering student at MIT, you racist. If you want me to provide a distraction, I will jerry-rig some sort of device that remotely breaks into the car and you may kindly sneak out. However, my time, intellect, and graciousness will cost your white ass $10,000.” Is that clunky dialogue?

Shea: I think you should write movies, Allison. I got one for you two to fix.

In the eighth season of Family Matters, Steve Urkel uses a machine to turn himself into Bruce Lee Urkel, which is exactly what it sounds like. He’s dressed like Bruce Lee, he’s wearing a wig, and, most egregious of all, he speaks with a thick “Asian” accent. This was actually the third time he appeared as Bruce Lee Urkel on the show. I happened across the clip several weeks ago, and what caught me about it was — OK, so I was a big Family Matters fan as a kid, right? And as soon as I found the clip, I remembered the episode instantly. But what I didn’t remember was feeling any sort of way about it being offensive back then. I probably thought it was really funny and clever at the time. Kids are idiots.

So how do we fix this one?

Jason: Hold up. Go back. This was the THIRD time?

Shea: Yeah. Third. He did it twice during Season 6, and one of those times he turned Carl Winslow into Bruce Lee, too.

Jason: YO. OK. Whew. I had to sit down after reading that. Well, thankfully, problematic depictions of Asians in movies and television are a thing of the past. Right, Tilda?

The obvious fix for the apparently numerous yellowface Family Matters scenes is simply to have Urkel daydream about being a martial artist but lose the wig and bad accent. I mean, it’s so easy it’s stupid.

Allison: Does it make it better if smooth Stefan Urkelle is the one in yellowface or nah? Kidding. There is only one way to correct those sins — Jason’s way. Let’s hope they remember that when it’s time to write the inevitable Family Matters reboot.

Shea: Agreed. It’s like how they played the gong sound when Long Duk Dong was onscreen in 16 Candles. Like, just don’t fucking do that and it’s fine.

Let me throw another one up into the sky, one that I have no idea how to fix beyond “delete it all.” In 1992, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were in a Christmas movie called To Grandmother’s House We Go. It’s about them ditching out on their house and trying to make it to their grandma, who lives several hours away. In one of the scenes, the girls exit a bus downtown. As they walk through the streets, they come across a black man playing Christmas carols on a saxophone for tips. They stop for a second, listen, dance. They see a guy walk by and drop a small amount of money into the sax player’s sax case, so they decide to do the same because they are nice, young girls, only except they don’t have any money, so instead … hold on … wait for it … wait because this is so wonderful … instead they … wait … a little longer … almost there … instead of tipping him in money, they each DROP A PIECE OF HALF-EATEN FRIED CHICKEN INTO THE CASE.

And it doesn’t stop there. The man looks down, asks if the girls really put chicken in the case, and one of them responds, “There’s still some meat on there.” The guy just goes, “… OK,” then shrugs and starts playing again.

I’m for-real not sure if the chicken thing is the most offensive part, or if the most offensive part is that the writers of the movie decided that his response to being tipped in chicken needed to be that he did a residue meat check, found it to be a sufficient amount, and just kept it moving. When we make the 2016 version of To Grandmother’s House We Go (starring Emma Roberts and Emma Watson), can we make enough changes here that this scene makes it into the movie?

Allison: Good lord. I watched hours of M-K&A movies as a little black child and missed all of this. What the heck was I internalizing? What sort of prejudice did Mary-Kate and Ashley spread to other children? Please don’t tell me Billboard Dad had anything as offensive.

My fix: Since this is a children’s movie with a moral (in this case, don’t run away?), there’s some space to make this a “teachable moment.” Perhaps the saxophone player could take a moment to explain to the young, impressionable children why it’s so offensive to throw some half-gnawed fried chicken into his saxophone case. He should make sure to define stereotypes and provide a clear explanation of how they can do better next time. It could be a nice, meaty (meatier than that damn chicken bone) monologue. Teach the children, you know?

Jason: Just have the girls tip in anything that doesn’t have racist overtones. How hard is that? They can use cash, change, a pinecone, crayons, whatever. This is easy to fix because there’s nothing really structural.

Shea: You fixed that shit so fast. Wow.

Jason: It reminds me of a scene from the end of Suicide Squad. In Suicide Squad, a band of superpowered criminals are forced into joining a government-sanctioned secret strike force. After they fulfill their mission, each member is allowed to make a request. Killer Croc, who’s basically a monstrous-looking dude with thick, scaly skin and sharp crocodile-like teeth, asks for BET in his cell. This scene, I think, is meant to reveal to the audience, in no uncertain terms, that Croc is black. But, aside from being reductive and racially coded in the dumbest possible way, who asks for just one channel? No one would do that.

Shea: A crocodile would do that, Jason.

Jason: If I were in prison, I’d be like, “Give me cable.” I want every channel!

Shea: Since you bring up Suicide Squad, a movie that’s just a couple of months old, let’s end on one thing related to that, and on one thing not related to that that we’ve not managed to talk about yet.

1. Will there ever be a point when things like this don’t happen in movies or on TV? Is that in the foreseeable future? Or is it just an impossible thing? Will there always be some cartoon rat on some cartoon network who’s obviously Mexican or black or Asian or whatever?

2. Earlier, the movie White Chicks came up, and we moved along right over the top of it like it isn’t objectively a very problematic movie. Is there some kind of buffer or barrier or safety cushion where it’s just like, “OK, white people, you all have dominated America for the entirety of America, so we’re just allowed to make fun of you all in movies or whatever and it’s fine”? Because part of me is like, “Yeah, of course it’s like that,” but also part of me is like, “Is this OK? It’s not OK, is it?” I don’t know.

Allison: To your first point: I think we’re at the “self-aware racially offensive” stage of movies or TV. It’s the Sausage Party defense: racial stereotypes that are so egregious they are “obviously there to make a point about racial stereotypes.” Unfortunately, the subtlety is lost on most audiences. I think we have a while before that stage ends. I think it will, just … maybe not before SETI figures out how to make contact with those aliens. To your second point: Until the first thing stops — casual racism for entertainment value — I’m sort of OK with making fun of white people in film and television. I know, I know: “teach by example,” “an eye for an eye,” but … White Chicks was pretty funny …

Jason: I agree with your answer to Question 1, APD, and share your lack of confidence in the abilities of audiences, especially large ones, to discern ironic offensiveness from the actual stuff. That line is always going to be lost on certain folks, and, even if you think you know where it is, you should check.

To the second question re: whether (not to put too fine a point on it, but) making fun of “white people,” is, speaking very broadly, “cool.”

I think there’s a respective theoretical point for every strain of thought and style of communication at which an idea or a joke or whatever ceases to be funny, cool, and instructive, and maybe becomes mean or hurtful or even dangerous. I can only hope to have enough empathy to feel those changes long before they happen. “Don’t be mean to people” is a simple rule, but a good one. That said, I don’t think we’re anywhhhhhhhhhheeeeere close to that point.

Shea: So we’re all in agreement: It’s open season on white people in movies and TV, right? (I’m joking. I think.) But I think it’s fair to sum this up with this thought: “We are not necessarily happy with the way things are, but we are happy with the direction that things are moving.” I can only hope that one day we will be so advanced as a people that a movie called The Mexican will star an actual Mexican.