Very recently, the trailer for the new Ghostbusters reboot has been making the rounds and garnering a number of negative responses. In fact, according to Entertainment Weekly, it is the “most disliked movie trailer in Youtube history." Now, there are a number of reasons why this could be the case, from the general opposition to a reboot to some level of misogynist responses that refuse to acknowledge females as heroes in roles traditionally limited to males. Personally, I just didn’t find the trailer funny, which despite its horror elements, the original Ghostbusters movie was incredibly funny.
However, the reason I dislike what I’ve seen of the film so far, comes specifically from this line in the trailer: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but I know New York, and I can borrow a car from my uncle.” For the purpose of this discussion, I’d like to focus on the first half of that statement: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but . . .”
I would classify Ghostbusters in the science fiction & fantasy genre of film. For that reason, I took a look at the best 25 science fiction films according to Indie Wire. While I won’t recount the entire list, they include such venerable entries as Children of Men to Solaris and Sunshine. I’ve previously discussed the fact that black Americans rarely make up the leads, and that still holds true. Casts are still top heavy with white actors, with blacks almost never in the role of the lead protagonist (except when the Will Smith rule is in play) and typically relegated to a supporting role, at best (Billy Dee Williams, as cool as he is as Lando Calrissian, still falls outside the lead trio of Luke, Han, and Leia).
Things have improved, with John Boyega’s portrayal as Finn a recent example of a black actor in a lead role in the area of science fiction. Still, black actors continue to find it difficult to break into particular genres of film, science fiction being one of those. When they do, they are rarely the lead, and are constrained by tropes that demand certain ethnicities dominate certain roles.
A rare portrayal of a black actor as a lead in science fiction.
So what role does Leslie Jones, the black actress portraying ghostbuster Patty Tolan, fill in this film? The role of Patty Tolan is of the street-wise, sassy member of the group with an edge the rest, while funny, just don’t have. Now, Jones has previously defended her portrayal and, actually, so do I. I would never argue that this role isn’t one that black actresses should fill, because they exist. Hell, Xosha Roquemore, who plays nurse Tamra on The Mindy Project, communicates herself through social media to be at least as flippant and colloquial in her speech as her counterpart on the show.
These people exist. There’s nothing wrong with portraying them. That’s not the root of the problem.
The larger problem in Hollywood comes back to that line: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but . . .” In film and television, the sassy black woman is so persistently portrayed that there is an entire page dedicated to it on TV Tropes. Again, the trope isn’t the problem, and there are both good and bad versions of the portrayal. The character of Patty Tolan may very well turn out to be a good version of the sassy black woman, rather than a portrayal that skirts at exploitation. Bad versions of the sassy black woman reduce her to just being sassy rather than a complex character,
However, the stereotype of the sassy black woman is abundant to the degree that it infringes on the ability for black women to play roles as anything but sassy. This has been addressed by black actresses who have spoken on the issue and recalled times they went into casting calls, only to be told they needed to be “sassier.”
Willona Wods is the Trope Codifier of “The Sassy Black Woman.”
Why is it that Leslie Jones plays the role of the street-wise character, and not the role of the lead engineer or the quantum physicist? Why is it that the character of Patty Tolan is an addition to the team, rather than one of its founders? This has partly to do with the limited roles available to black actors and actresses across the board, but also has something to do with the writing process.
I’ve spoken before on my own intentions when writing my series to portray a black female in the lead of a science fiction novel, as well as some of the negative responses I received from readers when they made the connection she was black. This is similar to the response that the original Hunger Games film received, when Rue died. There were actually audience members who said they couldn’t sympathize because they found out she was black.
Black actors and actresses continue to be told to “act blacker,” an infuriating phrase for countless individuals across the country. They continue to find themselves pushed away from lead roles and into sidekick, peripheral, or secondary roles. Often, these roles are contoured by society, and require a certain amount of “acting black” in order to succeed. What results is a toxic environment in which the character of Patty Tolan was written, and is why we have that line: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff, but . . .”
I want to see intelligent, black female scientists who conceives the Ghostbusters. I want to see the black lead of a new Star Wars style blockbuster series. I want to see diverse portrayals of black culture and society on the screen because, for many of us living in diverse communities, we get to interact with those every day. We get to interact with scientists, doctors, lawyers, insurance agents, artists, and professors who just happen to be black.
So why aren’t there more of those roles available in both film and television?
(Although the following video has to deal with the Indian American experience, it does relate to the pressure that POC experience in casting and Hollywood, and shows both sides of acting to stereotype: those who do it and those who can afford to say not to.)