Racial Crossfit: Movies Edition

As I prepare myself for my seventh, yes, seventh, viewing of “Incredibles 2” with my daughter, I was inspired to have a new movie-themed racial crossfit! Lucky for you, the assignment is not to watch “Incredibles 2” seven times without going crazy. And for you high school English and social studies teachers, this is an assignment you can do right along with your students!

Instead, I invite you to join me in experiencing the current renaissance in Black cinema. Over the last few years, Black writers and directors have created masterpieces that speak on the Black experience.

While many of them have been considered successful by Hollywood standards, the truly amazing part for Black cinephiles is that the current films show the diversity and range of Black characters, Black experiences and interactions between White and Black characters. This contrasts with the usual stereotypes of Black people in art and literature, which author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes in her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

So with great enthusiasm to discuss a movie that doesn’t include Elastigirl or Jack-Jack, I present to you Racial Crossfit: The Movies Edition!!!

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As is well known, Hollywood has a super-racist history of making Black people play certain stereotypical roles. From the making of D.W. Griffith’s infamous early White supremacist film, “The Birth of a Nation,” Hollywood has relied on stereotypes to define Black existence and exacerbate White people’s fears of people of African descent.

Even today, the same stereotypes limit our understanding of Black people to a handful of narrow categories: dangerous, ignorant, funny, cool or magical. My fantastic church, Trinity United Church of Christ, created a historical, academic, fun guide for the movie “Black Panther,” which identifies the most common stereotypes:

  • Buck: The wild, sexually dangerous, but desirable Black man who must be controlled by White society.
  • Coon: A male or female character written into the plot for comic relief, this character is a buffoon, intellectually foolish and inept, but at times, street smart. The Coon reinforces the stereotype of Black intellectual inferiority.
  • Uncle Tom: This character supports the system and seeks to advance the needs of White characters.
  • Magical Negro: This image appears as a street mystic designed to enlighten and help white characters discover their true selves. Uncle Toms and Magical Negroes are closely tied together in cinema.
  • Mammy: Usually a loud, sassy Black woman who is never seen in a romantic light, but is a fierce, fussy, strong character, many times played by a dark-skinned African-American woman designed to keep order and also offer comic relief.
  • Tragic Mulatto: Usually a light-skinned African-American woman who is the sexual or romantic interest of the film. White writers tend to use lighter skinned African-American characters who are always in danger and need a man to save them.

Part One

Your first assignment is to list all the movies you’ve seen featuring Black actors that were on screen prior to 2015, and identify racist tropes in each. You earn two points for each movie you list and each racist trope you spot in it.

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Part Two

Watch three of the following films and write a racial crossfit analysis of each one you see. “BlacKkKlansman” is mandatory. Each movie is worth 10 points, except “BlacKkKlansman,” which is worth 25 points because you can see it in theaters now!

Analysis Questions (each is worth 10 points):

  1. Do any of the movie’s characters portray stereotypical Black roles? If so, who and why?
  2. Describe the movie’s point of view about Black liberation and discuss whether it differs from earlier Black films and their perspective on Black liberation.
  3. Are Black people taking new roles in these films, or characters that have been traditionally been played by White actors?
  4. What is the film’s point of view about White people?
  5. What role, if any, do White people play in this movie?

Part Three

Describe your personal views on the difference between these recent movies produced and directed by Black people versus earlier movies about Black life written and directed by White people. (20 pts.)

I look forward to grading your amazing summer racial crossfit assignments! Also, prayers and/or positive energy for me as I go off to watch “Incredibles 2,” AGAIN… parenting is hard.

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ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now. Find her on Twitter at @S_KnottDawson.