Always the friend, never the lead

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[Written by Stefanie Reynolds]

[Image by Aike Jansen – Online Photo Editor]

I love film. I love experiencing film at the cinema, at a friend’s house on a wide screen TV or just on my own, in my bedroom, through my laptop. I enjoy most genres; comedy or romantic being my favourite. I go weak in the knees for a beautifully, romantic love story! However, despite this, there is one (huge!) sacrifice I have to make whenever I give myself over to film for an hour or two – I probably won’t see myself. Under representation is a problem in film, but worse still is the token black character. My non-black friends have often been quick to remind me of many films with black actors, and have even eagerly pursued to put them on in my presence.

“See! Look! Dionne, Cher’s best friend in Clueless!” Oh yeah. Dionne represented a new kind of black girl on film. She was rich, fashionable and strong. She repeatedly reminded her boyfriend not to call her woman! We all loved Dionne, she wasn’t there to represent an entire race of existence, and she had shallow problems just like her best friend. But I press my friends further. Who else? What else? As they throw more titles at me, “Save the Last Dance”, “Coyote Ugly”, “She’s all That”, “10 Things I Hate About You”, I notice that though all great films, they all seem to have one similar theme. The protagonist is a white female with some kind of issue. They feel like an outsider, as though they don’t belong. They have a black female friend, sometimes sassy, often blunt and repeatedly rolling their eyes. It’s cliché and it’s embarrassing. My friends are confused. And this worries me. This is a stereotype that continues to be stretched, and I am sick of it.

Ironically, She’s all That and 10 Things I Hate About You both follow a white protagonist who feels like she doesn’t fit in. She isn’t considered traditionally attractive – she’s alternative. Funny, because if they felt like an outsider in 1991, the year it was released, I can’t imagine how a black woman felt in 1991. I allow myself to wonder just how many more layers those films may have added had they starred black women as their protagonist, who felt overlooked and unattractive, an outsider, suddenly appearing beautiful and accepted by their white male counterparts. Alas, those films were not made for such ground breaking, socially accurate periods! Instead they were made for the relatable white girl who felt a little uncool but eventually, by the end of the film, did feel a bit cool.

But Stef, that was 1991! Times have changed. And so I continue on, exploring my love for film. Juno, Frances Ha, Easy A, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Edge of Seventeen, more films of young women finding themselves, learning to love themselves and their quirkiness. I allow myself to wonder, again, how black women feel. How they find themselves, learn to love themselves and their quirkiness when they are clearly not on film unless as the supporting friend, offering advice, snapping their fingers, rolling their eyes. It’s humiliating. Sometimes I think I would prefer the presence of no black person at all, than for their clichéd stereotype. But I only think this for a moment before giving up on the thought completely. If I need my fix of positive black women in film, then maybe I should turn to all black led cast instead. The Friday Chronicles is one of mine and my older brother’s favourite films. It’s hilarious. Chris Tucker and Mike Epp both do superb jobs at playing the comedic supporting role to the protagonist Ice Cube. And we love our protagonist and are with him every step of the way. And yet unfortunately the only presence we see from black women are either aggressive ex-girlfriends or sexy muted love interests.

Allow me to skip forward, mainly due to my tight word count I have been given, to 2013. Critically acclaimed 12 Years a Slave, Selma 2014, Beasts of No Nation 2015, Moonlight 2016 and Get Out 2017 are all fantastic films – however they are all about being black as opposed to simply being. And whilst I can recognise the importance of these films, I still wait, because black people have more to say and offer than our history and our race. Then, finally, the most talked about, epic superhero film of them all: Black Panther. It was an invigorating, proud, overdue moment. Black Panther was a success for many and an exciting time for Marvel fans.

But it still stands that being a woman of colour is often disappointing and exasperating when turning to film for escapism and romance. Being unable to see oneself through a positive, enriching character with flaws and aspirations is detrimental for one’s self-esteem, at the very least. And finally, as exciting as Hidden Figures was, I wait patiently for the fictional positive, black female lead in film.




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5 years ago

Well written! Solid points there, let’s hope Idris gets that James Bond role too. Wakanda forever