The Black Best Friend

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

It's one of those things only discussed in certain circles... just what is it with the Hollywood formula of "white woman lead + black woman best friend = gold!"? I've often wondered about it, and was reminded again after seeing The Nanny Diaries, featuring Scarlett Johannson as the lead, with Alicia Keys as the best friend who keeps her sane. It's a setup as old as the hills, but what's it about? Is it about diversity? Tokenism? Or is it just about finding the best actress for the role? There's no denying these women make the shows and movies better: When I first caught a glimpse of Alicia stepping off the subway, I immediately paid more attention, looking forward to her role, and Wanda Sykes' humor and talent are indispensable on The New Adventures of Old Christine. It follows, though, that women this talented should play more than supporting roles... but that's not what we see. What do you think? Does it bother you? Or is it just about assembling the best possible cast?

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I think the phenomenon of black actresses being relegated to best-friend roles is another example of the extraordinary lack of creativity, integrity, awareness and courage in television producers and writers. Apparently they are afraid that their audience will object to a black female lead, or else they feel they have hit upon a formula that works. Well audiences won't object, and the formula doesn't work.

I think television and movies have the potential to lead popular culture in examining issues honestly, but instead they more often pander to what they feel is the lowest common denominator. And not only do they pander badly, they pander to the wrong things. They are wrong about how audiences would feel about black heroines.

Sent by Karl Chwe | 3:56 PM | 9-17-2007

In the Joss Whedon show, Firefly, Gina Torres plays a strong, sexy second in command as Zoe. She is not relegated to a best friend role at all. Of course, you would not expect any less from Whedon.

However, considering the last part of the discussion regarding morality and the place of black characters, it occurs to me that both the character of Zoe and Shepard Book (Ron Glass) are the least morally ambiguous characters in the show. They are also shown as advice givers to the captain, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion).

An interesting topic for discussion. I am also intrigued by the upcoming movie with Jill Scott about several black couples staying at a Colorado cabin for a reunion (Tyler Perry's , Why Did I Get Married).

Sent by Jess | 4:17 PM | 9-17-2007

The "black friend" who provides moral authority or comic relief has long been a staple of movies and TV. Dave Chapelle in You've Got Mail and Victor Williams (Deacon) in King of Queens are two which readily come to mind. Will Smith having Harry Connick as the 'white best friend' in Independence Day was one of the only times that there was a reversal of these roles. Must an actor or actress be as big as Will Smith to get to be the lead?!?

Sent by Noelle from Atlanta | 7:53 PM | 9-17-2007

I think people are missing the upside to all of this - people of all colors are being portrayed as FRIENDS. People with good, close, meaningful friendships where race isn't an issue and it's not a "big deal".

Sent by Christine from Binghamton, NY | 9:29 AM | 9-18-2007

I found this discussion very interesting and right on target. However, I don't consider it "Talk of the Nation" when it was only given time for two callers. What's that about?

Sent by Autumn | 11:13 AM | 9-18-2007

In reference to the 1st caller in on this segment - It isn't a plus to be stereotyped in a "positive" light any more than it is to receive a stereotypically negative treatment. Both are an assumption of ethnocentric generalities. So for the caller to assert that being the "moral" or "spiritual" compass of a white character is a good thing is degrading. That simply plays into the Noble Savage, Uncle Tom caricature prevalent for the past 150 years or more.

Sent by Amanda H. | 1:41 PM | 9-18-2007

Take a broader look. How many black villains are there any more? Morgan Freeman has replaced George Burns as "God", twice. Will Smith. Whoopi Goldberg. Halle Barry. Eddie Murphy. Each plays lead roles in most of their movies.

Also, don't look for Hollywood to lead on any social issues. Advertising dollars are too key, which means that shows won't offend; which is precisely why so many "groundbreaking" shows are on cable, particularly premium cable.

Otherwise, whether it's Star Trek and the first interracial kiss or Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas playing single women, Hollywood is following, not leading, social trends and changes in mores.

Sent by Randy S | 10:29 AM | 9-19-2007

people of all colors are being portrayed as FRIENDS.

No, they are not. If this were the case in these films and TV programs that were being discussed, it would be a wonderful thing. But these programs do not depict friendships. Rather they tend to show a one-sided relationship where the BBF's only role is to support the main White character and deliver sassy (and often loud) comic one-liners. Otherwise she has very little (or no) life of her own, romantic adventures, family, etc and her "WBB" is rarely (or never) shown administering to her needs.

That is hardly progress but, as the second caller noted, merely Mammy-ism in a new guise.

Sent by Yvette | 10:42 AM | 9-19-2007