Blind Casting: A Black Man’s Take on the Bechdel Test

Christian Coleman takes a look at how black men are portrayed in some of the movies he’s watched recently.

A 1985 comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For (DTWOF) written by Allison Bechdel introduced a standard for gauging female roles in movies. The test is called the Bechdel Test, the Mo Movie Measure or the Bechdel rule. Whatever you call it, the criteria are the same. A movie must 1) Have two women (some stricter folks require they have names) 2) who talk to each other 3) not about a man.

It’s staggering to realize which movies fail miserably without our ever noticing. If you don’t believe me, go to The Bechdel Test website and see for yourself. Movies like Captain America (2011) and Green Lantern (2011) fall staggeringly short even if the women aren’t required to have names. This is somewhat to be expected, though. Comic book creators and Hollywood types agreed long ago (without asking me) that women aren’t interested in superheroes. There’s some evidence to support this, but the issue is that we don’t even notice. Women don’t notice, and men don’t notice (I checked out the website with some friends). I was staggered at first that women would watch these movies, even ones targeting them, and never notice how they were being slighted.

I’m not here to talk about women, though they’re a crucial part of what it takes to be a good man. I’m a black man. (I know this because people make a big deal when I date white women.)

So what I’m proposing is an adapted Bechdel Test. If you feel so inclined, you can name it after me. I would never be so bold as to claim that title mostly because The Christian Test would probably pose some complications.

So in the Bechdel Black Test, I want to propose new rules: 1) Must have two black people (preferably with names), 2) who talk to each other, and 3) about something other than being black or using the word “nigga.”

Now, stop. How many movies have you watched in the last three months that passed this test? Failed this test? Do you even know? Have you even thought about it before this last moment?

It’s perfectly fine if you haven’t because to be honest, I haven’t either. Suddenly, it became apparent to me how women could be so unaware of so many movies’ miserable showings on the original Bechdel Test. I didn’t know the answers to the Bechdel Black Test, and I’m a black man. (I know this because college kids try to buy drugs from me.)

I watch more movies in the average week than most people watch in three months. (I’m sort of Navy SEAL-esque in that way … and others.) So, I thought about the movies I’ve watched in the past week. I’m going to disregard foreign films and period pieces.

Wanted (2008) 3/3 (Morgan Freeman and Common). Note: Angelina Jolie’s character, Fox, is a black woman in the graphic novel and was white-washed by Hollywood.

Trust (2011) 0/3.

Trespass (2011) 0/ 3. But an honorable mention should be given for a movie about criminals with no black people.

Kick-Ass (2010) 0/3. Only black person is a mugger.

The Resident (2011) 0/3. No black people, but Hilary Swank makes everything OK. Note: She lives in Brooklyn…

I’ve watched a bunch more, but I purposefully picked movies that I really enjoyed recently. I enjoy these movies that fail the Bechdel Black Test, and I’m black. (I know this because people tell me how “well-spoken” I am.)

Does that make me a race traitor? Insensitive? Colorblind? Or just blind?

I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say but maybe this will generate some good comments and we’ll edge closer to being good men.

—Photo Oloremo/Flickr

Sponsored Content

NOW TRENDING ON GMP TV

Flight or Fight
Forever Boogies
Are You A Narcissist?

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Christian Coleman

Christian Coleman studies poetry at the University of New Orleans. He makes life decisions by asking himself 'What Would Batman Do?'

Comments

  1. gabby watts says:

    Have you seen the original Night of the Living Dead? The protagonist is my favourite film hero. The movie doesn’t pass the test, however, as he is the only black person in it.

  2. DavidByron says:

    The problem is I think the people who are keen on such tests have a bias to make the movies fail. For example Captain America I haven’t seen it for a while but had no trouble thinking of a scene which qualified (the double date scene) and looking it up at that site it seems other scenes were in there that also qualified. But it is marked as a failure. Why? Well I guess because people want it to fail. Several people said that the women had to be major characters but that breaks the rules that are posted at the top of the page the reviews are on. Two women, talk, not about a man. It’s not that hard.

    And as it happens the last movie I watched passes the Christian test (Money Ball).

    Warren Farrell’s test for predicting whether women will die in a movie has also taken some hits (women never die if they have been in 3 scenes unless the film is a horror movie or unless the rest of the movie is about avenging her death). The recent Sherlock Holmes movie was an exception (Irene Adler is killed by Moriarty).

    But I think there are probably plenty of times where you just can’t think of an exception even where it exists in the movie. I think you’d have to watch the movie with the question in mind to score it correctly.

  3. This is sort of a worthless test.

    The majority of the population is female, therefore at least half of the cast of any given movie should be female if the movie is to reflect the population. This is why Bechdel’s observation is insightful.

    Meanwhile, in the US blacks are between 12 and 13 percent of the population. So for two major characters to be black and have speaking roles (such that there is a conversation) you would need 16 major characters in order to reflect the population. Even the Oceans movies don’t go that high.

  4. Actually, the fact that so many excellent and enjoyable movies “fail” these tests is what proves that BOTH tests are meaningless. Even Bechdel admitted that her test is no indicator of whether a movie is good or bad.

    Heck, you can have a good movie with no human characters whatsoever!

    • Uncle Woofie says:

      Note that the author did not mention that the ‘Alicia Masters’ character (the blind sculptress girlfriend of Ben Grimm character in both Fantastic Four movies) went from white in the comics, to black in the movies.

      • Hmm, I didn’t know about this change for the movies. I definitely wasn’t omitting anything on purpose. I think that this sort of thing happens to try and force more diversity in movies (admirable, though slightly misguided).

        Another instance of this is Kingpin being Michael Clarke Duncan. In the books, he looks more like a bloated Mr. Clean. I understand the thinking and I’m kinda torn on it. I can remember idolizing superheroes as a little kid and thus, all of my idols were white. It’s hard on a kid when he realizes that he looks nothing like everyone he looks up to.

        I don’t know how to make it right. Maybe writing completely new characters for movies that encourage more diversity? The new spider-man is hispanic.

        • Uncle Woofie says:

          Here’s a glaring omission that everyone has made (don’ feel too bad about your own omissions, Mr. Christian, I was around for Marvel Comic’s “Golden Era” and have always been a comics fan, even when comics weren’t cool)…

          I recall seeing pieces in the entertainment press years ago (when they weren’t conducting a “Fantastic Voyage” up the tail-pipe of some celebrity’s personal life) that Wesley Snipes wanted to do a black Marvel character.

          His choices boiled down to T’Challa, aka the Black Panther, ruler of a technologically advanced (regrettably fictional, of course) African nation Wakanda, a ‘democratic monarchy’. From its first introduction, this fictionalized nation takes shit from nobody including the USA. The Panther was introduced by Stan Lee inna couple of issues of the Fantastic Four during the mid-sixties. The other choice is now obvious after three movies that most of us have seen. “Blade” still enjoys some exposure via the Japanese anime wizards at “MadBox” (check out the G4 cable-channel schedule, you’ll find it).

          Despite my obvious misgivings about the overall validity of the “Bechdel Test’, even I have to admit the ‘Cap’ movie missed a neat ‘Marvel Universe’-style opportunity when Howard Stark gives Rogers the “vibranium” disc that’s now his iconic shield. It wouldn’t have killed the screenwriters to include Howard Stark explaining that not only is ‘vibranium’ (introduced in those same FF issues previously mentioned) extremely rare, the only metallurgists who know how to shape and manipulate it are in the mysteriously reclusive African kingdom of Wakanda, the only known source of this metal. This would’ve been appropriate since even in original Marvel continuity, years later the noble T’Challa would become an Avenger himself.

          Happy now, B-Test fans? (laughs)

          As for the other choice, in the late seventies, Marvel took aim at the black & white horror magazine market, ruled at the time by the Warren publications Eerie, Creepy, & Vampirella. Blade was a second-tier character in Marvel’s four-color book “Tomb of Dracula”. Blade was basically designed to just be an antagonistic pain inna title character’s ass.

          The ‘Blade’ movies were not all that bad, though, especially the first one.

          • I had no idea about the vibranium. That’s pretty cool. I know a little about Black Panther but I’m more of a DC fan myself. I’ve got some old Luke Cage: Hero for Hire comics from my uncle though.

            I agree about the Blade movies. One was good and Blade Two was pretty good except for some regrettable CGI. I do, however, deny the existence of Blade III.

            • Uncle Woofie says:

              Okay, Mr. Christian, due to my sincere belief that the pursuit of ‘good manliness’ should include as much fun and entertainment as possible, here’s something undeniably fun concerning the sturdy Mr. Cage…

              Please excuse the following necessary shorthand in describing the ‘Luke Cage’ character…Luke Cage was Stan Lee’s bid to have an ‘urban’ black hero much in the style of “Shaft”. He was promoted pretty hard in the Marvel books when he was introduced, so naturally, (in case you do not have this issue, which I think) spanned both Cage’s book and Spider-Man’s core title as well) a confrontation with Marvel’s #1 street-level hero, Spider-Man, was called for. This was all instigated of course, by the web head’s chief plain-clothes, newspaper-publishing nemesis, J. Jonah Jameson. If it was made into a movie, its title could’ve been “Get Spidey”.

              After a city-spanning fight, Cage to a set of stairs onna ‘Empire State University’s’ campus so Cage would stop and listen, Cage explains “Hey, we ain’t all Bruce Wayne, y’know. Some of us have to do this for a livin’.” Spidey confesses that despite his looking down his nose a Cage’s more mercenary take (Hero for Hire) onna ‘hero bi’ness’, he too started out asking for pay thanks to his special ‘talents’.

              In Avengers’ book continuity, Cage now runs an Avengers squad of his own (the keys to “Avengers Mansion” personally tossed to him by Steve Rogers himself, it’sa long story) and is now a family man, if you can believe that, LOL.

  5. wellokaythen says:

    The Matrix movies seem to pass this test with flying colors. Black people leading, making decisions, having conversations with each other about their relationships, even ordering white people around, and no one talks about being black or white. I think this is quite groundbreaking, in a way.

    (On the other hand, come to think of it, I’m not sure any of the female characters talk to each other at all. Any movies that pass both the race Bechdel and the gender Bechdel?)

  6. I laughed out loud at all the “I know this because….” Well done!

    • NickMostly says:

      Wait, white people aren’t told they’re articulate?

      • I think the idea is: white people express surprise that a black man would be articulate. These are, presumably, white people who could not get a clue while standing outside in clue monsoon season holding a clue bucket. Of which, yes, there are some.

        I’m white, and people occasionally tell me I’m articulate.

        To be clear, I’m a white person who looks like she might be Bilbo Baggins’ mother, and people occasionally tell me I’m articulate. Not sure whether the two facts are related. People also sometimes tell me I’m short, but never the same people. Neither group seems to believe they’re providing new information, which makes sense because, really, what are the chances of a short, articulate person being unaware of either trait? But they still say these things, often 2-3 days into an acquaintance, and often in a tone of complete surprise.

        This is really just a random data point. I’m not sure what any of it means.

  7. MorgainePendragon says:

    “Any movies that pass both the race Bechdel and the gender Bechdel?”

    Well, I haven’t seen all the movies made out of Terry Mc Millan’s books, but her books pass both tests, and I’m pretty sure that How Stella Got Her Groove Back (film) did so also (but maybe I’m wrong).

    Like “That Guy”, I really enjoyed your tone and voice here, Christian. Look forward to reading more!

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    I don’t watch many movies. But the last one was “Warhorse”. There were two horses which were best buddies until one–not the star, the Best Friend–died. So that movie passes the horse Bechdel test.
    This will help us edge toward being real men? Ummm.
    My recollection of various Law and Order programs tells us that half the judges are black, many of whom speak briskly to white attorneys, and none of the villains are white. But I don’t recall two black judges speaking to each other.
    L&O does pass the skinny white woman attorney Bechdel test…. Hey, this is fun.
    Oh, yeah. Some clowns tried to convince the unwary amongst us that LOTR’s orcs were actually supposed to be “black”. Strange. As Johan Goldberg said, more or less, I see weird looking guys with fangs who like to kill people and I think, “cool, orcs”. But if he’s wrong, LOTR passes the orc Bechdel test.
    Somebody stop me. It’s time for dinner.

  9. wellokaythen says:

    It’s not necessarily a racist insult to cast a black person as a villain. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In some cases, the villains are the most interesting and intelligent characters in the movie. In the first Rocky movie, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is a lot smarter and more charismatic than Rocky Balboa. (And what many people forget is that Rocky actually loses the fight in the end.)

    Semantic question — can we count a character as black if he has the voice of a black actor, e.g. Darth Vader?

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    The old tv detective series Cagney and Lacey passed the Bechdel test. A producer was asked how come only rich white guys were villains. They’re the only group that doesn’t complain was the answer. Now, of course it’s not racist to portray a villain as black, unless you actually do it and then you’re in trouble.
    CSI is said to stand for Conservatives Slaughtering Innocents.
    Ref semantic question: What if he doesn’t sound black, except for the resonance which might have been, for all I knew then, engineered in?

  11. John Sctoll says:

    My wife noticed something the other day about Law and Order (all the series). Rarely is a woman the killer (villian) and even when she is, she is shown as sympathetic (he had it coming). BUT in virtually every episode there are several women suspects who are ultimately cleared of any wrong doing. This is PC at it’s best (worst). IOW, you have to have roles for women but you can’t show them as bad/evil.

    I just saw an episode of Criminal Minds which of course shows serial killers and of course they finally had a female serial killer but of course she only killed bad men no innocents. In fact in the end Hotchner(spelling?) lets slip to the press how bad each ‘victim’ was in order to help her in her trial.

  12. The point of the test isn’t to highlight disparaging stereotypes or even benign insensitivity toward minorities and women. It doesn’t even discount the fact that over 50% of the movie going American public are white. It simply points out that Hollywood is run largely by white males, and they often fail to recognize in their movies that women and minorities have lives and interests that aren’t centered around white men.

    Are they racist? No. Do they care about diversity? I would argue it’s fairly obvious most of them do. Does any of this render this test meaningless? No.

  13. Malanka Sveta says:

    Actually I have thought about this before, a day after I heard of the Bechdel test I thought that it should be applied to minorities. I can think of 2 movies that pass. “Passenger 57″ and “Dance me Outside” (the second portrays First Nations, not black people, but it passes the minority Bechdel test). But I don’t know how to rate movies portraying multiple ethnic minorities, any ideas?

Trackbacks

Speak Your Mind

*