Your handy field guide to the almost half-dozen different black male characters in mainstream movies.
The Magic Black Guy
Distinguishing Traits: Wise. Pure of heart. Possibly supernatural powers, but definitely very spiritual. May not have conventional intelligence, but is very very wise anyway. Did we mention that he’s wise? No flaws (or, in fact, personality) whatsoever.
Role In Plot: Appear when white protagonist needs help, give sage advice, never demand anything, not have any problems or concerns of his own, die or disappear when no longer needed.
Is Insulting Because: Black people are basically just stock characters used to help the ‘normal’ characters along.
Typically Played By: Morgan Freeman.
The Scary Black Guy
Distinguishing Traits: May be good, evil, or an antihero, but is definitely badass. Can beat up everyone in the plot, especially if they’re white. Interests include guns, the word “motherfucker,” and long walks on– oh, who are we kidding, violence.
Role In Plot: Kick ass, chew bubblegum, be out of bubblegum.
Is Insulting Because: It perpetrates insulting stereotypes of black men that end up leading to their disproportionate rate of arrest, imprisonment, and victimization by the prison-industrial complex, and also to the murders of black men by police and vigilantes.
Typically Played By: Samuel L. Jackson.
The Funny Black Guy
Distinguishing Traits: Makes jokes. That’s… about it really.
Is Insulting Because: woo look at this black guy he’s so cool and hip and funny and urban if I’m friends with him then no one can ever call me racist again
Typically Played By: Eddie Murphy.
The Inspiring Black Guy
Distinguishing Traits: Is oppressed. Nobly overcomes his oppression through love and forgiveness and swelling music. Director had to pause filming to jerk off to videos of the I Have A Dream speech.
Role in Plot: Be oppressed; overcome oppression. Occasionally, take a break from this to inspire some inner-city students to go to Harvard.
Is Insulting Because: The next time you write a story about a member of an oppressed group that’s all about their noble attempt to overcome oppression, as opposed to literally every other thing that human beings have ever done because whatever it is members of oppressed groups do it too, I will rip off your head and piss down your neck.
Typically Played By: Denzel Washington.
The Human Being
Distinguishing Traits: None really. Sometimes he’s a wisecracking alien-fighting action hero! Sometimes he nobly struggles to overcome poverty while being a single father! Sometimes his life gets flipped, turned upside down! The one thing that remains constant is that he’s a well-developed and interesting character who does not rely solely on stereotypes but instead has the same diversity given to white characters.
Role In Plot: Usually protagonist, but sometimes antagonist, side character, love interest, etc.
Is Insulting Because: Hollywood seems to think that black male Human Beings only come in one form, i.e., Will Smith.
Typically Always Played By: Will Smith.
Photo—Black family in circle from Shutterstock