What is race? Race is a social construct. “Data clearly show that there is no underlying genetic basis for classifying or categorizing humans into different racial groups” . Although there is no biological reason for its existence, according to Tom Morganthau, Susan Miller, Gregory Beals and Regina Elam, “Race divides us, defines us and in a curious way unites us-if only because we still think it matters.” Race is merely a term developed by society to solidify one person’s feelings and actions towards another. The issue of race between white and black Americans did not end when slavery was abolished; instead, it transformed and acquired less obvious attributes.
This article discusses the issue of race in movies. Specifically, it analyzes how white and black characters are portrayed differently in the movie, Be Cool, written by Peter Stienfield and directed by F. Gary Gray. Be Cool is a comedy sequel of the movie Get Shorty. The movie stars four white actors: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Danny DeVito, Vince Vaughn, and three black, or non-white actors: The Rock, Christina Milian, and Cedric the Entertainer.
Chili Palmer (John Travolta), with his ever so poised attitude and strong build, is the star of this movie. Chili decides to leave the movie industry to pursue the music business. In the first ten minutes of the movie, Chili’s friend is killed by the Russian Mafia. Chili heads to his friend’s wife, Edie Athens (Uma Thurman), to offer his services in assisting her run the record label. Throughout the movie, Chili and Edie eventually become romantically involved. The romance has to wait however. Their time is occupied by the young pop star that will be the savior of the record label, Linda Moon (Christina Milian), dealing with her pretentious manager, the manager’s gay, aspiring actor bodyguard, Russian mobsters and an Ivy League gangster music producer and his entourage.
“Hollywood has arguably done more to integrate Blacks into productions than any other mass medium. Yet exclusion of minority actors from certain roles and actions persists”. This movie is a confirmation of this fact.
This movie depicts three of the four white characters as poised and in control of their immediate situations. For example, Chili Palmer is the essence of a well rounded man. He speaks confidently, is not afraid of the opposition, and in the end, he gets the girl. Chili is in control of every situation he encounters. As Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki argue, “Black-white conversations almost all involve hierarchical relationships with the white in charge of critical decisions and the direction of the plot”. This movie is a true depiction of this fact in most every scene.
Edie Athens loses her husband in the first ten minutes of the movie and with Chili’s help, immediately regains her footing in the music industry without shedding a tear. She is depicted as a stereotypical all-American white woman. She is blond, sexy, warm, and non-confrontational, and a lovable woman. Edie and Chili, the two leading white characters, become romantically involved.
Raji (Vince Vaughn) is a white man playing a character that, as the other characters proclaim, “Thinks he is black.” Raji’s character is an obvious attempt by the writer to create humor in the movie. Raji’s character, however, is a reminder of the depictions in the movie Ethnic Notions by Marlon Riggs, where white people adorned exaggerated costumes and language in order to portray black people. In Raji’s effort to be black, he speaks in slang, barely completing a coherent sentence without using profanity. His attire consists of suits, hats, and he dresses, as Chili Palmer says, “Like a Pimp.” He has no respect for women, particularly his client, Linda Moon, and is out to get what he wants by any means necessary.
All of the black characters in this movie are in supporting roles. Sinclair “Sin” Russell (Cedric the Entertainer) is a black rapper with an entourage of gangsters. The fact that Sin has an Ivy League education is certainly not the stereotypical black man; however, his positive traits seem to be overshadowed by the fact that he is a gang banger. Several scenes almost make a mockery of the fact that he is an intelligent black man.
In one scene the Russian Mafia uses racial epithets towards Sin. The head member of the Russian says, “Be Cool, N****r!” to Sin. As Joe R. Feagin noted in The Continuing Significance of Race: Anti-Black Discrimination in Public Places, “The most common black responses to racial hostility . . . are withdrawal or a verbal reply” . Sin chose the verbal reply,
”How is it that you can disrespect a man’s ethnicity when you know we (black people) have influenced nearly every facet of white America; from our music, to our style of dress, not to mention, your basic imitation of our sense of cool . . .walk, talk, dress, mannerisms. We enrich your very existence, all the while contributing to the gross national product through our achievements in corporate America. It’s these conceits that comfort me when I’m faced with the ignorant cowardly, bitter and bigoted who have no talent, no guts; people like you who desecrate things you don’t understand, when the truth is you should say, thank you man and go on about your way . . . “.
During this verbal retort, the camera zooms in on Sin’s face, possibly an effort to get the audience to absorb the words. Although a valiant effort on the part of the producers to get this message across, “Creating a color-blind society on a foundation saturated with racism requires something more than simply proclaiming that the age of brotherhood has arrived”. After shooting the Russian, Sin comments, “Racial Epithets, why does it always have to come down to that? Makes me sad for my daughter.”
Dabu, Sin’s right-hand man, is another attempt by the writer to add humor to the movie. Dabu has a strong desire to kill someone; however, when he holds a gun, often times it discharges without any intent of his own. He tends to display cross-cultural attributes, from drinking tea with a pinky finger in the air to wearing a bullet proof vest with his pants barely above his thighs. In one scene Sin and his group of friends are outside of a club talking to Chili Palmer after going to get Mongolian Barbecue. Dabu is so smitten by the character, Linda Moon (Cristina Milian), that he is completely focused on her while eating his food and begins slurping as if in a sexual manner. In that scene, Dabu displays the stereotypical sex-crazed black man.
In addition to Dabu, Sin’s entourage is a group of black men portraying the stereotypical gun-toting gang bangers who threaten people in order to get what they want. Their wardrobe consists of bandanas, pants worn well below the waist in order to show their boxers, plenty of jewelry on their necks and wrists, and their mouths full of slang.
In the beginning of the movie Linda Moon is an aspiring singer who has grown to hate the music business because of her experiences with her current manager, Raji. Linda Moon comes across not as a black or a white character, but more of a neutral role. Although a minority, she plays a role that may have been portrayed by a white female as well, without much change to the dialogue, wardrobe or scenes.
The Rock is a gay bodyguard who is searching for his big break in the movie industry. His appearance alone tends to be threatening until he shows his only significant feature, the raised eyebrow. Although “The Rock” and “Gay” in one sentence alone seem to be an oxymoron, he portrays the stereotypical black gay man with ease.
White and black characters are treated similar in respect to the names they are given. Chili, Sin, Raji, Dabu, are all slang names and all of which you would associate with black characters.
Some of the roles and situations in this movie, when seen by the typical white American, are likely to reinforce anti-Black stereotypes. The black characters, outside of the black police officer, are essentially framed as lazy, careless and cold gang bangers. This is the common view of all black men that the media portrays to the typical white American.
In one scene, Sin’s entourage drives up to his house in three black hummers with expensive rims, with the music playing extremely loud. Annoyed, Sin dismisses this behavior by saying, “. . .must you live up to the stereotypes?” Sin’s white neighbor shakes her head and hurries into her house shortly after the cars arrive. Inside of one of the cars is a kidnapped program director who the audience assumes is in charge of the music that is played on radio stations. Sin proceeds to threaten the man into playing his records. As this occurs, Sin’s daughter walks out on the porch. While the men, under the order of Sin, greets Sin’s daughter, the camera moves to the back of the men to show low waisted pants, boxers showing, all have weapons stuck in the back of their pants.
Entman and Rojecki argued that “White racial thinking now spans a spectrum that runs from racial comity and understanding to ambivalence, then to animosity, and finally to outright racism”. “The bulk of whites exhibit ambivalence that may be tipped toward comity or hostility depending on the interaction of political climate, personal experience, and mediated communications”. “At one end of the spectrum are white people who believe it is not possible to generalize about African American individuals any more than about whites. At the other end of the spectrum are full blown racists who believe blacks and whites are fundamentally different”.
How would seeing the movie, Be Cool, likely affect the sentiments and schemas of a typical, racially ambivalent White American? The characters and scenes in this movie are heavily stereotypical of black people. This movie may bring a since of confirmation of what a typical white American might think about black people, based on what they have seen in the media. For many white Americans, the media is the only way many white Americans see black people so their schemas are influenced by these images. According to Travis L. Dixon, Cristina L. Azocar, and Michael Casas, “African Americans are typically relegated to a depiction as perpetrators while being underrepresented as officers and victims on local television news”.
One may argue that the character Raji is a negative depiction of a white man and may influence whites to believe that it isn’t just blacks. However, “Whites already know that members of their group come in all moral and intellectual shapes and sizes.”. So a character like Raji is not likely to have a real affect on their current thinking about their own group.
Given that the stereotypical black man is heavily portrayed in the movie, Be Cool, a typical white American seeing this movie could either remain as ambivalent or be moved from ambivalence to animosity. “Racial animosity occupies an important step short of racism. Although those exhibiting animosity often get labeled as racist, they do not see their stereotyped anti-black generalizations as adding up to a natural racial order that places whites on top and legitimizes discrimination“.
Although the movie industry has made great strides in reaching comity between white and black roles, the efforts are still lacking. Society still tends to instinctively provide white actors with highly coveted roles and black actors in highly stereotypical or supporting roles.