Posts Tagged Movies

My Ruined Tolerance of the Disposable Black Man

Is IronE Singleton aware that the internet’s support for him is ironic in nature? Hell, is the internet aware? (SPOILERS for the TV show The Walking Dead, the movie Chronicle, and the video game Binary Domain.)

IronE Singleton

According to this picture, it’s a… maybe?

Perhaps the support is part comic, part pity, and part ironic. Perhaps there is legitimate respect in Singleton’s portrayal of T-Dog, the now-deceased African-American character on the hugely popular but extremely flawed The Walking Dead. Perhaps the internet – showing a surprising amount of critical savvy in the realm of developed characters – supported Singleton because he was working with so little of a character, with so little worth. T-Dog, metaphorically, was awesome because T-Dog, literally, was not, and Singleton did the best he could.

This is nothing new. African-American characters dying in horror films (and in all forms of entertainment nowadays) have been normalized to the point way past parody. I’m not even concerned about that, per se, as problematic as it is. The Walking Dead, however, seem to have codified it into something uncomfortably explicit – practically a rule of the show. To be specific, when another African-American male was introduced in an episode, they would kill off the previous one. They killed T-Dog when they introduced Oscar. They killed Oscar when they introduced Tyreese. They barely even let an entire episode pass by without two African-American males alive and well, and they never even spoken to each other at any length. (To be fair, there are two African-American females – Michonne and Sasha [and they have not talked to each other yet either]. I don’t have too much hope for Sasha, but as of right now, progress is progress.)

T-Dog’s death was particularly sloppy. A character whose development was as detailed as a sponge, T-Dog suddenly had a religious epiphany as he sacrificed himself to save Carol, which left Glenn alone with the wonderful, completely-out-of-nowhere exposition of detailing T-Dog’s background (he apparently drove old people to church). I’m willing to give a little benefit of the doubt though. The Walking Dead has had a number of issues behind the scenes, with creatives and executives alike. It has a number of issues with its female characters as well – a point that deserves its own essay and has been written about extensively. But being alive, they can redeem themselves – or at least redeem themselves in death, which Lori in some ways had done (lesser so with Angela, but writing isn’t the show’s strong point). The Walking Dead has made its black men disposable to the point that two black characters can’t even talk to each other, without a dramatic reason why. The Token Black Man Death has gotten so uncomfortably common that I can’t even laugh at it anymore.

I was watching Chronicle, a short but interesting film that takes on the emotional struggle of mentally unstable teens through the thematic use of burgeoning super powers. It was a taut, surprisingly thorough film that kept me quite interested… up until the point that they killed off Steve (Michael B. Jordan). I wish to god that didn’t effect me like it did, but my heart sank and I had to leave the room for a moment. Steve was nice, charming, and genuinely helpful towards the end of his life. He tried to really help the troubled teen Andrew as he grew more angry and antagonistic. The film clearly used that death to spur the impetus to get Andrew’s cousin, Matt, to deal with Andrew once and for all. But the “death as motivator” trope is already overdone. Adding that racial component only speaks to the systemic issues within the creative field.

How overused has this become? When reading a list of underrated video games of 2012, many people mentioned Binary Domain as one of them. And it was a surprisingly solid game, with tight mechanics, great graphics, and a delicious and deep sci-fi plot bolstered by very unique, personality-filled characters. It didn’t take itself seriously, and the VO was perfect for the tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Boss fights were tough and huge. Everything was running smoothly… until the end. The black character, Bo, sacrifices himself to save the love interest of Faye, in service to protagonist, Dan. There’s a dramatic, touching scene of Dan talking to Bo as he lay dying. It’s well done, especially in context with the series of big reveals that came before it. But of all the characters – and there are a lot of them – did it have to be Bo? And why only him? There’s five other perfect characters that could have been the lamb.

Here’s the kicker. Three completely different pieces of entertainment from three entirely different media all killed off their only black male characters solely in service to the white protagonist. This is ridiculous. And yes, people of all races, generally speaking, were killed (not so much in Binary Domain, but it’s a moot point since mostly everyone were robots). And I’m not claiming that creators should be forced to do something they do or do not what to do, creatively. The problem is that there are already so few black characters in our media, fewer of them developed beyond a single note. (Odd, since The Walking Dead is located in Atlanta with a high black population, and Binary Domain often deals with military groups, groups that often have large African-American numbers.) Why can’t they live happy lives? Why can’t they survive? Why are they seemingly always killed to ensure the happiness/survival of their white peers? Why did THREE totally different development teams all make this same decision?

Women in media are killed for white, male protagonist to go on revenge sprees (add in a little rape or refrigeration to make it “serious”). Black men, on the other hand, are killed in sacrifice to save their Caucasian others. Both are awful, but at least now there seems to be an attempt to really make it a point to bring the treatment of female characters in media to light. African-Americans and other minorities need to definitely speak up and campaign strongly against this, and demand better from writers and creators.


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The Beauty and Art of Screwing Up

Phyllis Diller died a few weeks ago, and in memorandum, a tweet was sent out linking her to a Muppets performance, where she played a saxophone to upbeat version of a familiar ragtime diddy:

Let’s be honest here. Diller isn’t good with her mini-saxophone. From a musical standpoint, she pretty much messes up every time she plays, and it’s very, very noticeable.

But watch Diller’s face and expression. She doesn’t care. She KNOWS she’s not doing well. I especially love how much she gets into playing poorly towards the end, mugging for the camera with the classic showmanship that a talented stage presence can muster. It gets the crowd going, and it gets her going. She messes up, but she messes up with class.

The old adage, “if you mess up, mess up big” doesn’t seem to apply here. In the 70s, if you messed up, you messed up with grace and charm. Diller doesn’t mug harder or begin to overdo her musical prowess. She lets the moment speak for itself. She lets the audience enjoy it for what it is. Messing up and playing through it is truly a real skill, and Diller does not disappoint.

Watch an old episode of Match Game. Watch this awesome interview with Tom Waits. Watch any episode of The Carol Burnett Show. The charisma of the actors simply playing the moment is all that’s needed to entertain the audience. Match Game is particularly interesting, since it almost seems like the celebrities have little to no interest in actually help the contestants win, nor do they have any real desire to play up certain gags and moments to get a rise out of the audience – unlike Hollywood Squares, which reeks of pre-written, hammy gags for the celebrities to perform. Comparing the two, it’s almost sad.

Why is this? Partly, it’s stylistic. “Raw and gritty,” staples of 70s hard-boiled entertainment, wasn’t just regulated to dramas. Humor and comedy also benefited from that raw and gritty aesthetic that the audience, frankly, expected. It’s a style that only the best performers and hosts can walk sans flop-sweat or jitters, especially in trying to power through the actual meat-and-potatoes of an actual skit. Compare that Muppets video to pretty much any Saturday Night Live skit starring Jimmy Fallon. While he may have found his niche in hosting late night, his inability to hold in his laughter essentially ruined skits, but as a greater affront, he had no stage presence to control the ruined skit without his stammering reflecting his fucking up – unlike Diller, who poorly plays that saxophone with the discipline of a master. I’d rather watch her screw up at a thousand things then watch Fallon struggle through another mediocre SNL bit. (SNL, in fact, seemed to have issues with its players powering through non-winning skits, but that’s a write-up for another day.)

It’s rare these days to find an entertainer that can work with ease and comfort in front of an audience, whether a routine goes swimmingly or erupts in flames. It takes a real skill to screw up and make it look wonderful – to be high, or drunk, or on drugs, or just not very good at all, and still win over the crowd with sheer charisma.



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The Rare Sighting of the Sensitive Male Lead

If you’re the main character of a TV show, of any genre, you better have some balls. Why sensitive male leads are difficult to come by.

Mikey from Recess

Sing on, Mikey, Sing on.

When preparing for my “Prepubescent Girls that Can Kick Your Ass” inventory, a friend of mine mentioned thinking about, essentially, the opposite version: the sensitive male. She was curious about where the low-key, poetry-loving, caring, affectionate, “not-afraid-to-talk-about-his-feelings” men were in our entertainment. I began thinking about this too, and, well, it’s a pretty good question.

I’m currently watching Recess, the Paul Germain/Joe Ansolabehere animated show that appeared on One Saturday Morning, an ABC/Disney block of cartoons that included The Brand-Spanking New Doug, Pepper Ann, and The Weekenders. Recess was pretty much the winner, nailing a full six seasons and two movies. And of the six main characters, Mikey represented exactly what my friend and I were looking for – the sensitive male as a main character (or at least one of many).

It shouldn’t really surprise me, then, to see most Youtube comment expressing their hate of Mikey. It’s disappointing to see that much vitriol – Mikey does nothing narratively wrong or unlikeable – but it is somewhat difficult to muster a lot of support for his emotional outbursts and poetic diatribes on competition, justice, and Santa Claus. Part of the issue is that it’s hard to understand why exactly Mikey is the way he is. We don’t get too much on his childhood or parents, unlike the rest of the cast, and seeing him struggle with standing up for himself, even for simple things, is a bit hard to swallow, even for kids. And then it hit me: sensitive male leads are, narratively, dead-weight.

Well, not all of them. (I point one out later in the piece that may be an exception.) But for the most part, sensitive males, being more introverted, quiet, and non-confrontational, push against the narrative necessity for conflict to brew. If the character can’t, or is unwilling, to engage in conflict, then it’s hard to create a plot using that archetype. Conflicts that do involve them often involve “growing a backbone,” becoming more confident and standing up to bullies. But few pieces of entertainment touch upon the nature of sensitivity as a positive development towards a goal, unless it’s involves romancing the opposite sex.

(Keep in mind, a lot of what I mentioned can be applied to sensitive female characters too; it’s unfortunate but true that social constructs allow sensitive female characters to be more prevalent, yet we see more or them as progenitors of their own development – see Fluttershy from My Little Pony or Kaylee from Firefly. It also helps that Josh Whedon and Lauren Faust are very talented. In other words, we’re used to, and comfortable with, sensitive female characters. Not so much with males.)

There is a unique exception to this: Private, from The Penguins of Madagascar TV show on Nickelodeon, a surprisingly excellent show in its own right. Private, the “newest” recruit in the penguins underground, paramilitary organization, is indeed a sensitive soul, enjoying The Lunicorns, being a neat-freak, and not afraid to showcase his feelings, to the chagrin of his team. But quite often, Private is shown to be smart, pragmatic, and a hell of a soldier, both in cunning, speed, and ability to fight. It’s a rare sight – not even the highest-rated TV shows have male characters that can exhibit both sensitivity and bravado. And, consequently, he’s become one of my favorite characters on TV right now.

But even in the case of Penguins or Recess, the sensitive male is not the SOLE lead, but part of a group dynamic. I’d be hard pressed to find any show that really had or has a soft-ball character leading a narrative charge. There’s Lazlo from Camp Lazlo, I suppose, although his sense of adventure may overshadow his sensitive nature. The brief encounter I had with the show Scaredy Squirrel had a character similar to Private, sans fighting ability, so maybe he is the true exception – yet no one watched the show, which doubles down on my “lack of popularity” theory.

Are there any male lead characters out there that are relatively well-know? I’m thinking no, but I’m definitely willing to hear people out in the comments below.


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