The new movie “Cop Out” has created a lot of buzz, and not just because critics are hammering Kevin Smith’s homage to the ’80s “buddy cop comedies” for being painfully un-funny. The film is apparently racist, too.
Armond White of the New York Press, a reliably contrarian voice in film critic circles, slams star Tracy Morgan for his performance:
“His broad face and goofy baritone are the essence of how Hollywood once tried to stereotype Louis Armstrong; yet Morgan embraces the denigration, performing a string of mortifying buffooneries.”
Critic Emanuel Levy also found fault with Morgan’s character and how the film depicts the Latino heavies in the film.
“There’s also an uncomfortable racial awkwardness to a great deal of the material that makes “Cop Out” feel rather unseemly. The opening Morgan monologue is dangerously close to a minstrel act. (Not to mention a recurring and very abysmal subplot involving his raging insecurities about his wife’s alleged infidelities.)
“Worst of all, the Mexican criminal lords that become the movie’s traditional heavies are so lazily conceived, overscaled and outrageously drawn that turns “Cop Out” not only into a bad film though a somewhat unpleasant one.
Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez also isn’t comfortable with how “Cop Out” paints the bad guys:
“The pair run afoul of a gang of Latino baddies who are portrayed in such a stereotypically racist manner you feel magically teleported back into one of those Steven Seagal movies in which villains were defined primarily by ethnicity.”
I find such discussions about movie characters and race both annoying and fascinating. Film critic Dave Taylor, who left an exasperated comment on Toto’s post about this controversy over “Cop Out,” hits the mark with this passage saying liberals demand that:
“… on the one side, [minorities] should be complex, deep, thoughtful characters, true to their ethnic heritage but not in an offensive way, but at the same time they’re supposed to be reasonable parts of often lightweight or even asinine cinema.”
Let’s put aside the question of whether Tracy Morgan’s artistic choices in “Cop Out” violated the idea of a “reasonable” portrayal of a black man in a piece of “lightweight or even asinine cinema.” Let’s even put aside the question of who draws that line of acceptability. Let’s also submit that: One, I haven’t seen “Cop Out.” Two, I now probably won’t see the movie, despite being a fan of both of Willis and Morgan and hoping like a child at Christmas that it would come through. And three, finger-wagging critics should probably ask Tracy Morgan about his feelings on the subject first — especially after he’s been scolded that even though he’s a successful actor and a black man, he’s not allowed to draw that “line of acceptability” himself.
Taylor’s remark, and this whole debate, reminded me immediately of the “Magic Negro” stereotype that Morgan Freeman has played in various movies such as in “Bruce Almighty” and “Evan Almighty.” But Freeman’s Oscar-nominated turn in “The Shawshank Redemption” is probably not just his best performance, but the best contemporary example.
Briefly, the Magic Negro stereotype — called the “numinous Negro” by Richard Brookheiser — is that of the one-dimensional black character who’s only purpose is to be the moral conscience of the film. He serves as the almost divinely enlightened sage — and sometimes a literally divine character, not just as God in the “Almighty” films, but in the Jesus character of John Coffey in “The Green Mile” — who teaches the backward-thinking white folks, and the larger audience, of the errors of their racist ways. (Though Will Smith nailed two black stereotype characters in one with his almost Jar-Jar Binks-level simple-talkin’ “Bagger Vance.” A cringe-worthy performance for which the NAACP nonetheless nominated him for an “Image Award.”)
The Magic Negro is a tiresome cliché — and insulting in its own way, as none other than Spike Lee has pointed out — but liberal movie critics usually have little to criticize about it. I suppose that’s because Hollywood believes modern American audiences still need that wisdom delivered with a sledgehammer.
Frankly, I’m sick of it — almost as sick as I am of the tough-as-nails woman action hero who can knock heads just as well as the fellas … until near the end when she needs the male hero to rescue her. How about just once — once! — that character gets in a little over her head and … well … dies. Or she at least loses the fight and emerges with a lost earring and her hair mussed in a non-attractive way.
Oh, and I chuckle every time I happen to stumble across “Law & Order,” or any film that features a court scene, and after the words “All rise! …” a black woman emerges from chambers and takes a seat at the bench. Hollywood seems so determined to atone for “Song of the South,” Buckwheat, and other past sins that it has created a world where 75 percent of judges in America are black women. OK, Hollywood. We get it. You want to create role models for minorities. That’s a very good thing, and we’re paying attention. But you’ve gone so overboard that you’ve practically created a drinking game one can play with the remote control. (One shot if a minority emerges from chambers. Two shots if the judge is black. Three shots if the judge is a black woman. And finish the bottle if she’s “feisty.”)
Wake me when Hollywood portrays the “psycho Marine scarred by Bush’s senseless wars!!!!!” as a black man from Chicago, and not a “redneck” from Texas or Alabama. The latter is a damaging stereotype Hollywood never gets sick of portraying on film, and seems to have not a twinge of guilt about.