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"As much as I love to see Richard Roundtree getting work, there’s no getting around it: the old junk-man who can produce anything you need because it 'fell off the back of a truck' has got to be the most uncomfortable cliché in the entire film."
In the 1980s, the growing awareness of a multicultural United States resulted in the casting net being thrown a little wider, racially speaking, than it had been before. But with Blaxploitation movies on the downswing, and mainstream projects with black casts being cancelled after the huge financial disappointment of The Wiz in 1978 (according to the Medved Brothers' The Hollywood Hall of Shame), the perceived financial viability of a black-led movie was low.
To that end, producers looking to make movies with black cast members generally went for one of two options. The first was to have a White Male Lead go around blowing stuff up and give the second-biggest non-romantic role - the Plucky Comic Relief — to a black guy. The black guy, fitting racial stereotypes of the time, would be streetwise and speak in urban slang, and - because he has to play second fiddle to the hero — be comical and cowardly. This is a trope with a long history in Hollywood movies as far back as the 20s, no mystery or old-dark-house movie was complete without the stock character of the goofy, cowardly black servant or chauffeur following. This stereotype was so popular that actors like Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry even made whole careers out of the role. In turn, this was a shamelessly racist adaptation of the old melodrama and theatre trope of the cowardly comic servant.
The other option, which was more popular with big-name stars like Eddie Murphy, was to make the black guy a hero but put him on roughly an equal billing with a white character as a Salt and Pepper pairing. Of course, the black guy would generally still be streetwise and get on the nerves of his strait-laced white pal. Black America, it seemed, was uniformly 'hip'. Examples are Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS. and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.
This trend continued, with varying degrees of success, into the 1990s (though there had been aversions for decades before that - see Sidney Poitier, below), but growing racial awareness and an increasing interest in Action Heroes who just happen to be black, such as Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, has caused the trope to gradually lose popularity. Accusations of this trope will continue, in part because there are plenty of black actors who happen to be good at comedy, though the 'hip' elements have decreased.
The trope's name is derived from "Uncle Tom," which is a common slang term for a black person who is excessively subservient to white people. If you read the original novel, you'll have to wait a long time before Uncle Tom turns into a groveling stereotype. In fact, you'll have to wait through the entire book, because Uncle Tom is willing to die for his dignity. It was later portrayals on stage and screen that warped the character, as postbellum America was unwilling to accept a good, strong, wise black man. Engaging in Uncle Tomfoolery is sometimes referred to as "tomming."
No connection to Black Comedy or Bertie Wooster's uncle, Tom Travers.
See also: Ethnic Scrappy, Plucky Comic Relief, Black Dude Dies First, Modern Minstrelsy. Contrast: Magical Negro, Whoopi Epiphany Speech. Characters who embody this trope will sometimes be on the receiving end of Stop Being Stereotypical.
Beating Sasuke half to death certainly didn't hurt, nor did being one of the nicest, most affable characters in the franchise.
Don Kanoji from Bleach at least starts out this way.
Bobby, the American Buddhist Monk from Binbogami Ga, is not only a lecher, but also selfish and lazy, refusing to help the other protagonists until they bribe him with women.
Chocolove from Shaman King (whose name was changed to Joco in English releases for obvious reasons,) who's even a (terrible) comedian, and his backstory has him as a former New York gangster. Though he has more traditional offensive powers, a lot of his powers are joke-based and used to make spirits laugh to make them more vulnerable.
Parodied in a Damage Control comic. When an action movie is made about Damage Control, the well-spoken, well-dressed comptroller Albert Cleary is horrified to see he's been depicted as a wacky black sidekick from the ghetto. And then killed off, naturally.
Films — Animated
Mushu in Mulan. Roger Ebert said it best: "a black dude in medieval China?" This is more a function of Eddie Murphy's standard roles than anything else.
The Candlemaker in The Book Of Life is animated in a much rounder, "bouncier" style than any other character, spouts out incredibly cliche "hip-hop" language (in a film set in the Mexican afterlife), and is voiced by Ice Cube. He sticks out so badly from the rest of the film that you can see him from space.
Trading Places is mainly a deconstruction of such character types. Murphy's character is completely capable of being a strait-laced businessman if given the opportunity.
Often played by Chris Tucker.
In the first Rush Hour, Tucker is supposed to be playing a loudmouthed, reckless cop who plays by his own rules, in contrast to the badass but reticent and by-the-book Jackie Chan. This classic Salt and Pepper / Odd Couple pairing grew more into Uncle Tom Foolery in the sequels, where Tucker's character became more shrill and wacky, abandoned actual policing for successful stereotyping, and surprisingly became an incredibly competent fighter.
Event Horizon had a cool, wisecracking black guy for the comic relief and a cool, heroic, strait-laced black dude for The Captain. The former was one of the survivors thanks to some MacGyvering action on his part and the latter was only killed off in the requisite Heroic Sacrifice finale, making this a mild aversion.
In Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild, the character of Reeko the skunk (voiced by Wayne Brady).
Marlon Wayans has practically made a career out of this, some of his other examples being Mo Money, Little Man, Norbit and Dungeons & Dragons.
Lethal Weapon flipped the formula, with a suicidal and crazy white man partnered to a by-the-book family man. However, as the series continued, the white man got less suicidal and the black man got less uptight.
Chris Rock averts this role in Lethal Weapon 4, as he gets saddled to two heroes, one of whom is black and plays a middle role of being neither insane nor too by-the-book.
Interestingly, Die Hard flipped this a lot, firstly with the white Bruce Willis playing a wildcard trigger-happy cop whose only ally on the outside was a desk-riding black man who hadn't discharged a firearm on the job in years, ever since accidentally killing a child.
And the FBI agents who turn up to take over the scene are a white man and a black man who have the same last name and the same extremely by-the-book style. In fact, the bad guys are counting on it, as their plan only works if the FBI do go by-the-book.
The white agent even tries to play this one straight.
"Just like fuckin' Saigon, hey, Slick?"
(Nodding, smiling) "I was in junior high, dickhead."
McClane's limousine driver Argyle is more or less a straight example of this trope, however.
In the second film, his ally, the straight-laced and bookish airport engineer, Leslie Barnes, is another aversion/inversion...
...and finally, in the threequel, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Samuel Jackson plays a serious normal (albeit Badass) store owner who is forced to team up with McClane.
Parodied by Dave Chappelle in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. While this was a pastiche of other Robin Hood films (especially the Costner version), because of the extremes that this role sometimes goes to in a movie playing it straight, this rather exaggerated parody was actually not that far off the norm.
Michael Bay's Transformers features a few version of the trope who are technically Space Jews, since they're actually robots behaving like stereotypical black people.
In Revenge of the Fallen, Skids and Mudflap adopt borderline racist black mannerisms and are characterized by their cowardice and stupidity in contrast to the other heroic Autobots. Their faces in robot mode look like early 20th century portrayal of African-Americans — buck teeth, bulging eyes, and large ears. One of them has a gold tooth. They bust out ghetto slang constantly, and even threaten to "pop a cap" in someone's ass. The creators (and voice actors, one of whom is black) defended themselves by claiming that the characters were supposed to be lampoons of "wiggers."
There's also human examples in Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson's characters. "Grandma don't like nobody on her carpet, especially po-lice!"
Subverted in The Movie Hero. The hero, who believes that his life is a movie (no matter what his psychiatrist says), advertises for a sidekick, but is reluctant to accept the only applicant, a black guy, explaining that he wants to avoid this trope. The guy, Antoine, ultimately convinces him that although he does happen to be a young black comic, he will not embody the cliche.
Parodied in Not Another Teen Movie with "The Token Black Guy", who claims that part of his job description as, well, the token black guy is to stand around saying "Damn!" "Shit!" and "That is whack!" When he encounters another Token Black Guy at a party, he points out that only one of them is allowed per teen movie, so the second guy apologizes and leaves.
Orlando Jones averts this in Evolution. They also lampshade it several times during the movie.
Eddie Griffin plays this role opposite Orlando Jones (who fills the strait-laced role, though he's also black) in Double Take. They then trade identities, which leads to them parodying each others' archetypes, before it turns out that Griffin's character is actually an FBI agent and his "wacky black guy" persona was a cover.
Phil La Marr, who was one of two Black Guys on Mad TV, deconstructed this by claiming that Jones always gets blacker Black Guy roles. Examples of Phil La Marr's previous characters: Erik, Warren, Stanley Johnson, Bob Brown, Marvin. Previous examples of Orlando Jones' acting work: Natty Battle, Andre, Sticky Fingaz, Mookie
Jax in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, as part of the group of heroes who confront Shao Kahn, is all but made of this trope; just about every other line of dialogue he has is designed to remind you that he is, in fact, black.
The movie Cop Out seems to have Tracy Morgan in this role opposite Bruce Willis to the point he's an Ethnic Scrappy.
Also actually averted in Putney Swope: the one "main" white character in the film is a relentlessly abused junior executive. He gets one scene, which is based on an actual conversation the director observed between an ad agency head and a Black junior executive.
Rather Anviliciously presented in Crash, where a black TV writer is told by his white boss to make a black character's lines more stereotypical. As more than a few viewers have noted, why is an apparently successful writer taking advice from Tony Danza?
Django Unchained not only averts this trope with Django himself, but also subverts it with Stephen, who is first introduced in a somewhat comical fashion as being Large Hammily incredulous at Django being on a horse and being treated as a guest at the big house, and then spends most of dinner parroting his master (the Big Bad of the film). However, he is considerably more observant and intelligent than the Big Bad and when he is alone with the black slaves he becomes extremely sinister, suggesting that the Uncle Tomfoolery is his deliberately being sufficiently non-threatening to the whites that he is allowed to keep his position of power within the household and act as his master's dragon. He is also, at the very least, a Dragon Ascendant; he not only outlives his master but also gets dramatically killed while shouting curses in the film's violent climax, further suggesting that he is more of a Big Bad than his Fool of a master.
Averted in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. He may be the black sidekick, but Ripcord is still allowed to be a hero and have courage rather than just be the movie's comic relief.
Averted in Malibu's Most Wanted, a comedy starring Jamie Kennedy as "Brad". Brad's father is running for Governor and Brad is embarrassing him, so his (black) campaign manager hires two actors to kidnap him and take him to "the hood" to "scare the black out of him". Meanwhile, the two actors follow through but express irritation at always being cast as thugs or poor people, instead of someone with a full vocabulary and more dignity and grace. The villain, an actual gangbanger, is violent and uncouth but still is annoyed when the actors and Brad are surprised he knows who Brad's father is.
Inverted in Ghostbusters where Ernie Hudson's Winston Zeddmore is pragmatic and unfazed by all the weirdness and an all around grounding presence for the team, while the excitable comic relief goes to Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stanz instead.
Except of course for the hilarious line; "I've seen shit that'll turn you white!"
Critics often accuse Tyler Perry of doing this, particularly under his Madea guise (where he plays an unstrung, mentally imbalanced "mammy" type with a very tenuous grip of the English language).
HP Lovecraft, abyssal font of Values Dissonance that he was, made use of many racial stereotypes in his work, though they were never played for comedy, their otherness instead used as a source of horror or disgust. Some modern comics based on his work, however, such as The Unspeakable Vault (of Doom), poke fun at his outdated views by giving his Deep Ones exaggerated Minstrel traits like humongous lips, googly eyes & impenetrable patois-laden speech to drive home the point they were originally created as an indictment of miscegenation.
Averted in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is a serious tale about Uncle Tom, a pious, Christian, good man and his horrid life as a slave. No dancing, swearing, or nonsense about him whatsoever. The only problem contemporary readers had with the story is that they felt he was too passive and portrayed a double standard when compared with instances of whites resisting oppression: see the quote here from an 1852 edition of the abolitionist paper The Liberator.
Some characters played by Debra Wilson on Mad TV, but Bunifa is the most obvious.
Parodied in a The Whitest Kids U Know sketch where a mailroom employee starts throwing out horrible movie ideas to studio execs, who eat them all up. All think that having a bunch of black people hold a cookout in a driveway and having Cedric the Entertainer and Queen Latifah show up would make a great movie for black audiences.
They were actual parodies of unhip black guys perceived as Uncle Toms and sellouts, such as Bryant Gumbel.
Played with on Scrubs' Show Within a Show, Dr Acula. JD casts Turk as a jive talking pimp and he complains it's racist and he wants to play the vampire. JD responds by asking Turk to act "Blacker". Turk immediately takes over the film and swaps their roles.
Family Matters: Waldo, who was presented as a buffoon who misunderstood the simplest statements and often made such off-the-wall comments. At times, Urkel was this way too given his extreme clumsiness, manner of dress and high-pitched voice.
Good Times: J.J. Evans, the show's Breakout Character. Jimmie Walker played the part so well that the character of J.J. soon overshadowed the show's original premise (an African-American family living in a low-income housing apartment trying to improve their economic situation but always failing, due to poor luck or other circumstances), and many began criticizing the show for presenting J.J. as a stereotypical black – i.e., a buffon; the critics included Walker's castmates, John Amos and Esther Rolle, and it led to Amos' firing and Rolle'stemporary departure.
Dave Chappelle often played these in sketches on Chappelle's Show. One of his reasons for ending the show was that he could no longer recognize when he was parodying the character type, or actually playing them.
Maury is often accused of this, with some justification.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip attempted to avert this in a scene where, while scoping out a club for new talent, black comic Simon Stiles complains about a stand-up doing this for laughs and pushes for the hiring of a more sedate, intelligent comic. In general though, Studio 60 so often went out of its way not to be offensive about race that it became insultingly condescending instead.
Parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch, with an exaggerated Louis Armstrong type character (played by David Alan Grier) back in the 40s, who openly sings about how he doesn't mind not being treated as an equal. The sketch ends with a historian noting that the character would go down in history as the first black man to ever be lynched by other blacks.
The late Petey Greene on his show, Petey Greene's Washington.
Rapper Kreayshawn (who is a white woman) was accused of doing this in reverse by The Game (he released a song attacking her over it entitled "Uncle Otis"), in particular over her use of the word "nigga".
She was actually Mis-blamed for that; while the other criticisms are legitimate, she never actually used that word. It was a friend of hers, and she has made her displeasure over both her friend's use of it and the flack that she's received for something that she never did quite apparent.
Regina, a quasi-operatic musical adaptation of The Little Foxes, added the character Jazz, whose comic-relief numbers egregiously deviate from the neo-classical style of the rest of the show.
The Black Baron (stop starin') in Madworld. He's a black pimp who constantly spits out slang, has an ostentatious grill and keeps getting murdered in death traps (played for laughs) while going "Aw hell nawh!". And he's not even black, he uses blackface. And to further prove Madworld's double line-crossing, the Baron's (black) voice actor would later become one of the aforementioned Transformers twins in the same year. Guess which character the Internet criticized.
Considering MadWorld's bread and butter is the lampooning of this and other Unfortunate Implications, the criticism of the Transformers character is perhaps more justified...
And it certainly helped that the Black Baron turned out to be the Big Bad you fought at the end of the game. Let's hear it for Obfuscating Stupidity.
In supplemental material for the first Resident Evil game, the creator stated that two characters didn't make the final cut of characters: A giant cyborg man who could hold up walls (this person later became Barry), and a tall, skinny black guy who constantly cracked jokes and ran from the zombies. This guy was thrown out because of the obvious Unfortunate Implications, and players would not see a (living) black character in the series until Resident Evil Outbreak.
Gears of War: "ALL ABOARD THE COLE TRAIN, BABY! That's Augustus Cole, in case you were wondering. Taken Up to Eleven in the second game when he cuts off the Locust Queen during one of her speeches (still qualifies as a Crowning Moment of Funny).
The character is actually an Expy of a character called Terry Tate: Office Linebacker in a series of Reebok commercials, who was also portrayed by Les Speight. The character gets more and more complex as the series goes on, leading to one of the best lines of Gears 3;
'Augustus Cole: "Do you ever feel like you're dead, but nobody ever told you?"
Parodied in an episode of British animated series Monkey Dust. A continuation of the running "Meatsafe Murderer" sketches has an American director buy the rights to Ivan Dobsky's life story so he can make a movie out of it. Ivan's apparently sentient (not to mention murderous) space hopper is portrayed in the movie as a skateboard voiced by Eddie Murphy, who seems unable to utter ANY line without saying "Motherfucker" at least twice.
Parodied in South Park, where "Token Black" is well-off, book smart, talks in a standard American accent, and plays the straight man to a lot of the other characters' jokes (especially the racist Cartman).
Which the creators then play with endlessly... like they do everything. Example: he's never even picked up' a bass guitar in his life, but the moment you put it in his hands, he can play the shit out of it.
Cartman: Token, give me a smooth bass line.
Token: ...I don't know how to play bass.
Cartman: *frustrated* Token, how many times do we have to go through this? You're black, you can play bass.
Token: *angry* I'm getting sick of your stereotypes.
Cartman: Be as sick as you want, just give me a goddamn bass line!
Token: *picks up guitar and instantly is able to play a series of complicated riffs* Goddamnit.