Are We Still Doing the Token Black Guy Thing?

Black dudes. What are they good for in film and TV? Well, offering witty remarks, making the shot look pretty (full) and dying first apparently.

But is this just a misconception which has been leant on too heavily? I’ll answer that one for you. Yes. Yes it is. There are not actually that many characters in film or TV programmes who happen to be both black, and token. Well, not anymore at least.

Token Black Guy

In previous decades, leading up to the ’70s, there were very few black characters in mainstream films as they were predominantly written and made for white audiences. So when filmmakers felt they had to take note of equal opportunities in this new era of change, the casting of black actors was made, but often limited to small parts, background characters and at best, supporting roles.

This was the case for all genres, including horror. But why the cliché that black characters are the first to die – especially in horror films? Well because they were I suppose, but only for a short period in cinema’s history – from the time they were actually being cast, until the time they were being given meatier roles.

As mentioned, when black actors were beginning to get more screen time, they were initially only handed small, background and supporting roles. And in horror films who gets killed off first? Any character who doesn’t have a big, lead role. Hence, why it always seemed the black characters were only token. They were never around long enough to contribute to the story, especially in horror films.

Shaft (1971)

This archaic trait started to die out in all genres with the emergence of black power films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) andShaft (1971), which featured predominantly black casts, black leads and stories relative and directly focused towards black audiences.

Once these films forced their way into the mainstream, there was no going back. Okay, there were some stumbling blocks over the years, but we have now progressed into an era where the American President is black, black actors are winning major film and TV awards, and they are sustaining careers as successful leads. Martin Lawrence still even gets work from time to time.

So, the token black guy scenario only had relevance almost over 50 years ago and still exists now purely because of a hard worn cliché. For every film or TV programme you watch where a black character dies first, or just seems like filler, the next you watch will probably feature a black character surviving until the end or being pivotal to the plot. There simply are no more obvious examples of the token black guy in modern media entertainment. Or are there?

Billy Brown as Troy Reilly in The Following

I’ve been watching the first episodes of The Following, and what I generally enjoy doing when starting a new TV series is predicting who of the main characters will die first, or generally not last very long. Obviously, as I’m not racist, this is not limited to black characters alone. All are fair game.

In the initial episodes, one of the characters we were introduced to was Troy Reilly (Billy Brown). Now, not just because he is black, but as soon as this police character was introduced, I thought, ‘he’s gonna get it. He’s gonna get it soon.’ And I wasn’t wrong. Agent Troy Reilly only lasted a couple of episodes. Just as soon as his character was getting familiar – knife to throat. Gone.

So I was shocked right? Wrong. Did I miss him? Nope. So what was the point of Agent Troy Reilly even being invented in this series? And why did it seem so obvious that he wasn’t going to last long?

Maggie Grace’s character doesn’t even survive as long as Brown’s, but when she was killed off, there was a point to it. We were shocked, saddened, but ultimately, we were engaged – because someone we were invited to sympathise with through a short but fleshed out individual story, met a very premature end.

The Following Cast

The cast of The Following. Note: not a black guy in sight.

Brown’s character on the other hand – well it seems his only function was to fill in a few explanatory narrative blanks, bulk out the background a bit, and then meet a grisly end – all while apparently, fully representing the black demographic of the show.

But that’s okay right? In a violent serial killer thriller characters have to be killed off all the time, and some of them early. So what if one of them is one of the only main black characters cast in the series so far.

Creators of The Following, I’m letting you off for now. No further questions, you are free to go.

But then I started thinking (a rarity)…

I started thinking about the solitary main black male character in The Walking Dead from the start of the first series up until the end of the second.

IronE Singleton plays Theodore ‘T-Dog’ Douglas in 20 full episodes. He was with us from the very start, up until his heroic end (via the teeth of a white zombie).

So it was a shock when he was killed off right? Wrong. But we did miss him a little bit right? Wrong again. Why? Because he was literally the only main character from the band of survivors who was never given any chance to develop whatsoever. We had no emotional attachment to him because he was always in the background. He was never integral to the story, and his only main duties were leaving an evil white man for dead and being ill for a while. And where did this black character meet his end? Well, in a world without law or government – in prison of course. How IronIC.

T-Dog in The Walking Dead

For me, the character T-Dog symbolised a temporary re-emergence of the token black guy. He was only there to even-up the demographic a bit. He had no importance to the story and its development, and the worst part? Just before he was killed off we were introduced to his replacement…

…Vincent M. Ward plays prison convict Oscar (of course he does). Another background character who again doesn’t have any bearing on the story whatsoever. So what is he there for? Again it seems just to fill the frame, make the odd remark, and wait for his inevitable demise. Which, will surely be soon, as… another black character has just been introduced. Yes, just before the end of the third season’s mid-point finale, we were curiously presented with Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman).

Oscar, your days are numbered. The Walking Dead – tread carefully.

So is it just me or is the token black character being snuck back into productions purely for the duty of fulfilling that type of role – token black guy?

Are there anymore examples out there which haven’t been noticed?

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About thenumbereightytwo

I am an avid film enthusiast with a passion for creative writing. My favourite things in life are writing about; film, popular culture and current affairs; watching films and looking at penguins. One day I hope to be getting paid more than I deserve for doing all of these professionally (not the penguin part - that will still be a hobby). View all posts by thenumbereightytwo

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