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If old stereotypes die hard, old racist stereotypes die harder. In this political season we have seen the presumptive GOP nominee call minority groups “rapists” and generally imply the worst about them. Images matter, and the recent pairing of Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson in the film Central Intelligence, though first innocent seeming on the surface and a good example of the kind of diversity actors of color are looking for when it comes to casting opportunities, is racially problematic, and embodies the very kind of racist stereotypes that inspire the kind of rhetoric the GOP presidential nominee regularly spews forth into our eyes and ears.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. I did not go into this film thinking I was going to see a shining example of literary genius and wit. I get it is a summer popcorn comedy fantasy, and not a documentary on race relations in America. Dwayne Johnson is pretty, and Kevin Hart is funny. I’m just going to be honest here, that is why I went. However with the actual images of black men being murdered in cold blood filling up my Twitter feed daily, I can not take any media representation of us lying down. Every image of us crafted by white gatekeepers (yes the four writers of the film are all white) and what it intends and transmits must be challenged and analyzed for black lives to matter to anyone. We are a visual culture, what we see is what we perceive. It can transcend all logic. When medical students start believing that black people are magic and feel no pain, attention must be paid to images of us in the media that inform real life medical treatment.
What attempts to be a lesson on how bullying can cause life long emotional damage (even though in the film, the bullying is what triggers Dwayne Johnson to change from being a fat kid to the Adonis we know, and a super FBI agent so… #harm?) ends up being a parade of problems, ranging from objectifying sight gags “oh look, here is Dwayne Johnson in pajamas that are 10 sizes too small so that his muscles are bulging and bursting through”, to “little” Kevin Hart being emasculated and physically tossed around by the “big brute” we call an inanimate object “The Rock” to putting casually racist jokes into the mouth of a man of color. They are made non real in this movie, caricatures of humanity, a brute and a buffoon. Dwayne says to Hart, “You’re like a black Will Smith.” Hart responds with a critique, however to have a man of color even speak those words is bizarre. Putting jokes that are racial micro aggressions in the mouth of a black man is subversive. Apparently the four white men who wrote this movie,
L-R Rawson Marshall Thurber, Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, Peter Steinfeld
don’t see Will Smith as black. Why is that? He is accomplished, rich and famous, and a leading man…oh, got you. Actors of color aren’t usually cast in those roles so therefore Smith isn’t black? What is the criteria to be considered black I wonder?
The promotions for the movie use his last name as double entendre for his penis to advertise the film also.
The problems of referring to a man of color as a hard, inanimate object that can feel no pain are real. Consider the medical students I referenced earlier, and comments from police who have murdered unarmed black men. Darren Wilson referred to unarmed teenager Michael Brown as “a demon” when he explained murdering him. If we can feel no pain, we are not human, and therefore can be treated as such- inhumanely. So the logic follows that to kill us means nothing. Referring to the endowment of Dwayne Johnson is an interesting way to bring up the brute race stereotype, without actually saying it. it puts this image into our heads in a second. Black Males = big Johnson/penis = superhuman = Brute. Recall the Lebron James issue cover of Vogue that caused so much trouble? Now you get my drift. These depictions are no accident.
Kevin Hart emasculated:
There is also a whole Cowardly Lion thing going on with the portrayal of the big friendly giant who can’t face up to his bullies.
So what does all of this mean? Do I want you the reader to run into the streets picketing this movie? No. The racially problematic posturing from these white male writers, writing for black faces is nothing new in the American Cinema. However I want you to be mindful, to not let these racist images wash over you and go unnoticed. Images matter, and though vaguely funny, the only thing that makes this mess watchable is the chemistry between Johnson and Hart. I do not want to take anything away from their talents. Go see the movie if you choose, you will laugh. It will even be good for diversity if you go see it because it has two black leads. The industry will look at the box office receipts and perhaps make more movies starring black leads (with white writers).
See it, but make sure you are actually seeing what is going on in front of you .
Stay woke, and carry on.