Always Bet on Black? Looking at who dies first in some 80s action films.

Posted by Charles Reece, February 28, 2010 11:54pm | Post a Comment

The folks over at TV Tropes have a handy system of weights ("scream scores") assigned to character types, called the Sorting Algorithm of Mortality (SAM), that when added up predict who's most likely to die first in a film or TV show. Under the category of race, the SAM gives a weight of 5 out of 5 for black or twofer (the latter being two token minorities represented in one character). At least since Renny Harlin's ironic homage to 80s sci-fi/action films, Deep Blue Sea (1999), the trope that the "black dude dies first" has been taken as a truism among pop culture aficionados. If you'll recall, it was Sam Jackson's Russell Franklin who, during one the actor's trademarked badass speeches, was the first major character to get eaten by a shark. The joke actually compounds two factors that aren't that easy to separate: star power and race. One wouldn't expect Will Smith to be the first to go, so Jackson, being the biggest star in the picture, shouldn't have been either, but his blackness (as the film satirically put it) won out. LL Cool J's Preacher makes explicit reference to the trope throughout the film, and is surprisingly (against the race-based common-sense expectation) saved at the end. But he's the second biggest star in the film (with the possible exception of Thomas Jane, whose character survives too). So are all the joking references to the fate of black men in action films really hitting their target, or are they merely beating a "dead unicorn"? I figure the topic makes for a fitting end to Black History Month here at Amoeblog.


Since this ain't a doctoral thesis and I've limited time to rewatch films, my sample is going to be real limited based on memory, friend's suggestions and to the 80s (since it's that decade that mostly suffers the brunt of the jokes). Still, I believe the four films here were the primary source material for Harlin's film: John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), James Cameron's Aliens (1986), John McTiernan's Predator (1987) and George P. Cosmatos' Leviathan (1989). All four feature an ethically diverse ensemble cast (but with a white star actor being a little more equal than the others) fighting against a newly discovered life form that stands to win the Darwinian struggle. (Click on the titles for plot summaries.)

Carpenter's always been a racially conscious filmmaker, so perhaps it's not all that surprising that his two black characters make it to the final act. As MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Nauls (T.K. Carter) are laying dynamite to blow up the compound and the Thing with it, Nauls goes to investigate a mysterious sound. He's not seen again, but odds of his survival become pretty low when MacReady throws lit dynamite at the alien, laying waste to the entire building. As the explosion spreads from building to building, MacReady meets up with the remaining black character, Childs (Keith David). With no hope of rescue, they share a drink as they wait to die from the cold. The final scene portrays a sort of realpolitik solution to underlying race relations, namely Cold War stalemate:

Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn't.
Childs: If you're worried about me …
MacReady: If we've got any surprises for each other, I don't think we're in much shape to do anything about it.
Childs: Well, what do we do?
MacReady: Why don't we just … wait here for a little while. See what happens.

As Watchmen attempted to demonstrate, nothing brings people closer than a common fear of the Big Other ... that, and exhaustion.

With all the violent penetration going on in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), in addition to the H.R. Giger's dark, phallic design of the creature itself and the lead being Ripley, a white woman (Sigourney Weaver), it's not hard to read the entire film as a parodic take on racist views of black men and potency. As a friend recently suggested, the fact that one of the last remaining characters is a black man (Parker, played by Yaphet Kotto) helps to subvert/mock such a lingering/repressed fear. However much truth there might or might not be to that reading, it's clear that Cameron's sequel takes all of the subtextual sex out of the explicit violence. Likewise, it lacks the literary, cinematic and design pedigree of Scott's film, and with this textual simplification as just a good action yarn came a bunch of generic character types, some of them ethnic, if not exactly racial.

Marked for an early death by the SAM is the film's twofer character of Private Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein), who's both Mexican and a lesbian. Unfortunately, to symbolize her dual-token status, she dresses and speaks in a pachuco style -- wearing a bandana, of course -- and is so butch that she out-muscles most of the men (she carries one of the biggest guns). That's a lot of targeted stereotypes, yet she survives until the final act, valiantly giving her life to save what remains of her team (albeit, all of whom are white). 

The two black characters, Private Frost (Ricco Ross) and Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews), are among the first to die, but they do so along with more than half of the team as they go up against the aliens. Frost is killed by the "friendly fire" from one his impaled teammates (see above) and Apone is shown looking up at a descending alien just before his helmet cam projects white noise. I guess this kind of supports the black-guy-dies-first intuition, but I'm betting Mexicans and lesbians have more to complain about, since the worst cliché being used on a black man is that of the war genre's gruff, cigar-chomping Sarge.

Hardly the poster boy for multiculturalism, Arnold Schwarzenegger made a career in films that killed off one cultural identity after another. On the one hand, Predator could be considered his most racially sensitive film, since the two black characters, Dillon (Carl Weathers) and Mac (Bill Duke), are given the most complex characterizations and dramatic scenes (such as they are in a film that primarily exists to blow shit up, rainforest included). On the other, the film does trot out all sorts of stereotypes about American Indians in the character of Billy (Sonny Landham), the group tracker who mystically stares into the trees, sensing "heap big trouble." Rather than continuing to run from the predatory alien, Billy throws away his gun and chooses to face the creature with nothing but a bare chest and big knife, undoubtedly showing another warrior soul the respect it deserves. Regardless, the black guys and the Indian make it through most of act two -- longer than most of the white cast members.

An Alien ripoff set underwater, Leviathan has the longest lifespan for a condemned black character, Justin Jones (Ernie Hudson). With the two white love interests/leads, Beck (Peter Weller) and Elizabeth (Amanda Pays), he makes it all the way to the ocean's surface at the end, having survived a bloodthirsty, morphing monster, the implosion of the underwater base and a shark attack, only to be seemingly drowned by the last-minute reappearance of said monster as the rescue chopper is a mere 50 feet away. If he wasn't dead from the drowning, he was surely killed when (recalling MacReady and the dynamite) Beck throws a grenade into the monster's mouth. Not exactly a nod towards equal representation, but definitely not support for the SAM's scream scoring, either.  And, as with Aliens, blacks fare a good sight better than Mexicans, who are here "represented" by DeJesus (Michael Carmine), a researcher of some sort who looks more like a drug dealer from some bad 70s film.

So what did I learn? Well, it would seem that race, ethnicity and even sexual identity aren't the best predictors for who's going to die first in 80s sci-fi-action films. A better question is who's going to last until the end? The biggest star, of course. And there is where race comes into it, since there weren't that many non-whites who were given the chance to carry a big budget spectacle. As Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Sam Jackson, etc. became increasingly bankable stars in the 90s, the black male began to survive all the perils of the action genre. One might say that racism can't beat the abstracted exchange value of actors in an amoral market economy. And, finally, the representation of blacks was a good deal more "progressive" (complex and less stereotypical) in these movies than that of certain other minority types.

The Wrong Way: African Americans in Rock, by Cas

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, February 27, 2010 03:01pm | Post a Comment
kyp malone tv on the radio

Kyp Malone and I shared an “Afro-punk moment” a few years ago. We were at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco where Kyp’s band, TV on the Radio, had opened for The Faint. The show was just letting out when I ran into the furry, bespectacled guitarist and co-vocalist milling about in the lobby of the venue. I struck up a conversation, letting him know I’d caught the previous night’s show of the same bill at The Grand Regency Ballroom. We’d been talking for some time when a young white indie kid broke away from the pack of even more young white indie kids that passed by and approached Kyp and me, smiling that “OMG” smile. “You guys were great tonight” she beamed, at first addressing me. There was this split second of confusion when I didn’t know how to respond since, you know, I was holding it down in thetv on the radio audience that night. I kind of chuckled and motioned towards Kyp, remarking that he was the guy she wanted to thank. Kyp, being mischievous, motioned right back at me, letting her know that I was the guy to thank. We let it hang for one beat before letting the embarrassed girl off the hook. Kyp thanked her for the compliment, his genuine smile defusing the girl’s embarrassment. After she dove back into the throng, Kyp turned to me and said, “That happens all the time...whenever I’m standing with any other black dude.” We laughed. 

Taking the diplomatic route, I guess I couldn’t really blame the girl for thinking I was a member of the band, except I don’t bear that much of a resemblance to any of the guys in TVOTR. Sure, we share some African ancestry, taste in eyewear and facial hair grooming concepts. But we don’t really look alike. Do we? Regardless, amongst all of the people that were at Bimbo’s that night, Kyp and I stuck out, even though only one of us was on stage under spotlights.

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Posted by Billyjam, February 22, 2010 04:06pm | Post a Comment

The Last Poets
From its early days, hip-hop has been closely interrelated with black history and culture. Hip-hop is really a continuum of many previous black art forms. Rapping or MC'ing, for example, is merely carrying on a tradition of various oratorical forms in black history that include West African griots, talking blues, the sharp verbal flow of 1950's & 1960's hipster-jive talking radio DJs, the spoken word of artists like The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron, and of course, the toasting style in reggae. Additionally, hip-hop music, through both its lyrical content and its endless sampling, is responsible for teaching black history in a non traditional way.

Thanks to hip-hop's ubiquitous sampling of such historical black figures as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (especially in the 80's and 90's), many young people first learned about the philosophies of these black leaders and black history in general. One of the earliest popular hip-hop songs to sample Malcolm X was Keith La Blanc's "Malcolm X - No Sell Out" 1983 single on Tommy Boy that utilized absolutely no rapping, just samples of the black leader speaking. In later years most hip-hop artists sampled bits of Malcolm X to Malcolm Xcompliment the emcee's message. In 1988 Public Enemy's politically charged album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back opened with a powerful Malcolm X sample.

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New Orleans Block Party - Bounce Music goes to SXSW 2010

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 18, 2010 09:04am | Post a Comment

This looks incredible. South By Southwest is hosting a bounce music showcase. This is your chance to experience some of the biggest talents to come out of the New Orleans Rap scene.

Although they made their pledge goals, you can still donate and get various merchandise. Now I may have to go to SXSW for the first time.


Partners-N-Crime DJ Jubilee

PNC were one of the star attractions at Big Boy Records in the '90s and were pioneers of that gangsta bounce sound. Jube is the glue that holds Take Fo' Records together and the man who wrote "Back That A$$ Up," among many other classics.

Magnolia Shorty has released several bounce classics, my favorite being "Monkey on tha D$ck" when she was on Cash Money Records.


Katey Red , Big Freedia and Vockah Redu

Katey is the most widely recognized name in bounce's off-shoot, sissy rap. Another big name in the sissy scene, Freedia gave us the classic "Gin In My System." Yet another big name in the sissy scene, Vockah Redu created sissy beef with "F*** Katey Red."


Ms Tee
Ms. Tee was the R&B hook singer for Cash Money's early releases who often continues to collaborate with Magnolia Shorty.
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Moving beyond bipolarity - da meeja, favoritism, fairness and equality

Posted by Eric Brightwell, February 17, 2010 11:25am | Post a Comment
Just a little pie chart to ponder... First, the demographic percentages of the US's major minority populations:


...versus the google results for their respective national, month-long cultural observances.

...which suggests that, as I assumed, Black History Month is far more of a concern than Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Month. Black History Month is all good, but why not recognize the rest? And, although not a minority, Women's History Month deserves some recognition too... as does Gay Pride Month. This year of the tiger, resolve to move beyond bipolarity! 


Black History Month began in 1893 as Colored American Day.

Women's History Month began in 1911 as International Women's Day.

Native American Heritage Month began in 1915 as American Indian Day.

Hispanic Heritage Month began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month began in 1978 as Asian American Heritage Week.

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