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By Mason Johnson
Updated 3/3/2016 5:00 p.m.: Edited the piece to include Leslie Jones’ response…
Is the new Ghostbusters racist? Two hours after the release of the first trailer, Twitter can’t seem to decide.
Type “Ghostbusters racist” into Twitter’s search bar, and you’ll find a handful of people angry at the trailer’s portrayal of Leslie Jones, the only black lead among the main cast. You’ll also find — at the moment at least — far more people complaining about these accusations, firmly believing that the trailer and upcoming film is not racist.
Backlash from the backlash. You gotta love the Internet.
For those critical of the trailer, the writing behind Patty Tolan, Leslie Jones’ character, appears to be the problem. From the moment it’s established that McKinnon, McCarthy and Wiig are scientists and Jones is a street-wise city worker, something just seems… off.
Street-wise black caricatures have appeared in many movies. It is a trope, a cliche, the kind of character that lacks thought or depth in many of its examples. Is that what Jones’ character is in the latest Ghostbusters iteration?
In the trailer, Jones’ character also resembles the “magical black character” trope. She seemingly shows up out of the blue to guide the white characters out of trouble with her magical abilities (in this case, she knows New York City really well, apparently).
If this is in fact her role in the movie, she follows in the steps of many poorly-written black characters before her, characters who only exist to guide the talented white characters to success. This includes the likes of Morgan Freeman’s characters in Bruce Almighty and the most recent Batman trilogy, Will Smith’s character in movies like The Legend of Bagger Vance and Hitch and Richard Pryor in Silver Streak.
You could argue that these characters have a positive role in their respective scripts, but when they pop up as often as they do, continually playing second fiddle to white characters, it seems far less glamorous — especially at a time when it’s hard for actors of color to obtain diverse roles in Hollywood. Stereotypes like this can also lead to a skewed, detrimental view of black Americans, claims research by Northwestern University.
Problems plague the original Ghostbusters, too. Though Ernie Hudson appears to be fond of his time on the Ghostbusters set, he was frustrated by the lack of his presence in the final product. Hudson’s character, originally in the script from beginning to end, got pushed out of the movie, appearing later and receiving less screen time than his fellow ‘busters.
Director Paul Feig claims Patty Tolan won’t suffer the same problems as Winston Zeddemore. “Patty’s a bigger part,” Feig told the New Yorker. “I definitely wanted four equal team members.”
“He made it completely equal,” Jones said in the same article. “It was like a superhero team, where each one has her own skill but can’t use it without the others.”
Leslie Jones responded directly to critics of the trailer on Twitter. After a fan expressed their wish that Jones’ character were a scientist, just like her three castmates, Jones wrote, “their [sic] not scientist either they are ACTORS!!”
Later, Jones commented that it’s just a movie and not actually science, and that people should quit complaining about nothing. (Did not embed her tweets here because they contained naughty words that the watchful CBS eye would not approve of.)
There are a lot of assumptions from both those who love the new Ghostbusters trailer and those who are critical of the short video. It’s understandable, considering Hollywood’s track record with actors of color (fewer roles, stereotypical roles, less screen time), why some would worry Ghostbusters might make the same racist mistakes filmmakers have been committing for decades. With that said, though she doesn’t have a writing credit on the movie, we don’t currently know what kind of involvement Jones had in developing her character, or how that will affect the final product. For all we know, her character is meant to subvert the very stereotypes she seems to embody in the trailer.
Ultimately, though we don’t have all the answers, many feel that these questions — is this racist? — are worth considering.