It’s March 2016, and the internet is currently embroiled in a debate (as it is wont to do) over Leslie Jones’ MTA ticket booth character in the new Ghostbusters trailer.
Why does she have to be the token black character from the streets? Why are the white women the scientists? / Hey, Leslie Jones received a really lovely letter from an actual MTA worker thanking her for giving subway employees a “semblance of humanness.” That matters.
Fine, but she still should have been one of the scientists! / Um, black women only occupy about 1% of of all science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs whereas 41% of all MTA workers are black.
That’s all the more reason to make Jones’ character a scientist. Put a positive representation out there. Inspire little girls to dream big. / Are you saying STEM workers are more worthy of having their stories told than someone who works in a subway booth?
Who cares? It’s just a movie! / Oh, it is so much more than that!
Um, that trailer totally sucked, regardless of its depiction of gender or race. You guys know that, right? / I don’t know. It wasn’t that bad.
- An all-female cast? But [sexism, sexism, sexism]!
- An all-female cast? It’s about damn time!
- An all-female cast? Why not a co-ed Ghostbusters? Is making it all-female even good for feminism?
- Oh, look at that – Wiig and McCarthy, together again. Bridesmaids reunion. Cool.
- Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones? Never heard of ’em. Stopped watching SNL years ago.
- Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones? Awesome! They’re the two best parts of SNL.
- So, um, are they just playing female versions of the original Ghostbusters. Are we talking about Petra Venkman, Emily Spengler, Raylene Stantz and Winnie Zeddemore?
- Hollywood needs to stop with [rant about reboots/revivals/sequels/nostalgia]!
- 3 white people with one black person? I guess that means they found their new Ernie Hudson.
That last one obviously sticks out to me right now. Absent any concrete information about the direction Paul Feig and Katie Dippold were taking the new Ghostbusters in their script, it was logical to look at the racial make-up of the cast and assume they were hewing fairly closely to the original film’s formula, ergo, Leslie Jones is their Ernie Hudson. This was confirmed by the story synopsis and character descriptions which leaked online shortly after the official cast announcement. The fourth member of the new group was identified as Patty Tolan, a subway worker who only joins the story part way through. Was there ever any doubt who was going to be playing that part?
The answer is yes because there’s no actual reason that they need to mimic the formula of the original, not when it comes to race. This isn’t a remake or a sequel. It’s a reboot, a fresh start. If you were paying attention, all the signs indicated the new Ghostbusters was bringing 1984 race relations back to us, but not everyone noticed. Then the trailer premiered on Thursday. Everyone’s paying attention now.
Here’s the trailer followed by a sampling of some of the anti-Patty Tolan reactions:
The three other women, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, are all scientists. Women scientists who hunt and capture ghosts? Sign me all the way up. But Leslie? My girl Leslie is a subway worker? A loud and boisterous cashier who knows the street-level of New York? Granted, I am reacting to a trailer, but come on. Is this the 1980s? Leslie even had a Cadillac hearse joke. Really? This joke was done much better, nineteen years ago, by Bill Bellamy in Love Jones.
As cartoonist and filmmaker, Roy Miles offered: “I was expecting Nick Nolte to pop out and tell a watermelon joke.”
There has been some grumblings on various sites, with most people falling into these various camps: “Is this really the battle we should be fighting?” “Well, there isn’t even a [insert another race/ethnicity here] in the film.” “Ohmygod. Will you people ever be happy?”
I get it, race talk is hard talk for people who don’t have to engage in the talk. But representation is power. To have a black woman whoop spectral ass, as well as solve more complex problems with her intellect and not just her street smarts, that would have been a welcome revelation
I ain’t afraid of no ghosts. But I am increasingly afraid that white filmmakers have no idea how to represent black women on screen.
The glimpses of Patty we see in the trailer are reminiscent of decades of tokenization in cinema, which reduces people of color—and specifically black women—to being portrayed as mammies, “Magical Negroes,” and token black friends. These characters rarely have their own developed narrative arcs or rich inner lives and primarily exist to service the white characters in their quest for fulfillment. While these characters pay lip service to racial inclusion, they are reduced to second-class citizens onscreen.
Hollywood can do better by dismantling stereotypes and allowing women to tell their own stories, but it too often does not. Producers, writers and directors like these kinds of roles because they are familiar and comfortable for white audiences, who are used to seeing themselves in positions of authority and control over black lives. Casting Leslie Jones to play a scientist, and thus be on equal footing with her castmates, would be relinquishing decades of power.
Throughout the trailer, we see Leslie Jones hollering, bitch-slapping, using the actual phrase “AWW HELL NAH,” and generally creating the kind of minstrel show we should have transcended by now. This is likely not her fault (she didn’t write the script), but it is reflective of a lack of diversity of talent and imagination in the writers rooms and on sets in Hollywood. I expected to love this trailer and reblog gifs on Tumblr for hours afterwards, and instead I got that familiar sinking feeling that this would be another upsetting failure to showcase a black woman in a positive light.
The fact that Jones plays a working-class citizen isn’t the problem, either. It’s that she’s a shallow representation of black women, juxtaposed with thoughtful representation of white women. She may indeed be a nuanced, fully-drawn character; the poster deems her a “municipal historian” and “metaphysical commando.” While this sentiment may be amplified in the full-length film, the trailer sure as Hell doesn’t show that.
I understand this is a reboot of Ghostbusters from 1984 and the new characters mirror their male counterparts. But it’s been over 30 years and the dynamic of three white scientists and ‘street-wise’ minority is dated.
The set-up in the original was three white dudes from Columbia University having a fun origin story and once their new business is flourishing they hire on extra help in the form of a black guy who’s just happy to have a job. Paul Feig has promised that while his Ghostbusters echoes part of that formula, “Patty plays a bigger part [than Winston did in the originals]. I definitely wanted four equal team members.”
Sadly, the original Ghostbusters was supposed to have four equal team members too. “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say,” is but one of a mere 30 lines Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore has in the entire movie. However, as Hudson explained in an op-ed he wrote for EW on the occasion of Ghostbusters‘ 30th anniversary,”When I originally got the script, the character of Winston was amazing and I thought it would be career-changing. The character came in right at the very beginning of the movie and had an elaborate background: he was an Air Force major something, a demolitions guy. It was great.”
They rehearsed that version of the script for three weeks, but the night before filming he received a new script which turned Winston into the version of the character we now know. “The next morning, I rush to the set and plead my case. And Ivan [Reitman] basically says, ‘The studio felt that they had Bill Murray, so they wanted to give him more stuff to do.’ I go, ‘Okay, I understand that, but can I even be there when they’re established?’ And of course, he said no, there’s nothing to do about it.”
Possibly as a result of the last-minute re-write, Winston in the finished film sort of comes and goes without explanation. That odd narrative inconsistency repeated itself in Ghostbusters 2, and to this day when Hudson makes the occasional convention appearance the question he gets asked the most is “Where does Winston go [when he’s not around]?” Hudson has no answer because even he doesn’t know.
As far as the marketing for the 1984 Ghostbusters was concerned, Winston wasn’t even a real member of the team. Notice who’s missing in this poster?:
He’s also barely in the trailer.
The progress we’ve made from 1984 to 2016 is the new version of Winston Zeddemore, i.e., Patty Tolan, is featured quite prominently in the trailer. She even has her own character poster and LEGO figurine. But, wow, do a lot of people ever find her to be offensive. Winston was always a “just there” kind of character, an everyman type who didn’t actually say a whole lot. Patty, on the other hand, apparently says quite a bit about how Hollywood treats black characters.
What do you think? Do you find her to be an offensive stereotype? Or do you think she could be pretty funny? Don’t care about any of this because, most importantly, that trailer totally stunk? Or are have you reached Ghostbusters fatigue at this point due the way this movie has been politicized from the moment it was announced?