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Finally, A Black Best Friend Character Who Doesn't Suck

In defense of Amy Schumer, of all people.

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By the time I’d heard of Amy Schumer, the comedian was already mid-backlash. A brief crescendo of idolatry for Schumer’s feminist satire was followed by even louder accusations of racism. Had Schumer been deserving of all the praise? Was she actually a massive racist? Maybe. I wasn’t really sure, because I really hadn’t heard any of her jokes.

I’d seen some criticism of her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, with its booty jam spoof, “Milk, Milk, Lemonade” (exploitative), and its sketch about a white woman too stuffy to identify a black salesperson by his race (problematic). Then there was Schumer’s joke, excavated from a years-old stand-up set, that Latino men are rapists. Or was it that Latino men are disproportionately pumped with bravado and machismo? It was hard to know exactly which direction Schumer was trying to go with a joke that was, at best, rooted in a negative racial stereotype.

But I did know that — unlike Tina Fey and Lena Dunham before her — Schumer was experiencing the cycle of celebrity buildup and takedown at 2015 speeds. This cycle is especially tough on comedians, who face great demand for provocation and bear total responsibility for their performances.

In fact, it’s never been more dangerous to talk about comedy and race. There’s the danger of saying the wrong thing. You may be “wrong” these days simply for failing to express yourself as clearly as you should. Or you could be wrong in the future, when something you shouldn’t have said (but nobody heard) comes back to haunt you. Earlier this year, Trevor Noah was named Jon Stewart’s Daily Show successor and reamed for years-old anti-semitic Twitter jokes in the same breath.

This is not to say we should feel bad for Noah; Comedy Central stood by him, and he weathered the Twitterstorm. Schumer, for her part, apologized for her Latino joke, explaining that she has grown as a comic since then. But it’s a position no writer, no comedian, no creative of any kind wants to be in. I can relate. There are things I wrote in college that I hope stay buried in the archives should my big time ever come.

Do Schumer’s past racist jokes mean we shouldn’t take her seriously as an auteur and leading comic? Must we accept her apology? Has she actually grown?

I’m going to say that she has grown, based on her treatment of black men in Trainwreck. It’s going to get sticky here, because I know how this sounds. But this is not to excuse her past racist jokes. Nor is it to put down one race and uplift another, both races fodder for a white woman’s fame. What I want to say is, maybe Amy Schumer knows what she’s doing now.

Trainwreck is Judd Apatow’s first rom-com from a female point of view, which is already notable in itself. Bridesmaids had already put a lens on female friendship, but Trainwreck promised a female anti-hero. What would a female Apatow lead look? A female version of those bumbling boors — portrayed by Seth Rogan and Jason Segel — who deep down has a heart of gold?

Turns out, Apatow girls act just like Apatow guys. No debate there. Trainwreck’s Amy is chemically dependent, emotionally repressed, and extremely funny. But we can’t give Apatow all the credit. From Schumer's stand-up and from Inside, it’s clear that she knows the scripts that are doled out according to gender, and how to flip them. (Slate’s Amanda Hess explained this well.) But unlike Schumer's previous work, it’s her inversion of male archetypes in Trainwreck — and she did write the script — that’s commendable. For once, the black best friend isn’t window dressing.

Ever seen Not Another Teen Movie? The 2001 parody perfectly nails the “black best friend” trope seen in virtually all teen comedies of the ‘90s. In a school hallway, the token black friend, Malik (wearing a hoodie and an exaggerated short, curly ‘fro), skewers his own stock character during a conversation about the prettiest girls in school. “I’m just supposed to smile, stay out of the conversation, and say things like ‘Damn!’ ‘Shit!’ and ‘That is wack!’” And it’s true. You may remember Dule Hill and Usher were in She’s All That, but do you remember their characters’ names or any memorable lines?

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Black best friends — commonly employed as secretaries, or assistants, or caretakers — show up in movies reliably but forgettably. Quick, what was Oscar nominee Viola Davis’s character’s name in Eat Pray Love? Or Jennifer Hudson’s name in the Sex and the City movie? These characters (Delia Shiraz and Louise, respectively) are onscreen long enough for the films’ creators to tout their project’s diversity, but not long enough for black viewers to build connections with them. In most cases, these characters never have stories of their own, and they barely even advance the stories of the main white characters.

LeBron James in Trainwreck is, thankfully, more than the black best friend. You could say he’s a freebie character. James is playing himself, after all, which means he has a built-in backstory and an obvious reason for being in a movie in which a magazine writer falls in love with a sports surgeon (played by Bill Hader, who also wasn’t bad here). But he goes beyond being the LeBron James we know, LeBron James the basketball player. There are more scenes of James off the court than on. It’s not just a celebrity cameo.

Instead, James spends much of the film quarterbacking the budding romance between Schumer and Hader’s characters, offering more than typical rom-com platitudes about the state of contemporary courtship. James wants his friend to stop repeating the same relationship mistakes, and there’s a key scene with Amy — at a basketball game he’s not playing in! — where James reads Amy’s personality with emotional intelligence, and gives her solid advice. It’s worth mentioning that James improvised many of these lines.

But, for the purpose of this argument, it’s more important to tell you all the things James isn’t. He is not sassy comic relief. He doesn't rescue a main white character and disappear. He isn't killed in the first few minutes. He is not paired with a white love interest just to show that such a relationship can happen, nor is he paired with a white love interest in a relationship that never addresses such dynamics.

Lebron is interchangeable with other Apatow best friends, however, in that any actor of any background could have pulled his role off. Apatow and Schumer simply introduced a plausible character — who happened to be plausibly black — into the rom-com ecosystem, and didn’t put words in his mouth. Jonah Hill gets to play a version of himself in Apatow films, and it’s nice to see the courtesy extended to a black actor.

Of course, this is LeBron James, so we’re forced to suspend disbelief that the greatest athlete of a generation would be best friends with a surgeon. But maybe that’s the point. We might just be a little closer to saying it’s OK to have relationships that don’t look like what we’re used to seeing onscreen. James’ character won’t go down as a black milestone in cinema, but if we consider the context he’s in, he stands out. Apatow movies aren’t exactly exercises in racial equality, and Schumer’s got some demerits on her record. Let’s chalk this up as a small victory.

Trainwreck was made long before the Amy Schumer racist backlash, and there was one moment in Trainwreck that made me cringe in a way that recalls her past missteps. At a funeral, Vanessa Bayer’s character leans over to a black man and comments — without further discussion — that she dated a black guy once. We know what she’s implying, the old “once you go black” saying. But without another layer of meaning, it’s awkward and falls flat.

Was that line enough to sink the movie, or Schumer’s budding career as a whole? I don’t think so.

As the backlash cycle has become swifter, so have the apologies and, as a result, they can feel insincere. I’m not sure whether Taylor Swift was saying sorry to Nicki Minaj from the heart, or whether she realized she was on the losing side of that one. Shoehorning minorities into white productions — looking at you, Lena Dunham — can also feel like a cheap cop-out.

Perhaps I ought to feel the same way about Schumer’s apology, but I keep going back to James in Trainwreck. How Schumer used him to advance the plot, rather than fall into the background of it. How his character was neither a stereotype-reinforcing trope, nor a politically correct fantasy. While Schumer was being taken to task for playing into racial stereotype for jokes, she was leading a project that dismantled another racial stereotype. And how clever of her to do it through James, who is known for flipping the script on his own career offscreen, turning perceptions of jock cockiness into righteous, unbridled confidence.

Maybe there’s something to be said here about Schumer’s future treatment of folks of color. I’m afraid to be too optimistic. Given how quickly the verdict on entertainers can change, I’ll hold out on giving her my definitive Twitter endorsement. She might screw up a black joke or a Latino joke or a woman joke tomorrow, and then I’ll be among those who were Wrong. But James’ character is at least a warning that we shouldn’t be too quick to write off creators as irredeemable because of a few missteps.

Aaron Foley is a Detroit-based writer whose work appears in several local and national publications. His first book, "How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass," is due on shelves in fall 2015.

Contact Aaron Foley at aaronkfoley@gmail.com.

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