Being a Buddy: The Black Detective on the Big Screen

Philippa Gates, Wilfrid Laurier University

black detectives

The detective film is concerned with a hero who triumphs over injustice and evil; however, as in the majority of mainstream American film, that hero is most often white. Other kinds of cinema, most notably American black independent cinema, are able to express and explore the sexuality of African Americans; however, Hollywood cinema seems to regard it as necessary to contain the perceived threat of black sexuality for fear of offending white mainstream audiences. In Hollywood film, the black male body is offered as heroic only when it is contained often through a lack of sexuality and action-and paired with a white buddy.

An Integrationist Hero: The 1960s

In the Heat of the Night (1967) introduced the first notable black detective-hero, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). The film is a biracial buddy film teaming Poitier's character with a white police chief, Gillespie (Rob Steiger), and is one of the few biracial buddy films that makes race one of the main issues of the narrative. The film is not only concerned with race, which is merely the most obvious manifestation of the 'otherness' in the film, and Tibbs represents many kinds of 'otherness' to the people of Sparta. Tibbs is not just black but middle class, well-educated, well-dressed, well-spoken, makes more money doing the same job as the local police, and is better at that job than they are. Although the film only tackles racism in a very contained way-by relegating it to a problem that exists in the South-the film seems quite progressive even by today's standards because it does address race as an issue. Contemporary Hollywood films with black protagonists rarely address race as an issue, and the characters portrayed by black actors could just as easily have been played by whites.

By the end of the 1960s several of the major film companies had hired black publicists or public relations firms in an attempt to capitalise on black audiences, and, as a result, black character actors appeared with more frequency and a few studios promoted black stars though usually as a more militant kind of black masculinity, for example Calvin Lockhart, Raymond St. Jacques, and Jim Brown. The roles that these black stars portrayed differed from those of Poitier's by bringing with them an emphasis on toughness and sexuality. By the 1970s, Poitier's black gentleman was replaced by a headstrong militant figure who did not just ask for his civil rights, but demanded them; and also by the hypersexual and very non-white figure of the Superspade embodied by Blaxploitation-heroes like Shaft in Parks' 1971 film of the same name.

A Separatist Hero: The 1970s

In opposition to In the Heat of the Night's integrationist hero, the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s centred on separatist heroes. Blaxploitation films have been criticised for effectively substituting one black stereotype for another, creating a stud to avoid reproducing the passive, asexual figures like the characters Poitier portrayed in the 1960s. However, Blaxploitation films were not concerned with portraying a realistic image of black experience but about exploring black representation to attract white and black audiences alike, and that included the exploitation of stereotyped images of black masculinity in order to debunk them. The Blaxploitation hero may have been hypersexualised but he was not shown as such in a negative way, in fact, it was almost comical how women are powerlessly attracted to him: MGM publicists billed Shaft as the new James Bond.

Unlike the integrationist heroes that Poitier portrayed in the 1960s, Roundtree's Shaft represents the shift to a separatist hero. Shaft does not work with the police and, instead, does the job they are incapable of doing. It is his knowledge and connections within the world of the streets that makes him successful where the police fail. They are white and part of mainstream culture and, therefore, do not respect the reality of life in Harlem or understand the rules of the street. The police represent white mainstream culture in the film and, by not fearing the police or wishing to gain their approval, Shaft represents a separatist standpoint. Although he is not portrayed as an active supporter of the Black Power movement, he did a lot of 'street-time' with those who were. Shaft is a tough, sexualised, and empowered black man, who maintains his ties to the black community and rejects opportunities to embrace ties to the mainstream. Despite the criticism that the Blaxploitation hero is merely one stereotype replacing another, he does offer a representation of black masculinity that is not passive or impotent and an expression of black experience at the centre of a Hollywood film narrative.

The 1980s - With A White Hero

Mainstream detective films of the 1980s and 1990s have not been completely void of black detectives; however, the majority of them have been merely sidekicks to central white heroes. The gratification of male bonding is a myth that has pervaded American culture since Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. To punish women for their desire for equality, the buddy film pushes them out of the centre of the narrative, and replaces the traditional central romantic relationship between a man and a woman with a buddy relationship between two men. By making both protagonists men, the central issue of the film becomes the growth and development of their friendship. Women as potential love interests are thus eliminated from the narrative space. In the 1970s the relationship between two buddies was predominantly one between two white men who were outlaws; in the 1980s the genre mutated to a relationship between a black man and a white man who were law enforcers.

This shift to a biracial buddy couple—most notably Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs (1982) and Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon (1987)—can be seen as in reaction to the gains made by African-Americans in the decade following the Civil Rights movement. These biracial buddy films tend to conform to white mainstream attitudes by placing the African-American buddy in a subordinate position as trusty sidekick to the white hero. These films offer one of two stereotyped images of black masculinity: either as the embodiment of black subculture in terms of attitude, fashion and music—for example Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs—or as the embodiment of the black middle-class as a domesticated and devoted family man—for example Denzel Washington in Philadelphia (1993). Biracial buddy films explore issues of masculinity through the differing racial backgrounds of the two heroes, each man developing a mutual respect for the other because of his difference—not in spite of it. These films present racial difference, however, the white hero’s ultimate acceptance of his black sidekick neutralises rather than explores issues of race. They may not truly address race as an issue; however, they do address issues of masculinity through the exclusion of women in the narrative and with a focus on the male bond.

Why is it then that Hollywood feels the need to pair the black character up with a white one? There is a reluctance in mainstream cinema to place a black star in a film without a white co-star and/or a white context because of the presumed need to offer a point of identification for white audiences. If the representation of black masculinity on the screen is so troubled, then why does Hollywood attempt it all? It comes down to maximizing box-office profits. Approximately 13% of the American population is African American; for the film industry the biracial buddy movie attracts the broadest audience by appealing to white and black audiences. However, these films do not truly address problems of racism or black experience in American society because they simplify the issues and resolve them within the film’s narrative. Effectively, they present audiences with an escapist fantasy whereby black men offer themselves to solve the problems of the mainstream society. Race is relegated to being a non-issue in these films and the hero could just as easily be played by a white star as he is by a black one. In fact, some of these detective roles were originally written for white stars, for example Eddie Murphy’s role in Beverly Hills Cop was meant for Sylvester Stallone and Danny Glover’s role in Lethal Weapon for Nick Nolte.

The 1990s - With a Female Sidekick

Since the early 1990s, an intriguing transformation has occurred within the subgenre of the biracial buddy film: the black hero, once the sidekick to a white hero, has found himself reframed as the main hero with a white man as an equal partner, for example Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) in Seven (1995), or the central hero with his own sidekick-often a white woman, for example, Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) in The Bone Collector (1999). This shift has echoed the movement of the biracial buddy film from the genre of the cop-action film to the genres of the detective film or thriller, and also the ascendancy of many black stars in Hollywood including Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Denzel Washington.

The reframing of the black character and star to the centre of the film narrative represents a shift in the representation of 'otherness' in Hollywood to a more positive and more powerful position of subjectivity. There is still, however, a tendency in contemporary mainstream film to control those representations. One strategy of containing black masculinity has been the repression or denial of black romance or sexuality. This can be achieved by having the black hero married to a black woman; or this 'threat' can also be defused by denying the black man romantic involvement with women. In Kiss the Girls (1997), Alex (Morgan Freeman) and Kate (Ashley Judd) get no further than planning dinner before they are interrupted by the psychotic killer. In The Bone Collector, Amelia (Angelina Jolie) falls for Lincoln (Denzel Washington) but as he is paralyzed, sexual intimacy between the two is reduced to her stroking of his finger. And in The Pelican Brief (1993), Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) does not get the girl (Julia Roberts) despite the fact that he does so in the novel. Notably, the hot interracial-sex scenes of several novels are lost in their adaptation to the big screen-including that of Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), Kiss the Girls (1995), Along Came a Spider (1993) and The Bone Collector (1997).

Not only is the sexuality of the black hero contained, but also his opportunities to perform heroically. The black sidekick of the 1980s' biracial buddy film was an action-oriented man, offering his black energy to save the white hero. However, along with the move from sidekick to hero, there has been a shift from action to inaction: the black man is often denied the displays of action associated with heroic masculinity. Instead, the white female buddy is the body of spectacular action and the black hero gets to flex his brains rather than his brawn. The result of this relationship between body and action-oriented spectacle means that the female body becomes somewhat masculinised and the black body becomes somewhat feminised.

The 1990s - No Buddy

In Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is the character who drives the narrative forward and also the voice that tells the story, literally, in a voice-over narration. This film, compared to the others I have discussed in terms of black masculinity, is the closest a mainstream film has come to dealing with black experience in any way to rival American black independent cinema. Easy is a fully rounded character who is realistic, sexual, and vulnerable. He is not highly educated, but he is intelligent; he is not wealthy, but he owns his own house and car; he is not married, but he is sexually attractive and active; he is not a professional detective, but he gets the job done. This film offers a realistically complex representation of black masculinity, so why is it that Hollywood feels that it can present such an image of black masculinity in this film but not in others? It is because this film is a retrospective one. In Devil in a Blue Dress the strategy of containment is the past, the narrative and the issues raised in it being ascribed to the society of 1948. With the segregation of the black community from the white, racism, and mainstream society's condemnation of interracial relationships being attributed to the past, the film does not have to acknowledge these problems as belonging to the present. Although making the film retrospective is used to relegate the issues of black experience to the past, credit must be given that the film deals with black experience at all. Easy is a black man and is at the centre of the narrative.

Devil in a Blue Dress is an important moment in the history of film noir. Unlike many of the neo-noirs of the last two decades, Devil in a Blue Dress captures the mood of the original noir films of the 1940s and 1950s.  The film is thus a successful revisit to the noir form because, not only does the film authentically recreate the postwar mood, but it also applies it to a more contemporary issue. Unlike his noir predecessors like Marlowe, Easy is able to walk into the world of noir at the beginning of the film and walk back out of it again at the end. He leaves the dark, smoky, jazz-filled clubs of the city to walk in the sunshine on his palm tree-lined suburban street surrounded by a community and a sense of hope, something that the original noir-hero could never experience. The film's most important contribution to the noir form is its rewriting of noir history-bringing to noir the black subjectivity its label implies but ignores. The film not only follows Easy's story, the story of a black man, but it is told by Easy himself in his own voice and thus offers black experience at the centre of a film's narrative that is not contained.

Devil in a Blue Dress, despite being based on the hit novel by Walter Mosley, directed by an outstanding filmmaker, praised uniformly by critics, and featuring a Hollywood star, was a flop at the box office. Ed Guerrero suggests that the reason for its disappointing return at the box office is the issue of race: the film was released closely on the heels of the O.J. Simpson trial and racial tensions were running high across the country ('Devil' 41). Leon Lewis suggests the reason for the film's lack of commercial success was that it was missing a white sidekick (137)-precisely because it was not a biracial buddy movie. The black detective is rarely-even in recent films-left to stand alone because the white co-star is seen by the film industry to offer a greater crossover appeal than the black star on his own. Hollywood still tends to pair the black detective up with a white buddy-whether a white hero at the centre as in films of the 1980s, or a white women at his side as in films of the 1990s and 2000s.

Copyright © 2003 Philippa Gates

Works Cited and Further Reading

Ames, Christopher. 'Restoring the Black Man's Lethal Weapon: Race and Sexuality in Contemporary Cop Films.' Journal of Popular Film and Television 20:3 (Fall 1992): 52-60.

Deaver, Jeffrey. The Bone Collector. New York: Viking, 1997.

Diawara, Manthia. 'Black American Cinema: The New Realism.' Black American Cinema. Ed. Manthia Diawara. AFI Film Readers. New York: Routledge, 1993. 3-26.

_____. 'Black Spectatorship-Problems with Identification and Resistance.' Screen 29:4 (Autumn 1988): 66-79.

Dyer, Richard. 'White.' Screen 29:4 (Autumn 1988): 44-65.

Fiedler, Leslie. What Was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.

Grisham, John. The Pelican Brief. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Guerrero, Ed. 'The Black Image in Protective Custody: Hollywood's Biracial Buddy Films of the Eighties.' Black American Cinema. Ed. Manthia Diawara. AFI Film Readers. New York: Routledge, 1993. 237-46.

_____. 'Devil in a Blue Dress.' Rev. of Devil in a Blue Dress, dir. Carl Franklin. Cineaste 22:1 (Winter 1996): 38-41.

_____. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Langman, Larry and Daniel Finn. A Guide to American Silent Crime Films. Biographies and Indexes in the Performing Arts Ser. 15. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Lewis, Leon. 'Devil in a Blue Dress.' Rev. of Devil in a Blue Dress, dir. Carl Franklin. MCA 1996: A Survey of the Films of 1995. Eds. Beth A. Fhaner and Christopher P. Scanlon. Detroit: Gale, 1996. 135-37.

Molden, David. 'African Americans in Hollywood: A Black-on-Black Shame.' Black Issues in Higher Education 12:23 (1996): 112.

Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990.

Orr, John. Contemporary Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Patterson, Jim. Along Came a Spider. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co, 1993.

_____. Kiss the Girls. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1995.

Smith, Valerie. Not just Race, Not just Gender: Black Feminist Readings. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Vasey, Ruth. The World According to Hollywood, 1918-1939. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1997.