AAVE, AAE, BEV, whatever we call it nowadays, in the movies.
November 9, 2009 10:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for "black best friend" supporting characters in movies who also come with a black love interest. I'm interested in their language patterns and dialect usage.

I'm thinking of writing a paper about the portrayal of African-American English in popular film. When I watched the movie Clueless, I was struck by how the black best friend and her black love interest speak COMPLETELY DIFFERENT dialects: the girl speaks fairly standard English, the boy speaks strong African-American Vernacular English, and this discrepancy goes totally uncommented on. It's as if (pun intended), because they're both black, the linguistic divide that would send very different social signals in the real world is irrelevant. Are there other examples like this where racial identity trumps language? Movies in which black couples speak different levels of AAVE? Clueless is pretty dated, and I'm also wondering if this scrupulous need to give black-best-friends love interests of the same race, language use aside, is still as strong as ever.
posted by ms.codex to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just want to clarify...does the black best friend have the love interest? become the love interest? or is the best friend of the main character who has a black love interest?
posted by AlliKat75 at 10:47 PM on November 9, 2009


TV Tropes - Black Best Friend.
posted by twistofrhyme at 10:50 PM on November 9, 2009


Is science-fiction TV okay?

My wife and I commented constantly about Babylon 5. Whenever a good-looking ethnic woman showed up, we immediately knew that a Dr. Franklin love-story B-plot was in the works.
posted by Netzapper at 10:56 PM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Incredibles: Frozone, who is married.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:12 PM on November 9, 2009


because they're both black, the linguistic divide that would send very different social signals in the real world is irrelevant.

Are you assuming that the boy's vernacular is representative of his social class? Is it not possible the boy was adopting another vernacular as part of his personal identity, and that other available social cues (notably his attendance at her school) identify him as belonging to her social group?
posted by biffa at 12:54 AM on November 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


What biffa said. Not to plate-of-beans Clueless, but Murray always struck me as a rich kid trying to play ghetto. It's not like Beverly Hills High (or whatever it's called in the movie) has a magnet program or buses in city kids for diversity.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:54 AM on November 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


I think Jerry Maguire may be another (fairly dated) example of what you're looking for.
posted by emd3737 at 3:54 AM on November 10, 2009


I thought Cuba Gooding was more of a "magical negro" than a "black best friend", emd3737?
posted by Pollomacho at 4:32 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Although from a TV show (but they did make a movie!) the character of Jodie from Daria used very good English and had a black boyfriend, Mack. Jodie wasn't Daria's best friend, exactly, but she was a friend and Daria didn't have too many.
posted by amicamentis at 5:13 AM on November 10, 2009


Murray always struck me as a rich kid trying to play ghetto.

Exactly, which is why it's supposed to be so shocking when he shaves his head. And his explanation? "I'm keeping it real," as in, "I'm adhering to the values of a different group of people than this one."

Also, having him talk in a different dialect does two additional things -- it shows the gender divide between the sophisticated girls and the dipshit boys that Cher doesn't want to be romantic with. Later, because Dionne and Murray still love each other despite their differences, it gives Cher something to ponder and helps her grow as a character.

It's all a play on Jane Austen, of course.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:36 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't think that these have the linguistic disparity that you want, but:

What about Morpheus in The Matrix: Reloaded -- didn't he have a black lady-friend in Zion?

Marlon Wayans in Requiem For A Dream.
posted by hermitosis at 5:40 AM on November 10, 2009


You Got Served is an example, but don't watch it.
posted by mkb at 5:51 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Veronica Mars has a black best friend Wallace, who has a black girlfriend in season 2.
posted by which_chick at 6:12 AM on November 10, 2009


Murray always struck me as a rich kid trying to play ghetto.

Not only that, but he's very aware that he's doing it, specifically when it comes to language. After he says, "Woman, lend me fi' dolla" and gets rebuffed by his girlfriend, he says outright, "Street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic, undertones." He knows exactly what he's doing.
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:20 AM on November 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Okay, so I once watched Clueless four times in one day and although that was, oh dear God, nearly fifteen years ago now, I still have large chunks of it memorized so I feel that I am competent to address this issue.

At some point, Murray comes up to Dionne and says, "Woman, lend me five dollars". Dionne tells him, "I have asked you repeatedly, Murray, not to call me woman." to which Murray replies "Excuse me Miss Dionne. But street slang is becoming an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic undertone".

I think this is the relevant point here; Murray is speaking in this manner because he believes that "street slang is becoming an increasingly valid form of expression". Basically, it's an affectation and he is, as he puts it when he's getting his head shaved at that party, "Keepin' it real". Cool Papa Bell's point basically seems spot-on to me.

Beverly Hills High (or whatever it's called in the movie)

If I remember correctly, it's Bronson Alcott High School. Good God, I really need to watch some different movies.

posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:23 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


In the 40-Year-Old Virgin, Romany Malco's character has a black wife/girlfriend, and they have a couple of scenes.
posted by aabbbiee at 6:24 AM on November 10, 2009


On not having previewed, what dlugoczaj said.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:24 AM on November 10, 2009


I feel the need to preface this lengthy comment: When I was in 4th grade, I thought that Clueless was quite possibly the greatest movie of all time. I took it to every single sleepover I attended between the ages of 10 and 13. I am fully aware that I have watched it too much and have put far too much thought into this question!


Just to jump off of what biffa said, I think the discrepancies you point out in Clueless are a feature, not a bug: their language use highlights some of the personal differences between the two characters.

Dionne's use of American Standard English (ASE) helps her identify and connect with her peers. She has nothing to gain by using AAVE among her group (remember, they all look alike, dress alike, act alike), but she does occasionally use it with Murray (usually when she's mad at him).

Murray, on the other hand, uses AAVE to distinguish himself from his white peers and to identify himself as a black male who is not a 'sell-out' or an 'oreo'. Dionne's irritation with some of his 'ethnic quirks' (baggy pants, shaving his head, etc.) may be an indicator that this is all just a phase or an act on Murray's part. Would she really have started dating him if he'd always been that way? Also note, Murray's version of AAVE is relatively watered down, compared to standard AAVE. He might throw in some slang every now and then, but he's still a product of the Valley.

If I remember correctly, his best friend is black as well, so their relationship might be one of circular reinforcement. And, to note, Murray's version of AAVE is watered down and is more similar to ASE.


I think you will find a very similar pattern among black female/black male movie couples in predominately white environments.

Also, in real life, it's not that uncommon to find an array of dialects within one African-American group. I know a pair of African-American brothers of similar age who grew up in the same environment. One of them speaks AAVE, the other speaks ASE. Why? They run in different social circles. One played basketball and football in high school (activities that attract other young black males) the other was into debate and video games (activities that skew white).

So I know this doesn't quite answer your question, but I write all of this because I think it would be helpful for you to explore *why* different African-American characters use the different dialects they do. Do they use pure AAVE, pure ASE, or something in the middle? What does their dialect indicate about their socioeconomic class? Social status? Is this their native dialect or are they changing it to change a part of themselves (like Murray)?

Perhaps you're already doing this, and if so, pardon me if I come across as patronizing. I just think your topic is fascinating! Sociolinguistics makes me geek out a bit :)
posted by chara at 6:26 AM on November 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire play with this very deliberately; especially the accents and speech patterns of michael/dukie/randy during their interactions with bunny colvin.

Be wary, however that what you call 'completely standard english' is not inadvertent shorthand for writers' voice -- or "educated predominantly-male, predominantly-white dramatically expedient vernacular" – the televisual equivalent of discours indirect libre. There is no 'standard' speaking, per se, in drama: only more or less effort applied to characterization through dialogue.

I'd gander that most of the time a character with heavy plot/story lifting is characterized as "standard" speaking because the can be written/edited/rewritten with less effort and in less space than a character written in some sort of accented, jargony, affected, regional or otherwise stylized (and most of the time less efficient) manner. A side character can be written this way for coloration more easily, and less disruptively.

To add to which: good drama tends to idealize the romantic interest in the pursuer's eyes, while mediocre drama tends to idealize the romantic interest in the audience's eyes. In other words, a good story about well-written characters will not care about (/notice/pay heed to) the romantic interest's accent/speech patterns, because they are part of the specific charm of the attraction, and the protagonist's attraction is unique and specific for this character. But in schlocky crap, where the Love Interest is the Love Interest because we are told it is the Love Interest, a fickle audience will notice any deviation from perfection -- so it pays to make the Object of Affection
ideal, artificial, relatable, perfected, schematic and flawless as possible. Especially with class/culture indicators like clothing, speech, etc.
posted by mr. remy at 6:28 AM on November 10, 2009


This may be a little bit tangential, but you may want to look at Chasing Amy -- there is a black character who's not QUITE the "best friend", but his character may offer an interesting perspective on what you're talking about. The character "Hooper X" is the creator of a comic book with a black superhero, and publically he has adopted a borderline-stereotypical black-supremacist persona, but in reality he is absolutely nothing like that (he's actually gay, and almost borderline-stereotypically so). I think he and Ben Affleck's character even have a conversation about "why do you act like that in public".

Not sure whether that would be a useful perspective, but I thought it was intriguing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:34 AM on November 10, 2009


In Save the Last Dance, Julia Stiles's new best friend is a single black teenage mom, while her love interest (interestingly, the best friend's brother) is a brain en route to pre-med at Georgetown or something.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:55 AM on November 10, 2009


Turk on Scrubs? Another Don Faison character, who plays JD's (Zach Braff's) best friend. They are also best friends in real life. There's also Toofer on 30 Rock (Hahhhhvad-educated) who is a good contrast to Tracy Jordan's character.

I guess the Cosby Show is very dated.
posted by anniecat at 7:23 AM on November 10, 2009


On Parks and Recreation (which is, incidentally, the most hilarious show you're not watching), they upend this conceit in some crazy ways.

One of the main character's co-workers is Tom, who is South Asian (probably Indian, though I don't think they've said definitively) and who changed his name from something in Arabic to the über-WASPy "Tom Haverford". He's also not only the biggest and most boorish slang jockey in the office, but he's married to a white woman who is, as he always says, "a surgeon at County General... and she’s SUPER-HOT!" She is smart and totally charming, and clearly out of his league- you ultimately find out she's Canadian and married him for a Green Card.
posted by mkultra at 7:24 AM on November 10, 2009


And Angie, Tracy's wife, on 30 Rock. I recall there being an episode where Pete tells Liz Lemon to compliment Tracy's wife nails in order to get on her good side. There are also Grizz and Dotcom, members of Tracy's entourage (I think they were real life members of Tracy Morgan's crew).
posted by anniecat at 7:26 AM on November 10, 2009


One of the main character's co-workers is Tom, who is South Asian (probably Indian, though I don't think they've said definitively)

They did say it definitively, in the episode where they're doing a stakeout of Rashida Jones's character's date in the van. He is Indian, it is obvious, and it wasn't Arabic. He's not African-American or meant to play anybody African-American. And Indian people generally don't have the same issues that African-Americans have in how they're being portrayed in contract to and in relation with whites.
posted by anniecat at 7:29 AM on November 10, 2009


Sookie Stackhouse's best friend in True Blood is black, Tara, and they introduce a black love interest, Eggs. They both speak pretty standard English, I think, but then my interpretation of standard English may be wider than some.

True Blood is an interesting case to me because it's so much better than the books, which are enjoyable light fluff but completely fluff, whereas there's a lot more depth to the show. The racial commentary is purely from the HBO series: it doesn't even exist in the books, where Tara is white and frankly kind of a minor character.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:43 AM on November 10, 2009


anniecat: He is Indian, it is obvious, and it wasn't Arabic

It's not obvious if they don't say. I've met quite a few Paki and Persian folks who "look" Indian. Also, Wikipedia begs to differ on his original name.

anniecat: And Indian people generally don't have the same issues that African-Americans have in how they're being portrayed in contract to and in relation with whites.

First of all, that's not what the poster is asking. Second, the show is clearly fucking around with the same ideas.
posted by mkultra at 7:50 AM on November 10, 2009


[few comments removed - back it up a little please? thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:02 AM on November 10, 2009


Love Stinks - Bill Bellamy plays the best friend and Tyra Banks plays his wife.
posted by getawaysticks at 10:10 AM on November 10, 2009


I thought of another example -- Set it Off. All four black female characters exhibit different conversational dialects at different points in the movie, depending on the context (e.g. they're much looser around their friends than around romantic interests and employers and such).
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:20 AM on November 10, 2009


in the tv show "my boys", the main character has a black (female) best friend. on the show the black character has just begun to date a white friend of the main character but i do think she dated some black men in past episodes.

on "veronica mars" veronica had a black male best friend who to my recollection spoke with a light AAVE accent. he dated a black female character who spoke a standard english dialect and i think they spoke the same way to each other as they did with everyone else.

on "west wing" dule hill's character dated a woman played by gabrielle union in one episode, late in the series, after he separates from elizabeth moss's character. i think that though they didn't speak AAVE to others, they did so with each other.

someone has already mentioned true blood.

on "grey's anatomy" i think bailey spoke the same way to her husband as she did to the people in the hospital.
posted by anthropomorphic at 12:13 PM on November 10, 2009


Wow, great responses! Thanks to all the commenters who corrected me on Clueless: I didn't remember that the boy character was self-aware and deliberate in his language usage.
posted by ms.codex at 1:21 PM on November 10, 2009


Code-switching.

Thandie Newton is British and is really only able to do one African American accent which tends to be a cross between old-timey slave dialect and AAVE (in my opinion). In Crash, her American Black accent sounds slightly ghetto in relation to her husband's which seems out of place in relation to her job and her husband's. It doesn't seem she pays attention to the class issues her choice of dialect brings (which have been mentioned in the series of Clueless-related answers) and usually lessens her characterizations.
posted by elle.jeezy at 3:11 PM on November 10, 2009


What's that movie about the pimp wanting to rap? Hustle and Flow. Anthony Anderson speaks AAVE with Terrence Howard and the rest while his wife speaks ASE. Anthony Anderson speaks ASE when he is home with his wife.

Check out Tyler Perry movies for different mixtures of AAVE and ASE. Why Did I Get Married features several couples engaging in varying levels of "dialect/accent".

Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins has a wide array of AAVE and ASE intermingled.

Something New, with Sanaa Lathan and the ubiquitous Donald Faison portray upper class African Americans. Sanaa and girlfriends code-switch when they are together.

Boomerang also has lots of different accents and slang. Most notably between David Alan Grier and his uncouth, but hilarious parents.

Bamboozled! Damon Wayans speaing with his father, Paul Mooney, versus Damon Wayans speaking with his co-workers. Jada Pinkett having an argument with her brother, Mos Def about his language and how he acts. Great movie.
posted by elle.jeezy at 3:31 PM on November 10, 2009


For a rather different dialect, see Broken Flowers (starring Bill Murray); the next-door neighbors (pretty clearly the main character's best and perhaps only friends) are a black family. I wouldn't call their speech AAVE; it may be an interesting contrast, or it may be completely outside of the scope of what you're looking for.
posted by kristi at 8:49 AM on November 12, 2009


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