Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks

An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films

Donald Bogle
Continuum, New York. 1992.
322 pages.  12.95.

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The title of the book indicates the different mythic types that have been used in mainstream U.S. films to depict black people, and which are easily mistaken as being aspects of real black experience. Briefly the different types can be described as follows: 

Toms, a good negro character who submissively does everything expected of them, however degrading, and never turns on white people. Often they end up as saintly role models. 

Coons, are a source of amusement because they are complete buffoons. There are two variants of this type; 1, the pickaninny being a black child whose eyes pop and plays about in a diverting manner; 2, the uncle remus, who is as saintly as the tom type, but he tends to be quaint, naive and comic in his philosophical assertions. As Bogle notes: 'The pure coons emerged as no-account niggers, those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons, stealing chickens, shooting crap, or butchering the English language.'

Mulattoes, are usually tragic fair-skinned women who live as a white person, but have the secret of black blood in their veins. It is ironic that such characters were usually played by white actresses so that there were no problems for the white audiences' identification with her traumas. 

Mammies, are similar to the coons, but she is fiercely independent in her domestic domain. A good example of this role is in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). It is the mammy (Louise Beavers) who gives Mr. Blandings (Cary Grant) the advertising slogan that saves his job, house and family, and all she gets is a $10 rise! 

Bucks, constitute the brutal black man out to cause havoc. Often the savage and violent character is also over-sexed and eager to get more than his hands on white women. 

Bogle's view is that the best black actors who had to play these types actually subverted and transcended their stereotyping and gave pleasure to black and white audiences. 

It is significant that even with more black stars on our screens they often conform to the old stereotypes. Eddie Murphy can be regarded as a coon-type and Whoopi Goldberg as a mammy- type. Denzel Washington's, Malcolm X is a buck (at first). This just shows that we haven't really got beyond old and shameful ideas, and this book makes you stop and think about how easy it is for stereotyping to continue even if they are dressed-up in more accessible forms.

Nigel Watson

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