The American film industry functions as a subculture of the overarching American culture, and thus, is indivisible from the American value system; It—just as its parent—is susceptible to guilt, delusion, and denial. The theater screen, then, serves as a fun-house mirror of sorts—an oft-exaggerated reflection of the society in which it lives. In the mid-20th century, the U.S. bore witness to its own incremental liberalization, as people of color and women fervently combated the overt racism and sexism evident in American culture. Jamal and Judy could now ride to their low-level jobs while sitting in the same bus row, and cast seemingly unencumbered votes in the same gerrymandered districts. Eager to chronicle this incremental change, the film industry spawned a number of works designed to depict a new, progressive American populace. Enter: the interracial buddy film. The interracial buddy film served Hollywood as a denial of the racism so embedded in the fibers of Americana. Depicting romantic interracial partnerships and fantastic, non-racialized societies, the interracial buddy films—birthed in the mid-20th century and continuing on into the present—offered White America multi-hour windows in which it could shed its racial guilt. In their book, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness”, authors Hernan Vera and Andrew M. Gordon uphold this sentiment, as they argue that several tenets of the interracial buddy film are actually self-serving for the beneficiaries of White patriarchy. Namely, Vera and Gordon suggest the marginalization of women, the embrace of homoeroticism, the fabrication of racial utopias, and the introduction of “tame” or “magical” negro characters in interracial buddy films are far from anti-racist, far from anti-sexist, and ultimately, antithetical to a progressive society. One film, however, seems at first glance to be a clear rehash of the interracial buddy film, yet in its character development and its plot, does a great deal to subvert some themes of the interracial buddy genre. With its partial marginalization of women and subsequent homoeroticism, Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump (1992) bolsters interracial buddy stereotypes, but the film’s deconstruction of the “racial utopia” premise and its subversion of the “tame” and “magical” negro character rails against concepts propagated in the interracial buddy genre.
For all the film accomplishes in the subversion of racial stereotypes, White Men Can’t Jump frequently serves up an underwhelming, stereotypical view of the female experience, thus enforcing rigid gender roles. The film, starring Wesley Snipes as pick-up hoopstar Sidney Deane and Woody Harrelson as Billy Hoyle, Deane’s improbable teammate, chronicles Deane and Hoyle’s trajectory from competitors to colleagues to cronies. The two men embark on a mission to hustle other pick-up ballplayers in the Los Angeles area, yet their doing so inevitably draws them away from their significant others. Moreover, the first appearances of Deane’s wife Rhonda (Tyra Ferrell) and Hoyle’s girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez) to which the audience is treated feature the two women asking their men for money. The implication, and ultimate confirmation, that Rhonda and Gloria are completely dependent upon their men for financial stability revives the “damsel in distress” stereotype, which marginalizes women. The opportunity for a character’s arc and development diminishes once that character’s behavior is dictated almost wholly by another. In fact, in Rhonda Deane’s case, she is explicitly instructed by Sidney not to get a job, relegating her to the status of a modern June Cleaver, ever trapped in the patriarchal edifice. In an article titled, “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”, authors Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske argue that the enforcement of rigid gender roles is often cloaked in a virtuous guise. “…[S]ome forms of sexism are subjectively benevolent, characterizing women as pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored and whose love is necessary to make a man complete,” they say. “[B]eing on a pedestal is confining, yet the man who places a woman there is likely to interpret this as cherishing, rather than restricting.” The only subversive traits the film displays with regard to female marginalization occur when Rhonda Deane asks Sidney for permission to get a job and when Gloria acquires large sums in winnings from her stint on Jeopardy, ultimately becoming Billy’s financier. Even these happenings are not completely subversive, however, for the male gatekeepers remain as the determining factors for the women’s individual successes; Rhonda, in her request for permission to work, and Gloria by way of Billy’s string-pulling, which grants her access to Jeopardy studios. In this sense, White Men Can’t Jump operates in unison with the interracial buddy films’ tenet of female marginalization.
Vera and Gordon’s theory regarding the prevalence of homoeroticism in interracial buddy films is dependent upon the genre’s marginalization of women. It is the nudging of women to the outskirts which enables the male companion to step into the role of a romantic partner. This particular film’s homoerotic moments are thinly veiled and centered about feats of assumed masculinity. For example, during a scene in which Billy hustles Sidney on the basketball court, Sidney can be seen smirking and licking his lips as he watches Billy walk away. To understand this behavior’s roots in eroticism requires that one understand the psychology of playing “hard to get”. When Sidney is hustled by Billy, and as his friends watch in awe, he is publicly emasculated. The effect of this emasculation is seemingly Sidney’s arousal (though, in this case, not necessarily a sexual arousal). Sidney develops a respect—if not an affinity—for Billy after Billy shames him publicly, and such is the behavior, for example, of a man who is turned down for a date by a woman, yet pursues her more fervently. Authors Elaine Walster, G. William Walster, Jane Piliavin and Lynn Schmidt elaborated in an article titled, “Playing Hard to Get: Understanding an Elusive Phenomenon”: “When a woman is hard to get, it is usually a tip-off that she is especially pretty, has a good personality, is sexy, etc.,” they say. “Men are intrigued by the challenge the elusive woman offers.” In the context of White Men Can’t Jump, Sidney’s arousal results from Billy’s public shaming, after which he pursues Billy to satisfy one philia (love) of his—money—and incidentally finds Billy to satisfy another philia of his—male companionship. Yet, while White Men Can’t Jump is not without its moments of homoeroticism, the film’s arc does not conclude with the two males completely “untethered” to their significant others. Rather, Sidney remains with his wife and Billy is left alone after Gloria becomes fed up with his frequent gambling. The film’s end, then, campy as it may be, defies the interracial buddy film homoerotic stereotype, in part, because one man maintains his allegiance to the woman in his life while the other is left abandoned. Epilogically, the presumption is that Sidney happily returns to Rhonda and Billy struggles to mend his relationship with Gloria, despite the film’s Kodak-like final shot.
Finally, the comfort with which White Men Can’t Jump unfolds within a realistic, racialized world grants it more legitimacy than is common for the typical interracial buddy film. That this film broached the topic of race as fearlessly as it did differentiates it from films of a similar genre, which perpetuate an idea Vera and Gordon refer to as “racial utopia”. The “racial utopia” Vera and Gordon speak of is a fantastic, naïve imagination of a world devoid of racial bias or disunity. In contrast, White Men Can’t Jump establishes its setting amid a racially-conscious world at its onset. Billy’s initial entrance into frame welcomes him into translucent fog where he walks, alone, along Venice Beach. The emptiness of the shot—his framing at its center and the abundance of extra space surrounding him—achieves the effect of depicting him as a wanderer and, in this circumstance, a foreigner to Sidney and his other African American friends. The next scene offers both imagery and sound of Black, intraracial dialogue, as the viewer finds Sidney and his comrades playing pick-up games on the very court where we saw a deserted Billy just a scene earlier. The scene is busy and more colorful, and as we hear Sidney ribbing others on the court, he is quickly established as a character operating with at least a trace of cultural framework and Afrocentricity. Black dialogue—specifically that which occurs amid competition—and Sidney’s masterful oratory artistry suggests he is familiar with, comfortable with, and unapologetic about his Blackness. Furthermore, Sidney’s character offers resistance to the “tame” and “magical” negro Vera and Gordon suggests is a staple in the interracial buddy film genre. Sidney functions with a degree of selfishness, yes, but not to the extent that he becomes deplorable, and he functions with a sense of loyalty, yes, but not to the extent that he is unrealistically selfless. His depth—his hypermasculine tendencies juxtaposed against his yearning to provide for his family—his self-concern juxtaposed against his empathy—is what actively rails against the common “tame” and “magical” negro stereotypes. Perhaps, most importantly, though, Sidney’s lives a life almost entirely independent from Billy’s actions. Whereas some Black actors in the interracial buddy genre are burdened by the choices of their partners (they are forced to retire when their partner retires, they are forced to move when their partner moves, etc.), Sidney’s independence is purposeful; it subverts the thematic paternal role of Black males in the interracial buddy genre. Using the history of Black minstrelsy and speaking of the misappropriation of the Black experience to mend white ailments, author David Wellman wrote, in an article titled “Affirmative Action and Angry White Men”, “In minstrel theaters, white (male) Americans could appropriate and use elements of Black life to negotiate problems posed by the larger society.” Though Sidney would frequently advise Billy, he never did so in such a way that implied some sort of servitude. Sidney advised, but not to the extent that Billy’s troubles became his own.
Ultimately, White Men Can’t Jump, despite its seeming simplicity, thoughtfully deconstructs many themes evident in the typical interracial buddy film. Surely, its marginalization of women and homoerotic tendencies indicate yet another film playing to the American patriarchy, but its fearless approach of race-based discussion, when coupled with the expansion of the Black male character arc and subversion of some key Black male stereotypes, make this film a surprising outlier among America’s vast history of interracial buddy films.