Uncle Tomfoolery

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"In this movie, a black guy is accidentally put in charge of an advertising firm, and then revolutionizes the business with the built-in irreverent street wisdom all black guys in movies have. Since then, about 10 movies identical to it get made every year. Because like my college textbook said, years of research into marketing and advertising will never be as successful as a noisy man who likes to dance and says 'motherfucker!' at the end of all his sentences."
Seanbaby on Putney Swope

In the 1980s, the growing awareness of multicultural America resulted in the casting net being thrown a little wider, racially speaking, than it had been before. But with Blaxploitation movies on the downswing, and mainstream projects with black casts being cancelled after the huge financial disappointment of The Wiz in 1978 (according to the Medved Brothers' The Hollywood Hall of Shame), the perceived financial viability of a black-led movie was low.

To that end, producers looking to make movies with black cast members generally went for one of two options. The first was to have a White Male Lead go around blowing stuff up and give the second-biggest non-romantic role - the Plucky Comic Relief - to a black guy. The black guy, fitting racial stereotypes of the time, would be streetwise and speak in urban slang, and - because he has to play second fiddle to the hero - be comical and cowardly. This is a trope with a long history in Hollywood movies - as far back as the 1920s, no mystery or old-dark-house movie was complete without the stock character of the goofy, cowardly black servant or chauffeur following. This stereotype was so popular that actors like Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry even made whole careers out of the role. In turn, this was a shamelessly racist adaptation of the old melodrama and theatre trope of the cowardly comic servant.

The other option, which was more popular with big-name stars like Eddie Murphy, was to make the black guy a hero but put him on roughly an equal billing with a white character as a Salt and Pepper pairing. Of course, the black guy would generally still be streetwise and get on the nerves of his strait-laced white pal. Black America, it seemed, was uniformly 'hip'. Examples are Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.

This trend continued, with varying degrees of success, into the 1990s (though there had been aversions for decades before that - see Sidney Poitier, below), but growing racial awareness and an increasing interest in Action Heroes who just happen to be black, such as Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, has caused the trope to gradually lose popularity.

The trope's name is derived from "Uncle Tom," which is a common slang term for a black person who is excessively subservient to white people.

No connection to Black Comedy or Bertie Wooster's uncle, Tom Travers.

See also: Ethnic Scrappy, Plucky Comic Relief, Black Dude Dies First. Contrast: Magical Negro, Whoopi Epiphany Speech. Characters who embody this trope will sometimes be on the receiving end of Stop Being Stereotypical.

Examples of Uncle Tomfoolery include:


Anime & Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • Parodied in a Damage Control comic. When an action movie is made about Damage Control, the well-spoken, well-dressed comptroller Albert Cleary is horrified to see he's been depicted as a wacky black sidekick from the ghetto. And then killed off, naturally.

Film[edit | hide]

  • Eddie Murphy seems to do a lot of these:
    • Trading Places is mainly a deconstruction of such character types. Murphy's character is completely capable of being a strait-laced businessman if given the opportunity.
  • Often played by Chris Tucker.
    • In the first Rush Hour, Tucker is supposed to be playing a loudmouthed, reckless cop who plays by his own rules, in contrast to the badass but reticent and by-the-book Jackie Chan. This classic Salt and Pepper/Odd Couple pairing grew more into Uncle Tom Foolery in the sequels, where Tucker's character became more shrill and wacky.
    • In The Fifth Element, Tucker plays Ruby Rhod, a loving parody of musician Prince, who gets paired with Bruce Willis' invincible Korbin Dallas in the final act. Rhod spends most of the final act screaming in terror.
    • Tucker's character in Money Talks.
  • Event Horizon had a cool, wisecracking black guy for the comic relief and a cool, heroic, strait-laced black dude for The Captain. The former was one of the survivors thanks to some MacGyver action on his part and the latter was only killed off in the requisite Heroic Sacrifice finale, making this a mild aversion.
  • Argyle, The Smart Guy from Roger Corman's Black Scorpion film and TV series.
  • Inversion: In Blade Trinity, the Badass hero is a black guy and the jokey sidekick is white.
  • Anacondas: Search for the Blood Orchid almost crosses Uncle Tomfoolery back over into Ethnic Scrappy territory, several times.
  • In Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild, the character of Reeko the skunk (voiced by Wayne Brady).
  • Marlon Wayans has practically made a career out of this, some of his other examples being Mo Money, Little Man, Norbit and Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Lethal Weapon flipped the formula, with a suicidal and crazy white man partnered to a by-the-book family man. However, as the series continued, the white man got less suicidal and the black man got less uptight.
    • Chris Rock averts this role in Lethal Weapon 4, as he gets saddled to two heroes, one of whom is black and plays a middle role of being neither insane nor too by-the-book.
  • Interestingly, Die Hard flipped this a lot, firstly with the white Bruce Willis playing a wildcard trigger-happy cop whose only ally on the outside was a desk-riding black man who hadn't discharged a firearm on the job in years, ever since accidentally killing a child.
    • And the FBI agents who turn up to take over the scene are a white man and a black man who have the same last name and the same extremely by-the-book style. In fact, the bad guys are counting on it, as their plan only works if the FBI do go by-the-book.
      • The white agent even tries to play this one straight.

"Just like fuckin' Saigon, hey, Slick?"
(Nodding, smiling) "I was in junior high, dickhead."

    • McClane's limousine driver Argyle is more or less a straight example of this trope, however.
    • Then, in Die Hard With a Vengeance, Samuel Jackson plays a serious normal (albeit Badass) store owner who is forced to team up with John McClane.
  • Foul-mouthed L.J., walking hip-hop stereotype from Resident Evil: Apocalypse. As can be expected in a horror film: the cool, badassed Peyton dies, while the offensively annoying L.J. doesn't.
  • Parodied by Dave Chappelle in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. While this was a pastiche of other Robin Hood films (especially the Costner version), because of the extremes that this role sometimes goes to in a movie playing it straight, this rather exaggerated parody was actually not that far off the norm.
  • Michael Bay's Transformers features a few version of the trope who are technically Space Jews, since they're actually robots behaving like stereotypical black people.
    • Jazz adopts noticeably Jive Turkey mannerisms and is the only one to die. He is, however, played straight as a heroic character.
    • In Revenge of the Fallen, Skids and Mudflap adopt borderline racist black mannerisms and are characterized by their cowardice and stupidity in contrast to the other heroic Autobots. Their faces in robot mode look like early 20th century portrayal of African-Americans—buck teeth, bulging eyes, and large ears. One of them has a gold tooth. They bust out ghetto slang constantly, and even threaten to "pop a cap" in someone's ass. The creators defended themselves by claiming that the characters were supposed to be lampoons of "wiggers."
    • There's also Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson's characters. "Grandma don't like nobody on her carpet, especially po-lice!"
  • Subverted in The Movie Hero. The hero, who believes that his life is a movie (no matter what his psychiatrist says), advertises for a sidekick, but is reluctant to accept the only applicant, a black guy, explaining that he wants to avoid this trope. The guy, Antoine, ultimately convinces him that although he does happen to be a young black comic, he will not embody the cliche.
  • Parodied in Not Another Teen Movie with "The Token Black Guy", who claims that part of his job description as, well, the token black guy is to stand around saying "Damn!" "Shit!" and "That is whack!"
  • Orlando Jones averts this in Evolution. They also lampshade it several times during the movie.
  • Eddie Griffin plays this role opposite Orlando Jones (who fills the strait-laced role, though he's also black) in Double Take. They then trade identities, which leads to them parodying each others' archetypes, before it turns out that Griffin's character is actually an FBI agent and his "wacky black guy" persona was a cover.
    • Phil La Marr, who was one of two Black Guys on Mad TV, deconstructed this by claiming that Jones always gets blacker Black Guy roles. Examples of Phil La Marr's previous characters: Erik, Warren, Stanley Johnson, Bob Brown, Marvin. Previous examples of Orlando Jones' acting work: Natty Battle, Andre, Sticky Fingaz, Mookie
  • The Last Dragon has a Salt and Pepper pairing with two black characters. The streetwise Plucky Comic Relief often has to remind Taimak that he's black while he persists in speaking and acting as a Chinese immigrant. Arguably, also inverted in the character of Johnny Yu. While Taimak continues to play it straight, Yu is the apprentice who just can't stay out of trouble. Definitely inverted in the case when Taimak dressed as a 19th Century Chinese day-laborer (his idea of a disguise) comes across a trio of Chinese Mooks who dress and act like stereotypical Black guys right down to shooting Craps against the door they're supposed to be guarding.
  • Anthony Anderson does this on occasion, most notably in Urban Legends: Final Cut
  • Jax in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, as part of the group of heroes who confront Shao Kahn, is all but made of this trope; just about every other line of dialogue he has is designed to remind you that he is, in fact, black.
  • The movie Cop Out seems to have Tracy Morgan in this role opposite Bruce Willis to the point he's an Ethnic Scrappy.
  • Twinkie in The Fast and The Furious-Tokyo Drift
  • Grover in The Film of the Book Percy Jackson.
  • The notable of notable aversions to this trope is probably Sidney Poitier, first black man to receive an Oscar for Best Actor, and star of films such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. There's a reason that They Call Him Mister Tibbs, after all.
  • Also actually averted in Putney Swope: the one "main" white character in the film is a relentlessly abused junior executive. He gets one scene, which is based on an actual conversation the director observed between an ad agency head and a Black junior executive.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • H.P. Lovecraft, abyssal font of Values Dissonance that he was, made use of many racial stereotypes in his work, though they were never played for comedy, their otherness instead used as a source of horror or disgust. Some modern comics based on his work, however, such as The Unspeakable Vault of Doom, poke fun at his outdated views by giving his Deep Ones exaggerated Minstrel traits like humongous lips, googly eyes and impenetrable patois-laden speech to drive home the point they were originally created as an indictment of miscegenation.
    • It's really only prevalent in a few of his stories. There's even one time where he gives a relatively positive depiction of a black couple in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, while making their white landlord seem much less sympathetic - though none of them figure in the main plot as any more than brief plot-devices.
  • Heavily averted in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is a serious tale about Uncle Tom, a pious, Christian, good man and his horrid life as a slave. No dancing, swearing, or nonsense about him whatsoever.

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Any character played by Debra Wilson on Mad TV, but Bunifa is the most obvious.
  • Parodied in a The Whitest Kids U' Know sketch where a mailroom employee starts throwing out horrible movie ideas to studio execs, who eat them all up. All think that having a bunch of black people hold a cookout in a driveway and having Cedric the Entertainer and Queen Latifah show up would make a great movie for black audiences.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: "Hi, Uncle Tom!"
  • Completely inverted in the In Living Color "Black Like You" sketches, which featured Tom and Tom Brothers as Les Collaborateurs and extreme parodies of the unhip white guy. They even openly deconstructed the trope in this sketch.
    • They were actual parodies of unhip black guys perceived as Uncle Toms and sellouts, such as Bryant Gumbel.
  • Played with on Scrubs Show Within a Show, Dr Acula. JD casts Turk as a jive talking pimp and he complains it's racist and he wants to play the vampire. JD responds by asking Turk to act "Blacker". Turk immediately takes over the film and swaps their roles.
  • One of the most popular characters that was a excellent example of Uncle Tomfoolery was J.J. Evans from the show Good Times, portrayed by Jimmie Walker. He played this role so well that the character became the breakout character of the show, and many cast member began to be offended that he was becoming too stereotypical. One of the cast members, John Amos, even left the show because of this.
  • Dave Chappelle often played these in sketches on Chappelle's Show. One of his reasons for ending the show was that he could no longer recognize when he was parodying the character type, or actually playing them.
  • Misfits of Science Lampshaded the inversion as far back as The Eighties; The Lancer was a research scientist, slightly more square than the lead character and in general more knowledgeable and scientifically disciplined—aside from playing Professor Guinea Pig with a shrinking formula to avoid constant expectations that he should be able to play basketball, which gave him the ability to shrink to Fun Size.
  • Maury is often accused of this, with some justification.
  • Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip attempted to avert this in a scene where, while scoping out a club for new talent, black comic Simon Stiles complains about a stand-up doing this for laughs and pushes for the hiring of a more sedate, intelligent comic. In general though, Studio 60 so often went out of its way not to be offensive about race that it became insultingly condescending instead.

Theatre[edit | hide]

  • Regina, a quasi-operatic musical adaptation of The Little Foxes, added the character Jazz, whose comic-relief numbers egregiously deviate from the neo-classical style of the rest of the show.

Video Games[edit | hide]

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Parodied in an episode of British animated series Monkey Dust. A continuation of the running "Meatsafe Murderer" sketches has an American director buy the rights to Ivan Dobsky's life story so he can make a movie out of it. Ivan's apparently sentient (not to mention murderous) space hopper is portrayed in the movie as a skateboard voiced by Eddie Murphy, who seems unable to utter ANY line without saying "Motherfucker" at least twice.
  • Parodied in South Park, where "Token Black" is well-off, book smart, talks in a standard American accent, and plays the straight man to a lot of the other characters' jokes (especially the racist Cartman).
    • Which the creators then play with endlessly... like they do everything. Example: he's never even picked up' a bass guitar in his life, but the moment you put it in his hands, he can play the shit out of it.

Cartman: Token, give me a smooth bass line.
Token: ...I don't know how to play bass.
Cartman: *frustrated* Token, how many times do we have to go through this? You're black, you can play bass.
Token: *angry* I'm getting sick of your stereotypes.
Cartman: Be as sick as you want, just give me a goddamn bass line!
Token: *picks up guitar and instantly is able to play a series of complicated riffs* Goddamnit.

  1. who also happens to be voiced by the same actor as the aforementioned Mudflap and Black Baron. Tough luck, Reno Wilson.