Sunday, March 06, 2016

Ghostbusters Character Flap & Real Rocket Science

SNL writer/performer and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones
With the American film industry under such increased pressure to expand quality on-screen roles and opportunities for both women and people of color in mainstream studio releases, one of the most hotly anticipated Hollywood films is the new Ghostbusters remake which updates the franchise with an all-female team of ghost hunters.

The new release stars an A-list roster of talented female comediennes including Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones (pictured left).

Jones is a comedienne with over 25 years experience on the comedy club and festival circuit.

She made headlines back in 2014 when she joined Saturday Night Live as a full-time cast member in the wake of  controversy over the lack of racial diversity on the show.

As you may recall, SNL writers famously made light of the lack of a black female cast member during a November 3, 2013 show when Scandal star Kerry Washington hosted and played so many black characters in sketches that writers penned a funny apology for making her work so hard and not having enough black cast members to play black female characters.

Black SNL cast-member Kennan Thompson also used humor to publicly express his getting tired of having to play all the black female characters (including Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey) in drag - it put pressure on creator Lorne Michaels and in May 2014 he announced Jones would join the cast full time in fall 2014.

Last week Jones was once again back in the media spotlight over her being cast, this time in the new Ghostbusters film scheduled to be released this July 15th.

Jones, McCarthy, Wiig & McKinnon as Ghostbusters 
Martin Reese wrote an interesting piece on his blog Martin's Theory of Relativity examining some of the recent social media feedback / reaction from films fans to the screenwriters choice to make Jones' African-American character a subway transit worker rather than a scientist; as the three other white female characters are.

Reese's blog always offers insightful commentary on topics related to comic books, graphic novels, television and film with science-fiction/fantasy/ horror themes.

For me personally, as a self-professed sci-fi and fantasy geek (and writer), Reese's observations strike a particular chord with me as he writes specifically from the perspective of the black American creator/ artist and fan base.

So I think his questioning why the filmmakers couldn't have made the lone person of color in the group of ghost chasers a scientist on equal terms with her white counterparts, is a valid observation.

Particularly given the complex range of factors related to why the computer industry and science in general struggles to attract black females as coders, programmers, mathematicians or scientists.

NASA mathematician Katherine Jones
One of the reasons is that American history has unfortunately tended to obscure the incredible contributions of black women like NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, one of the people responsible for calculating the flight path trajectory of astronaut Alan Shepherd's historic Mercury space mission in 1961 (America's first) and later the Apollo 11 moon mission amongst her many NASA space flight contributions.

In no way am I suggesting that Ghostbusters screenwriters Paul Feig and Kate Dipplo are responsible for using their comedy film as a platform to positively portray black female scientists.

But as Martin Reese observed in his blog, there was an opportunity to shape Leslie Jones' character differently in a way that might've inspired young girls of color to actually see an African-American female scientist in a major film release.

Hollywood has such an immense power to influence and shape culture through casting, roles and story lines.

I'm a huge fan of the 1983 Oscar-winning film The Right Stuff directed by Phillip Kaufman (based on Tom Wolfe's 1979 book of the same name) which chronicles the early development of America's space program, including Alan Shepherd's first space mission; how many young girls of color might have been influenced to study math or science if Katherine Johnson's contribution to the Mercury flight program had been even briefly mentioned or portrayed on screen?

Now I'm not saying the film was politically incorrect, not historically accurate, or in any way "racist" for not mentioning Katherine Johnson; but there are any number of white male scientists who were portrayed in the movie.

I'm simply making the observation that Alan Shepherd's historic flight was shown in great detail in the film.

Alan Shepherd's Mercury space flight May 5, 1961
The fact that a female African-American mathematician who went to college at age 15 played an important role in the planning of the suborbital parabolic 300-nautical-mile flight path, which ensured Shepherd's safe return back to earth, might have added a different dimension to the film.

It might have inspired a young black girl or boy somewhere to imagine mathematics as a vocation or career path.

But as reported by Huffington Post and other media outlets, Leslie Jones herself was quick to use her Twitter account to dismiss disgruntled fans' concerns by reminding people that Ghostbusters is only a fictional comedy film.

As she pointed out, none of the actresses who play the Ghostbusters are actual scientists, and as Jones observed about negative comments about her Ghostbusters character's job on Twitter:

"Why can't a regular person be a Ghostbuster. I'm confused. And why can't i be the one who plays them i am a performer. Just go see the movie!"

Those are obviously fair points, particularly given that none of the people on social media who were troubled by Jones' character's job have actually seen the movie yet.

Who knows? Perhaps a seeing an average working woman be a member of the Ghostbusters will be just as influential on a young impressionable mind.

But I can't help but think that as rare as it is to see a black woman playing a scientist in a Hollywood movie, Ghostbusters was a good opportunity to do that given the subject matter.

To be fair, I'll withhold my judgement until I see the film later this summer.

But if Melissa McCarthy plays a paranormal researcher, Kristen Wiig plays a physicist, and Kate McKinnon plays a nuclear engineer, I can't help but think there was room for the African-American character to be a scientist too.

As Katherine Johnson's remarkable NASA career reminds us, black women can be rocket scientists; and they certainly have The Right Stuff.

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