Parks and Recreation’s Black Best Friend Problem

Retta as Donna in Parks and Recreation"

I’ve touched upon this before, but this week’s episode committed ‘the black best friend’ trope so grievously, I feel compelled to post.

(For those of you who are unaware of this pervasive, tired TV trope, read this. It succinctly summarizes the issue and has lots of examples.)

The black best friend deals with the protagonist’s mess and offers unsolicited advice, because he or she doesn’t have a life apart from the main character. He or she is really an updated, less offensive version of the Magical Negro, a la virtually every character Morgan Freeman has ever played. Film is actually the preferred medium for this sort of thing, but TV is also a chronic offender. Wanda Sykes in The New Adventures of Old Christine is a good example, as is Kellee Stewart on My Boys.  (That both of these middling shows have been cancelled indicates how unimaginative this trope is and makes Parks’ foray into this trite area all the more troubling).

Rashida Jones as Ann in Parks and Recreation

Anyway, in this week’s episode of Parks, Ann (Rashida Jones) is still trying to get back in the dating game. She goes to a singles mixer, has a few awkward conversations, and runs into Donna (Retta). Why is Donna there? Has she ever had a relationship? Is she dating anyone? We don’t know. The writers won’t tell us. Instead Donna gives Ann tips on how to land a man. Why? Donna and Ann were never particularly close in past seasons. Leslie is Ann’s best friend. Perhaps the writers were aware of the fact that they haven’t given Donna much material in comparison to the other supporting characters. She’s gotten noticeably more dialogue in the past few episodes, but if it means that she’s going to be telling Ann how to land a man, than I’d rather see her make faces at the camera like Jim Halpert. Guest star Fred Armisen’s assertion last season that he “liked the large black one” in an episode about visiting Venezuelan delegates, was  problematic enough, but having Donna dole out advice screams of ‘the black best friend’ and is made worse by the fact that colorism is so obviously at play here. Rashida Jones is biracial,  fair enough to ‘pass’ as white. In fact, during her stint on The Office, she played an Italian-American. Retta, the stand-up comic who plays Donna, is overweight and dark-skinned. In the world of entertainment, those are two big strikes against her. By putting Jones in the ‘white’ role and Retta in the ‘black’, Parks just serves to revisit an old, expired trope in a new, disturbingly coloristic way.

It’s made worse by the fact that all the other supporting characters have been extensively developed. Jerry got a whole episode. We know that he has a wife and two kids. Tom Haverford’s originally from South Carolina; he changed his name because he thought it would give him an edge politically. The relationship with his now ex-wife Wendy was a funny and poignant storyline from last season. April has a younger sister and a mother and father. Andy has his grandmother. What does Donna have? A Mercedes Benz and a brother we’ve only heard of in  a throwaway line about how she hates him.

Really, Parks writers? Is that all you’re going to give her?

Parks and Recreation’ s strong supporting characters are what make the show so great. They create the small hometown vibe, contribute to the warm fuzzies you get when you watch an episode.  But if the writers refuse to develop all the supporting characters equally, if they indulge in this lazy writing (which is essentially what the black best friend trope is–laziness), then Parks and Recreation will be all the worse for it.


2 Comments on “Parks and Recreation’s Black Best Friend Problem”

  1. […] television’s depictions of racial minorities still leaves something to be desired. Perhaps Muharrrar can change that. […]

  2. […] TV at least, the advantage, usually (although as shows like Parks and Recreation have shown us, this isn’t always the case) is the ability to flesh out these minor characters and give them […]

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