Although much of the pleasure of watching Cabin in the Woods comes from the fact that the layers of stories are simultaneously somewhat familiar and yet a little bit off, and the audience (particularly the horror buffs therein) must try to figure out exactly what is going on and why (until Sigourney Weaver makes the Big Explanatory Speech at the end), there is a viewpoint character of sorts: Truman, who is a kind of generic security enforcer within the facility from which the sacrifice scenarios are orchestrated. Truman is newly assigned to the operation, so he gets to ask the questions which prompt the other characters to provide exposition to things they already know. And when things start to go off the rails in the third act, Truman is basically the only one who expresses any doubts about what the facility is responsible for unleashing. Within Cabin’s world, everyone who works at the facility is to some extent twisted and arguably evil, whereas Truman is noble and uncorrupted, and pretty stoic to boot.
Truman is portrayed by Brian White. Brian White happens to be black. He is, in fact, the only black character in the movie (with any lines, at any rate) which is not exactly a social critique I am leveling at Whedon, or not one I’m going to single him out for, at any rate. Most mainstream Hollywood movies have predominantly white casts, and to a certain extent you could even argue that the direct homage to classic slasher flicks necessitates a somewhat non-diverse collection of characters. And there is a biracial actor in the cast, as well: Jesse Williams, who plays one of the five teens trapped in the titular cabin. Tellingly, he plays Holden, aka The Scholar archetype. Not The Jock, and definitely not The Fool. The bookish, serious one.
Not too long after I saw Cabin in the Woods, my wife and watched a few episodes of Buffy, including “Beauty and the Beasts” which is an Oz-centric episode which just happens to include the one and only appearance of Buffy’s school counselor, Mr. Platt. Mr. Platt is solicitous and sincere. He’s also black. I think that was the moment where this entire trend really solidified in my mind.
I should state upfront that I think it is an unmitigatedly good thing when actors of color are cast in parts that don’t inherently have some kind of racial component. Truman, Holden and Mr. Platt could all have just as easily been white guys and it wouldn’t have changed the stories (their individual arcs or the encompassing narratives) an iota. I certainly don’t think that if a black actor gets a part it should be because that’s the only logical choice, because the character is some kind of inner-city stereotype or whatever.
Here’s what’s weird, though. Arguably one of Whedon’s greatest strengths is his aptitude for witty dialogue. He can pull off epics of fantasy, blend mythology and modern life with metaphoric resonance, and he’s hugely into strong female characters who make the world a better place for gender relations, but on top of all that, he is really funny. If you polled a bunch of Whedon fans about their favorite characters, I suspect you’d get a lot of Xander from Buffy, and Wash from Firefly, or Anya from Buffy (my favorite) or Oz (my wife’s). And what those characters all have in common is that they are quick with the one-liners, non-sequitors or sarcastic asides or whatnot. To some extent, they’re clowns, and the audience may be just as likely to be laughing at them in their cluelessness or inappropriate behavior as with them and their incisive/acerbic commentary. But by just about any measure, they’re often the best part of any episode.
But Xander and Anya and Oz and Wash are all white. If you start running through other prominent black characters from the Whedonverse, you can’t help but notice that the Venn diagram of “funny characters” and “black characters” has zero overlap. There’s Kendra the vampire slayer from season two of Buffy, and Principal Wood from season seven. Kendra is so serious it’s like she has no emotions at all (her backstory is she was raised to be a slayer from birth, with little to no time for personal growth) and Principal Wood has the tragic background of being the orphan son of a murdered-slayer mother. Over in Firefly, there’s the bounty hunter Jubal Early, and in the movie Serenity there’s the man known only as The Operative. Both are straight as heart attacks, with weird villainous codes of honor. Of course those codes make a nice contrast with Mal Reynolds, who is highly morally flexible but still the hero of the saga, but the fact remains, honorable is rarely funny.
In The Avengers, Nick Fury is played by Samuel L. Jackson. He gets a couple of pretty good lines off in the course of the movie, including one that really made me laugh, but never in a situation where Fury is trying to be funny. (The big laughline for me was about gamma radiation sometimes being dangerous, which is a massive understatement since gamma rays created the Hulk, which is more of an inside between-Whedon-and-the-comic-nerds-in-the-audience joke since Hulk hasn’t been properly introduced into the narrative at that point.)
If I’m going to go all armchair psychologist (and it’s my blog, so why the hell not) it’s almost as though Whedon’s thought process has consistently gone something like this: he feels a deep commitment to promoting diversity. Therefore, he will include black characters in his stories. However, he refuses to traffic in negative stereotypes in any way shape or form. So much so, in fact, that he will deliberately avoid even the slightest semblance of such. No one will ever be able to accuse him of minstrelsy. No one can say “the black guy is just there as ethnic comic relief.” Quite the contrary. There will be nothing comical about the black character at all. Ever. Not even in the cool, fun, everybody loves the jokester, everybody loves that about Whedon’s writing kind of way. The black character will be taken seriously because the black character will take him/herself very, very, extremely, crushingly seriously.
Which kind of makes me wonder what would happen if Whedon made a black character his main protagonist in some future story. Because Buffy Summers and Mal Reynolds and Tony Stark? They get off amazing punchlines all the time, too, in between their moments of pathos and their bouts of kicking ass and taking names. Which would win out – Whedon’s standard heroic template, or his standard no-clowning stance on persons of color?
I may be conjuring conclusions where they aren’t really merited. I’ve only seen a few episodes each of Angel and Dollhouse and for all I know there’s a hilarious, sardonic, popcult-savvy snark-meister who also happens to be black in either or both of those shows. But the trend as I see it is the trend as I see it, and I think it’s kind of a shame. I came up with the hypothetical train of justification above in large part because I can understand it. I empathize totally with wanting to do the right thing and trying to safeguard it from accidentally turning into the wrongest thing. But at the same time I believe that the best path toward equality is found in actually treating people as equals, not in treating certain people with exaggerated deference to make up for the past or overcompensate for prejudices. Portraying a gravitas-wreathed black character without a hint of shucking and/or jiving might give (sheltered, white) people a new way of thinking about others of different backgrounds, but maybe doling out the trademark Whedon-zingers equitably might cause (sheltered, white) people to stop seeing the superficial differences at all?