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Buddy system

They're wise, loyal and often sassy. Black Best Friends help white heroines, but do they limit black actresses?

August 29, 2007|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Julia LOUIS-DREYFUS has one. Sandra Bullock had one. So did Jennifer Garner and Katie Holmes. Jennifer Love Hewitt has had two. Calista Flockhart took hers dancing. Kate Walsh had one, lost her, and got another one with a different face but the same name. And Scarlett Johansson got her first one last weekend.

They're stars who have all played lead characters who experience adventure with the help of their BFF (Best Friend Forever). But in many cases, these BFFs might more accurately be characterized as BBFs -- Black Best Friend -- played by an African American actress whose character's principal function is to support the heroine, often with sass, attitude and a keen insight into relationships and life.

Celluloid BBFs have been featured in the just-opened "The Nanny Diaries," as well as "The Devil Wears Prada," and "Premonition." But BBFs have been even more of an influence in TV series, including "The New Adventures of Old Christine," "Ghost Whisperer," "Alias," "Ally McBeal," "Felicity," "Summerland" and "Private Practice," the spinoff of "Grey's Anatomy" premiering this fall.

The BBF syndrome isn't something that Hollywood likes to talk about, even as it continues to be a winking in-joke among blacks in the industry. One African American actress said that she and her actress friends tease one another about forming a support group for characters who had to help out their "woefully helpless white girls."

But on a more serious note, the trend of BBFs underscores the limitations that African American actresses still face more than five years after Halle Berry's Oscar-winning performance as best actress in a leading role for "Monster's Ball." Despite impressive résumés, solid credentials and successful achievements, many of the black actresses who have played BBFs are rarely offered the heroine role in mainstream projects. Not one black actress will star in a prime-time series on the four major networks this fall season.

And, as has been long lamented, lead roles in films are few and far between.

Rose Catherine Pinkney, executive vice president of programming and production for TV One, a cable network targeted to black audiences, was one of the few TV or film industry executives willing to talk about BBF syndrome, saying: "It's wonderful that studios recognize great talent. And there's more diversity, so it looks like the world. But it's a shame that studios also don't have the courage to put these actresses in leads."

Some say it's unfair to even categorize BBFs -- it undermines the talent of the actors and actresses who work hard to win their roles, they say, and ignores the fact that some of these roles didn't necessarily call for an African American performer.

But Pinkney, a former Paramount Studios executive, added, "Historically, people of color have had to play nurturing, rational caretakers of the white lead characters. And studios are just not willing to reverse that role."

Of course, friendships or partnerships between black and white males are a staple in films and movies ("Lethal Weapon," "Wild Hogs," "Pulp Fiction"). But in many of those relationships, the dynamic is more even-handed -- the friends support each other -- or the black male is the dominant friend.

But it's different for women.

BBFs vary in personality and looks, but many share the same qualities: They are gorgeous, independent, loyal and successful. They live or work with their friend but are not really around all that much except for well-timed moments when the heroine needs an eating companion or is in crisis. BBFs basically have very little going on, so they are largely available for such moments. And even though they are single or lack consistent solid relationships, BBFs are experts in the ways of the world, using that knowledge to comfort, warn or scold their BFF.

And quite often, they are the only black character in sight.

"It's a stereotype that's been around for a long time," said Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of media psychology at Cal State L.A. "It's a way for bringing in a different culture, and the black friend can add ingredients that would not ordinarily be there. Blacks are seen as being more outspoken, so they can speak with greater authority and give more information."

Opportunity or limitation?

Aisha Tyler, who generated buzz when she played the first recurring African American love interest on "Friends," wound up in the BBF class when she played the best friend to a paranormal investigator (Hewitt) in CBS' "Ghost Whisperer."

Tyler, who left the series at the end of its first season to devote more time to her first directorial effort, a buddy comedy about two female cops that she will star in, said she feels fortunate that she is mostly offered roles that are more complex and interesting than the traditional BFF.

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