It’s Black History Month. That means it is the one month out of year that everyone is posting the sort stuff I post all the time. And that means that I need to step up my game. For my first (and possibly only) entry for Black History Month 2014, I’ve decided to write about one of the most important African American characters in the history of cinema—Winston Zeddemore. Before any of you roll your eyes and stop reading, hang with me for just a little longer while I explain why a character from the movie Ghostbusters is so important.
One of the most enduring cinematic conventions is the supporting Black character that is killed off in movies. Anyone who has seen enough movies has recognized this sad and tired cliché, and plenty of people have asked why this happens so often. I’ve addressed this issue in my essay “Why’s the Brotha Gotta Die?” which is included in the collection Becoming Black: Personal Ramblings on Racial Identification, Racism, and Popular Culture. In that essay, I talk about what it was like for a Black audience seeing Ghostbusters within the context of the established norm of Black characters getting killed in film. “For much of the White audience, Ghostbusters was a comedy about a group of guys who hunt ghosts and save the world from a deadly spectral army. For much of the Black audience who saw the film, Ghostbusters was a comedy about a group of guys who hunt ghosts and save the world from a deadly spectral army, and the Black guy lives in the end. For many White people in the audience, the significance of Ernie Hudson’s character Winston Zeddemore living was lost on them.”
I go on to explain more about the importance of Winston Zeddemore: “On the surface, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) was the token Black guy with some great memorable lines in the otherwise all-White cast of Ghostbusters, which made him, by every stretch of the imagination, the perfect Disposable Brotha. However, Hudson’s character is unique, not just in the fact that he lives, or that his race is, with the exception of one line of dialog, a non-issue. No, the thing that makes Winston Zeddemore such a unique character is that he is the most grounded in reality, and serves as proxy for the audience. As the average guy on the street, looking for a job, with no experience with the paranormal, Winston Zeddemore is more like the audience than the other Ghostbusters. In essence, when Zeddemore joins the team, the audience is joining the team. From a standpoint of racial ideology, Ghostbusters is a significant film because it not only forces the audience to relate to a Black character, much of the audience’s relation to the other characters in the film is filtered through a Black man.”