Mar 11 2011 12:00pm

Did Eat Pray Love Need a Black Best Friend?

Eat Pray Love posterEat Pray Love is out on DVD now, and before I get into my little diatribe, let me first say that if you didn’t see it in the movie theater, what are you waiting for now? What’s there not to love: there’s Julia, beautiful scenes of India, and Javier. Need I say more? I know I’m going into a little rant here, but I’m still encouraging you to see the movie. It’s definitely entertaining, for whatever issues I might have with it.  

I was excited about the movie being made as soon as I first heard about it because I was a crazy fan of the book. And when I say crazy I mean Oprah-book-club, shout-from-the-rooftops, call-your-girlfriends-and-cry-over-it-together cra-a-zy. Now I say this knowing all the naysayers of the book, and to them I shrug: You go nuts over your books and I’ll go nuts over mine.

But there was something troubling me about the film version of the book, and it all started for me with the trailer. It had me pulling my copy of the book of the shelves to scour for an answer to a perplexing question.

First let me talk a bit more about the movie. The scenery was lush and beautiful (as I knew it would be), Javier was lush and beautiful (as I knew he would be) and Julia with her hair and lips was lush and, (well, you get the point). But as I’d feared, the movie did not quite live up to my love of Elizabeth Gilbert's original heart-wrenching book. The book (and some would say this is a criticism) was a perfect escape from life, and didn’t make light of the need for that escape. The movie somehow fell a bit short of that for me. It turned what were much more real characters in my head into caricatures.

Julia Roberts and Viola Davis in Eat Pray LoveBut that wasn’t my biggest problem. My biggest problem brings me back to my book-scouring question that came up when I first saw the trailer.  Who was this Delia character, played by Viola Davis? For the life of me, I could not remember her from the original. Where did this Black Best Friend (BBF) come from, and why was she suddenly in the movie when she wasn’t in the book? The book that sold millions and had fans all over the world waiting for the movie. The book that I thought was near perfect, so much so that I brought extra copies for two of my friends.

And then I realized it: Hollywood thought Julia’s character needed a Black sidekick. To what purpose? Throw us a bone to get us into the theater? And by us I mean me, in the eyes of Hollywood. A Black woman between the age of 18-49. I’m guessing the Tyler Perry demo that we now know reads books, shops, goes to movies, has money and is willing to spend it. Insert huge sigh here.  I was insulted and continued to be throughout the movie. The movie I had waited so long to see.

In order to placate myself I talked to my husband about my issues (probably more than he would have liked), getting into author stuff like characterization and internal dialogue all trying to reason out the reason for this character. In the end I couldn’t do it. I didn’t need to be pandered to in that way. You see, I would have seen the movie either way because I loved the book and Julia and, well, there was Javier, dang it!

I would love to see Viola in her own big budget starring role which this Oscar-nominated and Tony award-winning actress deserves. Not as the sidekick.  It felt like I was watching Nights in Rodanthe again.It doesn’t matter that she is a Black woman, but me being a black women, yeah that would make me pretty happy too, because I’d love to see more starring roles for women in general and, yes more with Black women and all women of color.

I’m so sick of this sort of add-on role of the BBF in Hollywood: The fringe black character who is clearly placed there as nothing more than a sounding board for the main White character. She has no real storyline or depth that moves the story forward. Just the occasional funny line or wise bit of wisdom for an a-ha moment. In an ensemble cast, she’s girl number five on the far left.

Rutina Wesley as Tara in True BloodMy favorite character who breaks this mold is Tara from True Blood, played by Rutina Wesley. The BBF that is a true BFF (best friend forever) in every way. She’s a character with depth and a story all her own that just about equals the main character’s. She’s clearly not just background noise or someone put in to pander to a demographic. In an odd way, I have not had so much fun with two such characters since—and I’m totally dating myself here—Cher and Dionne from the movie Clueless. Two Black and White best friends that seem completely authentic and made for each other.

So are you listening, Hollywood? I think it’s time to smarten up and get more creative with relationships between women on film—let’s make it equal and not separate. 

Kwana Jackson is a writer of Women’s fiction and Young Adult, a former fashion designer, a wife, and a mother of teen twins who have a love of knitting and a strange obsession with “reality” TV.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
Like you, I am unpleasantly annoyed when Hollywood decides to do something that is so clearly pandering. I wish

I do love True Blood's Tara, too. She's more than a Black sidekick, for sure.
And the same situation happens in Hollywood casting for gay people, larger people (Lucy and Ethel?), and ppl of other non-Caucasian races. Grr.
K.M. Jackson
2. kwanawrites
Good point @MFrampton on gay people or larger people or even the less pretty sidekick. It's the easy play to make the clear star shine and so not creative or even trying to tell a true story.
Monica Kaye
3. Monica Kaye
I think somewhere along the line, Hollywood decided to placate so-called minorities by throwing in a random person of color to quiet those people who complained about the lack of diversity on the big and small screen. However, I personally find it insulting when that character is insubstantial and basically a throwaway. A stereotype to appease us. I'd rather not see a Black face up there if all she's there for is to serve up tea and wisecracks.

You're right about Tara, too. She is a fully developed character with a plotline and conflicts as interesting as her "main" character counterpart. When we complain about the lack of diversity in the media, we mean characters like her.
Charli Mac
4. CharliMac
If it's not in the memoir it's a disservice to the work. I've read all of Nicky Sparks but Nights in Rodanthe and The Last Song. The latter is due to a Hannah Montana coma I am still in from my kid's tweener years. The former is because I saw the movie and didn't want to bawl my eyes out. Now the Inn Keeper isn't even accurate? Grr. Tsk tsk you Hollywodd PC machine!

Tara kicks ass and needs her own show! Loved it when last season she wanted to kick Sookie's tookus, then took matter into her own hands to save her own butt.

BTW, I am so annoyed that Judy Greer hasn't had a starring role yet. Not sure who she is, I bet not. She's the red-headed awkward sidekick from 27 Dresses, 13 Going on 30, The Wedding Planner and a slew more.
Monica Kaye
5. JillSorenson
Nice post, Kwana. I haven't seen Eat Pray Love or True Blood but I loved Clueless! I'm a big fan of the Scrubs BFFs (Zac Braff and Donald Faison). And Faison was in Clueless...he's so cute!
K.M. Jackson
6. kwanawrites
@Monica Kaye thanks so much. You're right.

@CharliMac I looked yo Judy Greer. You're right I should have known her I've seen her in just about everything!

@JillSorenson I forgot about Scrubs and Donald Faison and Zac another great duo and yes, ho was so cute in Clueless!
Monica Kaye
7. Kim in Hawaii
Aloha, Kwana! I didn't read the book but I enjoyed the movie when it rotated through the military movie theater. In fact, I went alone as my hubby was making dinner for my children. Big mistake. I was hungry as she was dining her way through Italy. Seriously. I had to buy stale nachoes just to keep my stomach quiet.

Since I didn't read the book, I assumed the Delia character was in it. Now I am curious why the producers choose to create an interracial couple (the actor playing the husband is portayed as a goober in commercials for Direct TV).

I thought some of the transitions between scenes was choppy but overall I enjoyed the movie. Regarding your comment that the book was about an escape from life, I thought the movie was an esacape with the food, scenery, and Javier!
K.M. Jackson
8. kwanawrites
@Kim in Hawaii - Hi Kim thanks for commenting. Sorry about those stale nachos. Bummer that. LOL. Thanks for your take on the film. I actually thought that the husband you are referring to had one of the best lines when he said that Elizabeth ends up looking like all the men she dates. Very telling.
I'd love to know how you feel if you do end up reading the book. I thought it was so much better.
But I do agree it was enjoyable and so lovely to look at.
Monica Kaye
9. Farrah Rochon
Extremely insightful post, Kwana. I find myself gritting my teeth whenever the obligatory black best friend (who is ususally on the sassy side) walks onto the screen, too. I haven't seen Eat Pray Love or read the book, but the fact that Viola Davis's character wasn't even in the book makes this even more blatant. You pointed out one of my favorite movies that has a black friend who isn't just there to placate minority moviegoers--Clueless. I loved the relationship between Cher and Dionne.
Monica Kaye
10. Darcy
Re: Portrayal of Women of Color:
Hollywood is a blond blue eyed game why this same discussion is still taking place in the 21st century how black women are portrayed in this industry pretty much says it all.

In regards to the portrayal of Tara Thornton if you read the books she is she didn't have a great upbringing, she's white, a successful business woman clothing store business woman who dresses to the nines…now lets look at the stereotypical African American woman with an attitude that is portrayed in the series a bartender swigging Wild Turkey cussin and fussin.

Yes Tara is a good friend to Sookie Stackhouse true enough and I am a fan of that friendship however, I disagree about some ground-breaking portrayal of an African American character as a friend here. Because Tara whole tale on the show is pretty stereotypical in my opinion...abusive background like in the books but can't seem to get it together...

Also the toliet prop in S3 (Tara duct taped and hovering over a toliet); I found offensive but I guess it was funny to some. I too enjoyed how the friendship of Clueless Cher and Dionne. is portrayed.
K.M. Jackson
11. kwanawrites
@Farrah Thanks so much for your comments. I really appreciate it.

@Darcy. Thanks for chiming in. I have not read the books at least not up until the Tara point. I did not know the difference in Tara portrayal so I can get your point. It is very irritating at how she would be changed in that way especially if you are a fan of the books. Another add on.
Jennifer Savage
12. JenSavage
I agree this type of thing can be annoying. I didn't see the movie or read the book, but I wish Hollywood would get the message. I'd also love to see more historicals starring people of color. There are tons of subjects that haven't been done--like how about a movie centered around the free black community during the revolutionary war era?
Monica Kaye
13. Phyllis Bourne
I loved the book. Didn't see the movie.

Still, your post is right on target.

I also cringe when I see the black bff, who has no life of her own and only cares about the heroine's love life. You almost know her lines before they come out of her mouth.
14. thewriterach
I haven't read EPL or watched it, but I have read the Sookie books and watched the first two seasons of True Blood, so I felt I had to chime in!  I love how Tara is portrayed in TB.  The book Tara was so one-dimensional and boring.  And you gotta admit that for a small town in the South, it's so much more realistic to have a more multi-cultural cast.

But then, I'm one of those odd people who see books and their adaptations, not as competing, but as separate, complimentary entities.  I love them both.  I'm odd, I know!  I love seeing how other people imagine the stories.  And then I end up weaving the stories together if they are similar enough, so that it's all one.  If it's too disparate, the stories completely separate, so there are two distinct tales.

I uh, I really have no idea what my point was!

Oh.  Yeah.  I don't really care what race the characters are: any throwaway character is disappointing, and a cop out.
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