Magic Mike's true colours

The cast of Magic Mike XXL includes (from left) Matt Bomer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kevin Nash, Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello and Adam Rodriguez.
The cast of Magic Mike XXL includes (from left) Matt Bomer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kevin Nash, Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello and Adam Rodriguez.PHOTO: WARNER BROS

The minority characters in Magic Mike XXL are concessions to political correctness

Did you notice something about Magic Mike XXL?

The first movie, Magic Mike (2012), had a total of zero non-white main characters, despite being set in Florida, home to a large Latino population in the United States.

The sequel, XXL, now showing in cinemas, in comparison, seems to be political correctness defined, with actors such as Gabriel Iglesias and Adam Rodriguez taking on speaking parts.

As if to atone for the whitewashing of the first movie, XXL goes further, by making black actress Jada Pinkett Smith the manager of the male revue in the third act.

Why should you care about the colour of the cast? Because if you care about movies, you will care about how the movies reflect the relative value of cultures and races. In an indirect but very powerful way, Hollywood sets standards, not just for attractiveness, but for what's considered "normal".

For proof, look at why Singapore-made English-language films tend to do poorly on home ground. A large part of why they fail is because of how odd it feels when we hear Singapore English in feature films.

We want our English to be reassuringly foreign and therefore "better". It is why our television newsreaders have Asian faces but when they open their mouths, they sound like they were schooled on an island midway between Eton, Sydney and Los Angeles, in a Hogwarts for magical accents.

Magic Mike XXL is also a perfect example of how Hollywood's concessions to globalism are just that - concessions. Under the surface, it is about as progressive as a Benny Hill episode. Boss lady Jada Pinkett Smith is a powerful businesswoman. But - spoiler alert - she makes terrible business decisions based on her weak, womanly affections for Mike (Channing Tatum).

If her own black dancers are as good as she says, she should be making a fortune for them and herself at the stripper convention, instead of leading Mike's troupe.

Worse, a black male stripper appears on the movie poster and is pivotal in helping Mike and his team dance to victory. But he has little or no speaking lines. The actor whose name I can't pin down from searching the Internet is literally a body, never a mind. I guess if you are not white, you will be just a rung on the ladder of success for the Mikes of the world.

This is doubly true of the Latino characters played by Rodriguez (from the CSI: Miami television series) and Iglesias. Rodriguez screams out his name, ethnicity and motivations at the start of the movie; that is about as far as the character goes.

Ever the helpful sidekick, his friendship with an upper-class girl helps the team find accommodation while on the road. Comedian Iglesias as tour manager Tobias is also a human comic prop and cannot even be given dignity of staying in the movie till the end.

This is the dilemma that non- white actors face when it comes to a big movie that has to play it safe for the box office - either play stereotypes or don't play anything at all.

What about actors like Will Smith? Is he not the exception? Does he not have star power in the global marketplace enough for him to open a movie?

The evidence says otherwise. In the last movie he starred in, the recent romance-comedy Focus, his love interest was Margot Robbie. In the 2005 dating comedy Hitch, he was paired with Latina Eva Mendes. In sci-fi survivor flick I Am Legend (2007), it was with Latina Alice Braga. In Hancock (2008), it was Charlize Theron and the list continues.

Are you sensing a trend? If Smith was in a movie paired with, say, his real wife, Jada Pinkett, Hollywood accountants and marketers would have a meltdown. It would be a "black movie", considered to have narrow appeal, attracting only fans of Tyler Perry's Madea movies.

If you really want to see progressive Hollywood casting, in which minorities can play leads and not sidekicks, and who can have a love interest of the same race, you will have to go back a decade or so, back when Eddie Murphy was a hot property and could cast whomever he like and still not be pigeonholed.

In the comedies Dr Doolittle and The Nutty Professor and their sequels, from 1996 to 2001, Murphy did not require a white buddy partner or a love interest.

It is 2015, and Hollywood seems to be regressing. But if Magic Mike XXL is anything to go by, it is getting better at hiding its biases.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Magic Mike's true colours PopCulture'. Print Edition | Subscribe