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Television & Movie Tropes: The Black Judge

December 16, 2010

A 1971 Time Magazine explored the growing presence of black judges within the judicial system. At the time the article was published the number of black judges could be carried in a, “small fleet of Greyhounds.” and their number totaled a mere 269 at the time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are roughly 3700 judges in the US. Despite the impressive strides made by black folks, black judges are still easily outnumbered by their white counterparts and certainly are not in the staggering numbers shows like Law & Order or any number of John Grisham film adaptations would have you believe. You cannot swing a gavel without knocking over a black judge in a television show or movie. Apparently, cinematic justice can only be administered by chubby, medium toned women with eyelids at permanent half mast and with lips perpetually in search of lemons to suck or some elder statesman type blactor usually named Ossie, Morgan or Danny. And forgot the fantagical; spend as little as five minutes fondling the television remote and you’ll encounter a host of black folks in judgey type positions smacking down trifling turkeys who sue each other for the most fatuous and fame hungry of reasons on American daytime television. For the most part fictional black judges aren’t really there to instruct or rule on anything, but rather to shepherd lawyers – be they newbies, former drunks or defending rich assholes who just ran down a black kid and tried to cover it up – through the judicial process. Black judges – regardless of their geographical region and age – are often well versed in civil rights law and cite Justice Marshall as either a personal hero or close personal friend.

Iris Little Thomas shown here playing Rosa Parks is also known for her raspy voiced snarky fab Judge Barbara Lusky on Law and Order

Despite their legal rigor, fictional black judges conduct proceedings in a relaxed (yet orderly) manner. In The Rainmaker, Judge Tyrone Kipler (played with breezy cheek by Danny Glover) even goes so far to share his broad legal knowledge with an inexperienced trial lawyer (played by Matt Damon) right there during the court proceedings! More than just a clever way to make use seasoned blactors and blactresses, The Black Judge trope provides an opportunity for those utilizing it to demonstrate how not racist and progressive they are! See, we got Morgan Freeman playing a judge. (I see you, De Palma!) The interesting thing about the depictions of black judges is the sexual division of labor. On the big screen if a judge is black most likely it is played by a male actor on the small screen the black judge is disproportionately played by a woman. Also Judge Lusky from Law & Order is my favorite because she reminds me of La Mommie. I like how she dips her glasses when she’s reading some ridiculous motion that’s cutting into her chillaxing time. To be honest sometimes I get a little wary at the concern trolling about the number of black judges on television shows and in movies. If television and films are fictional representations of our lives – isn’t that what they tell us when we chastise them for foisting unobtainable standards at us – then why are we so scandalized when the number of black judges that grace our cinemahouses and television screens far exceed their numbers in real life?

I forgot how hilariously fabulous Freeman’s Bonfire of the Vanities rant is!

Cinematic & Small Screen Examples:

Danny Glover, The Rainmaker
Morgan Freeman, Bonfire of the Vanities
Ossie Davis, The Client
Patricia R. Floyd, Law & Order – Judge Rochelle Desmond
Iris Little Thomas, Law & Order – Judge Barbara Lusky

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2010 8:47 pm

    Morgan is so young and bald!

    I love Alfre Woodard when she served her required time on the bench.

    That is so right about how men get the movies and women get television! I hadn’t put that together before, but every example I think of holds true.

  2. December 16, 2010 10:54 pm

    Alfre Woodard is a glorious judge. I cannot stop watching that clip of Morgan. I mean I’ve seen the movie a billion times, I know it’s him, but I can’t look away. He’s so uber bald. It’s visually arrested.

  3. eieioj permalink
    December 17, 2010 10:56 am

    Does Ossie Davis’ turn as The Judge in The Stand count? Mainly, he sits around being wise, quoting the Bible, and being retired.

  4. December 17, 2010 12:17 pm

    Oh definitely. I was trying to a little “deep cut-ish” isolating Davis’ performance in The Client.

  5. December 18, 2010 3:17 am

    David E. Kelley also did this with great actor Albert Hall, who played the same role of Judge Seymour Walsh on both “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal.” I suspect there may actually be footage of him on youtube, but none that identified him, and I wasn’t about to go through every “Ally” clip (ok, I wasn’t about to go through ANY “Ally” clip) to find a sample.

  6. December 18, 2010 4:20 am

    Yes! I was trying to find some clips of David E. Kelley shows, because I know it’s the same for Boston Legal too.

  7. evmaroon permalink
    December 19, 2010 1:41 am

    I think The Good Wife has been trying to work against that trope for the most part, but most shows can’t help themselves! I wonder how much of this trend is about producers looking to ensure they’re comporting with diversity standards in SAG casting? Always a black judge, never a bride!

  8. July 18, 2013 12:35 pm

    Hello! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick
    shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading your posts.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with the same subjects?
    Many thanks!

  9. July 30, 2013 4:21 am

    I need to to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it.
    I have you saved as a favorite to check out new things you post…

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