The Crispus Attucks Test

Building from the updated form of the Bechdel Test that is explained above and Alaya Dawn Johnson’s POC variation of the Bechdel Test, I would like to introduce the Crispus Attucks Test. A movie passes the Crispus Attucks Test if it has a person of color who:

1) Has a name.

2) Doesn’t die first.

3) Has their death mentioned later in the film.

4) Doesn’t die within the first 1/5 of the total running time of the film. (This one is optional)

If you’re familiar with the Bechdel Test, you’ve probably noticed that I have not included the typical requirement that there should be at least two members of the group being discussed. At first glance this is probably blasphemous, but allow me to explain. As I understand it, the ultimate goal of the Bechdel Test is to shed light on the entrenched and problematic practices of the entertainment industry. The test does this by highlighting the presences and absences of women (and now persons of color) in movies and then showing how these presences and absences indicate how the overall story values women. In other words, the Bechdel Test shows who matters to a story and how they matter. Though dying in a film is not precisely the same as being marginalized within it as the sole woman or person of color, or as a woman or POC who only speaks with or about men, I think that focusing on death is definitely in the spirit of the Bechdel Test in terms of showing who matters and how they matter to the overall story.

Death and when it occurs are a particularly meaningful point of insight because a death often makes explicit how relevant (or not) a character is to the overall events of a story. While a late death will often resolve or propel a story and profoundly affect how characters develop, early deaths often just set events in motion, rarely doing much else, especially in terms of character development. In fact, Law and Order has perfected this formula. Every episode of Law and Order begins with a death, and even though that death is central to the events of the story, the person who died is literally never fleshed out. Throughout the episode we will only see this person in a ghastly state of incompleteness at best and complete absence at worst. Yet the story goes on.

I do not intend for the Crispus Attucks Test to be applied broadly, especially to movies that do not have death as part of the story or that contain an entire cast of persons of color. My intention is for the test to be applied to movies in which a death advances the plot (or is at least supposed to), namely action movies, horror movies, thrillers and blockbusters.

Like the Bechdel Test, the Crispus Attucks Test does not necessarily say anything – whether the movie passes or fails – about the aesthetic qualities of a film. Rather, it highlights the social, political and economic circumstances under which films are made (which are certainly related to aesthetics, but not always directly). Particularly, it draws attention to the devaluation of the labor of POC writers, actors, producers and general workers within the film industry and the unrecognition* of POC characters as integral elements to the telling of a story, not mere cannon fodder or plot devices.

There are many movies that I love that fail the Crispus Attucks Test. Right off the bat, I can think of Scream 2, Aliens and X-Men: First Class. I can still appreciate and enjoy these movies despite their shortcomings, but I do recognize that the way that they told their stories did not have come at the expense of persons of color. The events of the stories could have easily happened otherwise and the Crispus Attucks Test is a small way of recognizing and encouraging that change.** That said, as Anita Sarkeesian says in the video, changes to the entertainment industry are ultimately in the hands of creators. All we can do is keep our hands at their necks.

*Unrecognition was coined by Audre Lorde in her open letter to Mary Daly to refer to the experience of being represented in an unfamiliar way by someone who was supposed to be a collaborator. It’s more than misrepresentation. Unrecognition is a feeling of being instrumentalized, of being used toward some end that you oppose. It is a feeling of betrayal, objectification and exploitation.

**The early deaths of Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett can be read as parody, but I’ve never really bought that reading. Who says parody has to be so straightforward? Another way to get the point across without slitting their throats could have been to have one of them fall asleep during the movie and imagine that they were murdered. I’m no screenwriter, but in a movie that is by definition an assemblage of other movies, I’m sure that other options could have been explored.

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