By the time Leslie Jones appears in “Ghostbusters” — it takes a few scenes to get there — she’s instantly likable. As the wackadoodle scientist peddling gadgets, Kate McKinnon steals the show, but Jones isn’t anyone’s sidekick. She’s funny on “Saturday Night Live,” but the “Ghostbuster” reboot’s script doesn’t allow her character Patty Tolan to really soar.
Her best joke of the movie – after two of her ghost-busting peers crowd surf at a rock concern, the sea of people declines to catch her – gets at a question the movie itself isn’t equipped to really answer. Her character works best when she’s calling out this inequality: “I don’t know if it’s a race thing or a lady thing,” she says. “But I’m mad as hell.”
Fortunately, “Ghostbusters” isn’t peddling respectability politics. Patty Tolan isn’t a scientist, and she doesn’t need to be to have her spot on the squad legitimized. Jones herself delivered an impassioned defense of her character when the movie’s trailer made it obvious that she — yes, the black actress — was the only non-academic of the foursome. “Why can’t a regular person be a ghostbuster?” Jones asked on Twitter. “I’m confused. And why can’t I be the one who plays them? I am a performer.” (Notably, the role was originally written for McCarthy.)
Jones shared a fan letter that got to the heart of why showing that spending decades in a laboratory or classroom isn’t a prerequisite to being a Ghostbuster is a good thing. “The fact that my position as a clerk is the most abused by society, I feel this may give us a semblance of humanness,” the fan wrote.
It’s a beautiful sentiment — but something about Jones’ character stings anyway. It’s slight, and most likely unintentional, but it’s there: This is a reboot that’s supposed to expand our conception of what it means to be in comedy’s canon, and Jones’ role doesn’t sync up with that. It’s supposed to reflect truths every sentient person has always known: Women are funny, ghosts are scary and you don’t need to be a boy to fight bad guys and win. But that same limited imagination — the one that cast Ernie Hudson as the non-white, non-scientist three decades ago — persists.
It’s 2016 and there are still scripts and movies with black women cast as best friends and side chicks, mammies and Jezebels. There have been movies released this year where black women are set pieces, if we’re even present at all. “Ghosbusters” doesn’t fall into that trap; Feig and Katie Dippold do better by both Jones than anything found in the original films. However, over the past few months, it seemed like the driving point of this “Ghostbusters” was that it would do more. Instead, it only really does more for white women. As a character, Patty is underused – her knowledge of New York City and its landmarks feels like a kind of plot coupon, random and unexplained, but handy just in the nick of time.
The fact that it’s Leslie Jones – the fact that it’s her face, 20-feet-tall in movie theaters around the world, in a franchise as storied as “Ghostbusters” – means something. The optics of this are even more critical in a time when a project as botched as “Nina,” in which Zoe Saladana wore blackface to play the dark-skinned singer, can still happen.
It’s important that we see dark-skinned women onscreen, and no one has been smarter talking about this than Viola Davis. “When it comes to women of color, especially women of darker hue, there’s a limit to the pathology that people are willing to explore,” she told The New York Times. “That’s why we play caretakers, judges. You don’t see their personal lives. Their vaginas are cut out, so you don’t know if they’re sleeping with anyone.” Jones’ performance contributes to an expansion. This “Ghostbusters” – as it’s written – did not.
And yet, the film does some good: Even if it only barely uses the breadth of Jones’ talents, even if most of her jokes are expected from the “black, streetwise character,” even if she’s not a scientist, she’s still there. Patty Tolan is a black woman living and breathing in a huge blockbuster, and even though she’s not at its center, she’s also not punchline. It’s not enough. But it opens the door for something better.
“Ghostbusters” opens in theaters on Friday, July 15.