Black Women Love Weed Too, So Why Don’t We Get To Be Stoners Onscreen?
Lighting up could be the answer to burning down the tropes that have sidelined Black women characters for decades. It’s high time for new strains of stoners in film and TV.
Unbothered’s High Impact is rewriting the rules of wellness, wealth, and weed with real and dynamic conversations that put Black women at the centre. This series was originally published on Refinery29 US
In the 1998 cult classic Half Baked, Mary Jane Potman (The Craft’s Rachel True) is the sole Black woman in a sea of male stoners. The cast is led by a young and roguish Dave Chappelle as Thurgood, “a master of the custodial arts” (or “janitor, if you want to be a dick about it,” he quips), who smokes weed like it’s his job but hides this fact from his love interest Mary Jane. See, Mary Jane is adamantly anti-cannabis. So much so, it becomes her entire personality. When we first meet her, she’s visiting her father in prison while Thurgood is checking in on a friend. Outside of the jail, Thurgood and Mary Jane run into his fully-baked buddies, Brian and Scarface.
“Do you smoke?” Brian asks Mary Jane. “No, my grandmother died from lung cancer,” she deadpans. “That's all the more reason to toke up man! It'll ease the pain!” Throughout the movie, Mary Jane is the straight-laced “good girl” who exists to remind Thurgood and his friends that weed is bad. Her father is incarcerated for dealing the drug after all, making Mary Jane a sobering cautionary tale. She is there to look pretty and to lob stoner jokes up to the men, while she sits on the sidelines, raining on their proverbial parade.
“I was in my hotel room in Toronto smoking weed while working on my lines that said stuff like, ‘that’s a gateway drug.’ I thought, how do I say this sentence and mean it? Because I don’t believe that!” True tells R29 Unbothered over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. Twenty-three years after the film’s release, True recalls getting high throughout the film shoot and laughing at the irony of it all. “When I was cast in that role all my friends died laughing because they knew how much I loved weed,” she says. “I didn’t want to be the one character who was like ‘No, weed is bad!’ I probably smoked while I was preparing for the audition like [pretends to take a drag and inhales] ‘OK sure weed is terrible!’” True fake coughs the last line as she exhales — it’s a hilarious off-hand delivery that could be the opening scene of her own stoner movie. But the truth is, if True were up for a role in a comedy about weed today, she would probably still play the killjoy girlfriend who refuses to take a hit — that is, if there was even a role for her to audition for at all. Black women continue to be largely missing from the smokey and storied space in pop culture that is the stoner film canon.
When I was cast in [Half Baked] all my friends died laughing because they knew how much I loved weed.
A lot has changed since 1978’s Up In Smoke, the hazy Cheech and Chong buddy comedy that many credit as the first stoner movie. Since weed is becoming widely decriminalised and legalised, the drug’s onscreen depiction — and who’s getting high in front of the camera — has changed too. It’s not just dimwitted dudes passing puffs in between grunts anymore. And yet, Black women have still been largely left behind in the genre.
It’s not because of a lack of demand. When I tweeted an all-call looking for Black women who love weed and pop culture to be interviewed for this story, my DMs were flooded with women who crave content where they can see themselves reflected. In VICE Media Group's fourth annual survey of cannabis usage, 86% of Black female respondents are current weed users and 80% say the media does not feature an inclusive or diverse group of users in the cannabis space and they want that to change. “As this industry continues to grow, there are a lot of Black female businesses and consumers,” Janay Brown, CEO of hemp paper company GROWF, says over the phone from Virginia. “If that was showcased in TV shows and movies, I think it would open up the public’s eyes to the fact that all these people owning dispensaries or smoking weed now aren’t just these rich, white individuals.”
We know that representation in movies or TV of Black women who smoke weed may not solve any real systemic problems — like the fact that Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for weed-related offences than white people or that the current cannabis industry is overwhelmingly white— but these contributions to the culture are just plain fun. Black women deserve to revel in the joy of these comedies, too, says filmmaker Sasha Leigh Henry (Black Bodies, Bitches Love Brunch). “So much of our existence in the cinematic landscape is very tied to strife and struggle,” she says over Zoom from Toronto. “Weed is associated with release, relief and joy. We are often not encouraged or allowed to engage in those things on screen. I think it’s partly a symptom of the fact that there's such a limited scope for how Black women currently exist on screen in general.”
That limited scope is so apparent in the stoner movie genre that True’s role in Half Baked makes it one of the few exceptions just by virtue of there being a Black woman with speaking lines at all. When you think of movies where weed is a character in and of itself, you probably picture white guys like Seth Rogen or James Franco (see: Pineapple Express or This Is The End). Or maybe The Dude in The Big Lebowski comes to mind. Or the dudes from Dude, Where’s My Car? There’s Matthew McConaughey as Woodersoon in Dazed and Confused and Bill and Ted from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (though Keanu Reeves swears the duo aren’t stoners — sure, Ted). Along with Cheech and Chong, the Harold & Kumar franchise sprinkles some color into the genre. But when you do see the rare case of Black representation in these films, it’s also men. And yet, aside from Method Man and Redman’s How High and Ice Cube and Chris Tucker in Friday, Black men are typically either sketchy dealers or inconsequential sidekicks.
So much of our existence in the cinematic landscape is very tied to strife and struggle. Weed is associated with release, relief, joy. We are not allowed to engage in those things onscreen.
sasha leigh henry
When it comes to toking up on television, That ‘70s Show is the prototypical stoner show of the late ‘90s and early 2000s and the sole Black woman character (Angie Barnett played by Megalyn Echikunwoke) didn’t show up until the seventh and second-to-last season. Aside from dating Kelso briefly and being related to Hyde, her presence was largely insignificant to the plot (I watched this show and barely remembered she existed). Conversely, white women have slowly started to get their due as TV stoners. Weeds, Broad City, and High Maintenance have shown white women being proud potheads — smoking, vaping, and dealing weed with abandon.
In a Rolling Stone article from 2015 titled “What Does A Woman Pothead Look Like?” the writer attests that prototypical stoner movies depict “a world where women were either unwanted interlopers or juicy stoner-chick accessories, passively scoring weed from the guys who allowed them to be present.” Even the exceptions she lists are all white: First Wives Club, Saving Grace, Smiley Face, 9 to 5, and Sex and the City. The piece praises Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer as “the counterparts to the bromance that’s happening in current cannabis media” and credits them as “awkward, weird, pleasantly crude” and “aimless, hairbrained heroines.” Those adjectives describe traits that Black women rarely get to be onscreen and tend to actively avoid in real life. IRL, when Black women are “crude” there usually isn’t someone softening that attitude with a generous “pleasantly.”
On TV, two of my favorite exceptions are “awkward” Issa Dee on Insecure, who does light up regularly with her on-and-off again bestie Molly, and “aimless” Van from Atlanta whose weed habit became a major episode plot point in season 1. There’s also the free-spirit artist Nola Darling from She’s Gotta Have it and activist healer Nova Bordelon from Queen Sugar who uses weed in her vodun practice. Zoe Kravitz as weed-smoking messy record-store owner Rob Brooks in High Fidelity (the reimagining of the beloved 2000 movie starring John Cusack) was a refreshing antidote to the Black-woman-with-her-shit-together-trope we see in TV often, but the show was unceremoniously cancelled after one season. In film, 2013’s long-forgotten indie dramedy Newlyweeds, which follows a Brooklyn-based Black couple who love marijuana as much as they love each other, is basically peerless. Overall, there are not a lot of characters who can combat what many Black women I spoke to say are the real-life stereotypes that plague those who choose to partake in the plant.
“I don't talk about smoking weed a lot in my interviews,” writer-director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall says. She just had a short film premiere at Sundance and she’s one of the most in-demand Black creatives in Canada, where cannabis is legalized. “Even though it’s legal here, I don’t talk about it openly because I don't know if it’s going to affect me in some [negative] way. I speak a lot about being Jamaican. All of a sudden, I’m put in this box. Straight away it’s like, ‘She's this Black hippy girl who knows Bob Marley.’ And that’s my ministry,” Fyffe-Marshall says while on the same Zoom call as Henry, her producing partner. “These stoner movies depict laziness and taking a break. That's not Black women,” Henry chimes in. “We’re hardworking. We’re industrious. We have to feed the five kids and the baby daddy who needs money in prison.” Or, as True put it, Black women leads “have to have this aura of perfection” like Scandal’s Olivia Pope. And smoking weed does not fit into that aesthetic. “Is weed not perfect? I disagree,” True says. But while she says it was “devastating” to have to play a character who was so anti-weed, she understood Mary Jane’s motivations because of the harmful images that are constantly perpetuated of Black women.
These stoner movies depict laziness and taking a break. That's not [supposed to be] Black women. We’re hardworking. We’re industrious.
SASHA LEIGH HENRY
“[Mary Jane] was a Black woman of the ‘90s. Black women at that time thought ‘if I just do everything right I’ll get ahead. I can’t afford to do anything wrong,’” she says. Mary Jane’s dad being in jail gave her a good reason not to smoke (True also confirmed the longstanding theory that Mary Jane’s incarcerated father is in fact Chong from Cheech and Chong). “As a Black person, even a silly character like that, if anyone was going to be arrested or thrown in jail for weed [possession], it’s going to be her. It’s going to be [Thurgood]. It’s not going to be their white counterparts and that’s still true today.” The reality of incarceration rates may be one of the reasons we don’t see more Black women stoner comedies, True says. Systemic anti-Black racism isn’t exactly rife for comedy. But if Seth Rogen and Co. get to ascend to the highest (pun intended) level of escapism where their actions rarely have consequences, why can’t we?
“It’s still taboo for us, especially when you come from Baby Boomer parents who got it drilled into their brains that weed is a gateway drug,” says Miami-based Martine Pierre, president of Cannalution, a consulting firm that focuses on empowering Black and brown founders to break into the cannabis industry. “The lack of representation hasn’t allowed for that conversation to be open among family members. I am 31 years old and I am just now comfortable telling my mom I smoke weed. I probably would have done it earlier if I had good representation to show my mom like, ‘see, it’s not that bad!,’” she laughs. But Pierre doesn’t consider herself a “stoner.” “When I smoke weed with my friends who are successful Black women, none of us relate to that word “stoner.” I consider myself a functional weed smoker,” she clarifies.
For most of the Black women I spoke to, it wasn’t about “good” or “bad” representation or even the word “stoner,” it was more about wanting to see funny, relatable and raucous stories in movies and on TV — especially when weed is such a big part of their recreational activities and everyday lives. “I want to see the group of friends that get together and tries a drug for the weekend and all hell breaks loose, then they go back to their lives and they’re still intact,” Fyffe-Marshall says. “I think that's why Girls Trip was such a hit. We don't see Black women just get to wild out and flip a police car and get away with it on TV.”
So, is lighting up in stoner movies the answer to burning down the tropes that have sidelined Black women characters for decades? Sure, seeing more Black women smoking weed onscreen would be nice, but it may not be that simple. In 2014, Greta Lee, the Korean-American actress who plays Homeless Heidi on High Maintenance wrote an essay for ELLE where she warned of the perils of the “stoner chick genre.” She doesn’t think emulating the shtick of the Rogen-era weed comedies is a good idea. “Let's just skip over the girl version of the man-child narrative. Isn't that just a lazy way to spin an already-chewed, male-centric experience in lieu of telling one of the limitless new stories there are to tell?”
She’s not wrong. There are countless stories of Black women who use weed for anxiety like True (she’s just written a book True Heart Intuitive Tarot and is now working on a screenplay starring a Black woman where “weed is a main character”), for creativity like Fyffe-Marshall and Henry (who are both also pitching projects where their leads smoke), or who have turned cannabis into a business like Brown and Pierre that need to be told. But before we get into the new strains of women stoners onscreen, I think there is one “man-child narrative” worth revisiting: a Half Baked sequel where Mary Jane Potman is a pothead who has finally found the value in her namesake, 20 years later.
I pitch the idea to True. “Oh, I’d love to. If anyone needed a joint, it was that girl,” she says without hesitation. “Of course she’s a stoner now.”
Cannabis is a Class B drug and illegal in the UK. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behaviour.
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