In ‘Baby Driver,’ Jamie Foxx’s “mental” character perpetuates negative black stereotypes

Baby Driver is a stylish, high-octane action film filled with heart-pounding car chases, dazzling shootouts and daring heists — it also perpetuates common stereotypes about black men and crime.

(Editor’s note: Baby Driver spoilers ahead.)

Critically, Baby Driver is a win, and for good reason. The Edgar Wright-directed film does a superb job of drawing audiences in with Ansel Elgort’s iPod-obsessed, adorably innocent Baby, a talented getaway driver who’s just as good at burning rubber as he is selecting an engaging playlist. Baby Driver is also an aural success, a symposium of bluesy explosions and jazz numbers that gear Baby up to go fast — it’s hard not to tap your feet during the symphonically orchestrated chase scenes. But Baby Driver’s many accomplishments are eclipsed, at least partially, by one major flaw: The only black man in the core group of characters is the stereotypically irrational, hyper-violent criminal Bats, played by Jamie Foxx.

Having a black man among the ranks of criminals in Baby Driver isn’t an issue in and of itself, but it’s the way the film portrays Bats compared to the other characters that’s somewhat peculiar, if not aggravatingly familiar. Bats makes it clear early on that he’s “the one with the mental problems in the group,” hence his name. He serves as the instigator throughout the film, randomly opening fire on his colleagues here, threatening Baby’s life there — the usual stuff that black men are too often seen doing onscreen.

He’s portrayed as impulsive, cruel and unable to solve any problem without pulling a trigger. Compare this lifetime criminal to the other principals — Baby, Buddy, Darling and Doc — and it’s clear that Bats’ character is just another example of Hollywood’s misrepresentation of black men.

One glaring disparity between Bats and the rest of the core group of robbers is that Bats appears to be a natural-born outlaw, while the other main characters are much more a product of their circumstances. It’s as if Bats could only live a life of crime and nothing else — a common trope used to describe black men in cinema — but Baby, Buddy and Darling all have an exigent reason to be there.

Take Baby, for example: He’s a crook, there’s no way around that, but his backstory softens that edge considerably. He’s been boosting cars since he was old enough to see over the steering wheel, a habit that only started after both of his parents died in a car crash — the same crash, by the way, that left him with a severe case of tinnitus, which is why he’s always listening to music. Later on, he unknowingly stole Doc’s car and dumped the overlord’s precious cargo in the bay. Doc wasn’t happy, and forced Baby into organized crime as a form of restitution. Now, he’s in Doc’s pocket, and if he doesn’t continue driving, Doc will tear away everything Baby holds dear.

Buddy, played by Jon Hamm, is another willing participant in this heist ring, but he didn’t start off as a thief. No, unlike career-criminal Bats, Buddy used to work on Wall Street, because of course — he’s played by Jon Hamm, after all. It was only his cocaine habit and expensive taste in fine things that led him down a darker path.

Darling, played by Eiza González, is the final member of the band of thieves. The filmmakers want you to know two things about Darling: She loves Buddy and she hates Bats. It’s implied that Darling had a connection to Buddy during his time on Wall Street and stuck by his side as he turned to crime.

Had Baby Driver bothered to give Bats a backstory, there may have been some explanation of his criminal involvement, but alas, virtually nothing is known of his life before he joined forces with Doc, except for the glaring implication that he’s been a criminal for a long, long time.

As mentioned earlier, another key difference between Bats and the rest of the A-team is his propensity for violence. He’s mentally unhinged and unapologetically seeks out conflict wherever he can find it. Early on, he murders one of his own team members. Later, when meeting some of Doc’s contacts at a secluded warehouse, he guns them down without provocation, claiming he recognized one of the men as a police officer. And during each of the heists, he unnecessarily kills at least one security guard. Bats isn’t violent because he needs to be, he’s violent because that’s who he is at his core.

But that’s not the case for the other principals, each of whom resort to bloodshed only as a last resort. Buddy and Darling claim lives too, but their acts of violence are reactionary. They empty their guns during the shootout at the secluded warehouse after Bats initiates the conflict, they shoot at the police to avoid being captured; Buddy tries to kill Baby after Darling dies — a death he blames on the young getaway driver. Doc, too, gets behind a gun to save Baby and Darling from some approaching goons. In fact, even Baby takes a few lives — he drives (literally) a bundle of rebar through Bats’ chest after the hyper-violent criminal kills yet another innocent bystander, and later shoots and throws an enraged Buddy off the ledge of a parking garage after he tries to kill him. It’s as if every main character in Baby Driver is given at least some justification for their acts of violence, except Bats.

And the character’s apparent lack of intelligence compared to the rest of the team is the final major example of Baby Driver’s stereotyping of black men. Black men have long been portrayed as unintelligent in entertainment, and this is a trope the film seems to perpetuate.

Baby Driver makes a point to showcase the smarts of the main characters, except for Bats. Baby can perfectly recall every detail about an upcoming heist, Buddy was a successful Wall Street banker, Darling sniffs out Bats’ dangerous intentions before anyone else and Doc can write out a complicated plan on a chalkboard while also carrying on a conversation.

Bats, on the other hand, is the only character within the core group who appears dimwitted. At one point, he taps on Baby’s earbuds and asks if he’s “slow.” He robs a gas station the night before a heist, not quite making the connection that raising suspicion at that point in time could be catastrophic. Basically, the general feeling throughout the movie is that Bats is reckless and always has the lowest IQ in the room.

The way black men are represented in media isn’t something to be taken lightly. A direct, causal link exists between how black men (and all people of color) are portrayed onscreen and how they are perceived by the public, including black men themselves. Each time a black male character is presented in a movie, an opportunity exists to further reinforce negative black stereotypes, or to dissolve them.

There’s plenty to love about Baby Driver: a star-studded cast, excellent choreography and a fun plot. The film succeeds in most areas, but falls hopelessly short when it comes to its treatment of Jamie Foxx’s character. Baby can drive, Doc can lead and Buddy can work on Wall Street, but all Bats can do is pull a trigger.

Sony has already expressed interest in a sequel and Wrights has an idea for a plot — hopefully one that includes a black main character that can stand in front of the chalkboard instead of behind the gun.

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