Halle Berry wins an Oscar for a role in which she pulls a White man out of his sad family life.
Driving Miss Daisy has a plot about the Black man as the faithful servant.
In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Bagger is very quiet, repairs his shoes, and does not question White authority.
Unbreakable’s plot is what Toni Morrison calls a “dehistoricizing allegory,” story telling that leaves difficult and inconvenient history aside.
The Family Man uses Don Cheadle as the convenience store thief who offers wise advice to Cage. In a common narrative strategy of “metynomic displacement.” the plot suggests much about a Black character, delivers little, and relies on viewers’ complicity.
Various posters for Dogma featured individual players in the foreground, presumably for niche marketing to a Black audience.
The Green Mile’s logo depicts both The Miracle and The Friendship. Its narrative establishes a White prison guard’s “rightness” via a Black prisoner’s blank helpfulness.
Michael Clarke Duncan, playing Coffey in The Green Mile, is known as J.C. in the film with obvious allusions to Jesus Christ.
As Tom Hanks plays J.C.’s guard and executioner, the prisoner cures the guard of a urinary infection and impotence.
The White protagonist is given a chance to show he’s fair, not prejudiced, has faith, and is a reasonable human being.
At the end of the film, J.C. tells us that he “wants to go,” presumably to his death, a fabulous idea in a string of fabulous ideas.
Laurence Fishburne’s role as Morpheus in The Matrix is like a fairy godmother, in which any inconvienent Africanist baggage simply falls away.
In an Asian-style middle realm, Morpheus teaches Neo magical kung fu fighting to control the Matrix.
Morpheus must teach Neo that the “real” world is multidimensionally complex.
Morpheus escapes to his death, or will he return in a sequel?
White Hollywood’s new Black boogeyman
This past March, Denzel Washington followed Halle Berry down the red carpet on TV screens across the globe. The two were lauded as staging an African American coup among the Hollywood elite, signaling a new era of Black presence in mainstream U.S. films. While Halle was pulling a White man out of his sad family life and Denzel was going postal on the brothers, a number of other Black actors were still and similarly and quietly digging American White folks out of their troubles. The overwhelmingly White, blockbuster film industry was busy thinking up more new ways for Brown folks to help less-Brown ones, and American White men were getting a little nervous about their place on the top of the heady New World Order. And at the same time, a new and magical Black male had already taken shape from the same old pile of guilty White hopes.
This latest figuration in mainstream film, the magical Black man, slipped into the 90s lineup without much popular comment. Like the Black “loyal sidekicks” discussed critically by Ed Guerrero, Donald Bogle, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam (among many others), this recent incarnation shares characteristics with Black male figures very familiar to U.S. film audiences for decades and to readers of American Literature for centuries. This new figure may reflect one, none, or a combination of old stereotypes: drug addict/dealer, criminal, drifter, musician, sports figure, Uncle Tom, preacher, etc. But there is a difference. The new figure has supernatural powers to please: killers cure the sick, and thieves turn out to be fairy godmothers. Their special abilities propel them into the intimate, even subconscious, lives of the White male characters. Importantly, though seemingly exalted and complimentary, the recent magical supporting role leaves old racist paradigms firmly in place.
By the supernatural I mean the White desire for magical wish fulfillment. Colonialism and Imperialism remain in play today: the White U.S. mainstream is both aware of (listen to Pat Robertson) and in denial about (watch any Republican or Democratic party convention) the problems of race and power. In order to keep its mainstream audiences interested in the film product and assured of a safe position in a comfortable theater seat, the film industry has always been in the business of concocting happy ways to depict a troubled hierarchy or what we have come to know from recent White male discourse as the “embattled status quo.” Configurations of the Other in big budget White films are the imaginative constructs of primarily White and male writers, producers, directors, editors, actors. These folks, representing the interests of the average White American male while they imagine the average viewer, assume that the viewer also feels under attack by “political correctness” and demographic figures that threaten to put Whites in a minority in the U.S. with the next couple of decades. (Men are already in the minority.) The heady 1990s were almost too good to be true for the White American power-structure: in fact they were too good, as evidenced by the inevitable downturn which became visible by late 1999. Seemingly intractable problems, such as how to maintain that power base, call for drastic solutions. Now it appears that impossible answers can also be entertained and entertaining.
The history of Whites and Blacks in the United States, and the representation of that relationship in White American literature and film, historically describes an especially stubborn vision: Black people as dangerous and Black characters as adoring or reassuring, or as at least reassuringly disarmed. Black media has been contending with this dichotomy for decades. For example, Mark Reid’s Redefining Black Film discusses many of ways that Black writers, actors, directors and producers attempted to present different viewpoints in the twentieth century. But in the White Hollywood film industry, commercial productions have continually portrayed the Black/White relation as healed or healing. After all, White guilt for past crimes (slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights) only complicates the long-standing promise for a better day and more equality. White hierarchy still wishes to absolve itself at the same time it doesn’t want to admit any continuing problem. Hence the paradigms and stereotypes remain static as well.
What’s remarkable about the recent magical figure is his staying power within the distinct parameters of the old stereotypes as self-sacrificing and eager while he also crops up in positions of penultimate power and influence. In The Matrix, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) helps Neo, “The One” (Keanu Reeves), save the world. In The Family Man, Jack Campbell (Nicholas Cage) is shown the right path (that’s right: traditional marriage and family) by a bodega thief turned ghost-of-relationships-past (Don Cheadle). In The Green Mile, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), an innocent man from god-knows-where, lands on death row and literally cures his White male guard, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), of a generalized reproductive tract infection so that the jailer can resume sexual relations with his wife; before being executed, “J.C.” goes on to cure the White warden’s wife of her terminal cancer, in a scene rife with allusions to Southern rape fantasies. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Bagger (Will Smith) plays a caddie who helps Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a former golf pro psychologically ruined by WWI, win his most important golf game. Unbreakable presents Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), a disturbed and fragile man who is compelled to help David (Bruce Willis), the “unbreakable” White man, realize his ability to conquer evil with good. The list goes on.
The basic structure of this magical African American male character is as follows. He must have no history; he arrives from somewhere and returns, but those places remain vague and other worldly. He has a threatening aspect; he’s the Big Black Man and a drug dealer, a musician, a thief, a drifter; there is initial danger, which makes the White people nervous in some way. He has magical powers, again rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters; his sole purpose in the story is to selflessly use those powers to help a White man. He remains “invisible” in the text; the Black figure exists outside of any community of his own and is not recognized in any significant way by the White community that the main character belongs to. Morpheus in The Matrix may stray slightly from this last element, but his small “community” ends up dead along with him except for the White woman, who joins the triumphant White man, Neo, “The One.” (Morpheus may have barely escaped—only the sequel will tell.) From Pulp Fiction (1994) to Unbreakable (2001) the list goes on…
I should add that many lower budget films produced and directed by White men also tend in this magical direction. Chris Rock’s Thirteenth Apostle in Dogma is one example and the banjo player in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is another. Despite the Thirteenth Apostle’s speeches about Jesus Christ being Black and his hilarious rancor at the old stereotypes, Rock’s character is still the only Black figure of any significance in the film, and he uses his supernatural powers to help a white woman and her two White male sidekicks save the world. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the banjo player appears more than once to suddenly assist the group of escaped prisoners. The appearance of the magical character in even these lower budget or more “artsy” films signals the pervasiveness of this kind of wishful thinking about race relations.
It looks nice, people helping people. In college classrooms, a standard White response to the subject of race is that it’s not much of a problem anymore. But statistics on race and employment, incarceration, income and health all point to the continuation of inequities. Still, in many of my classes the following exchange is a rather common occurrence. A non-White student merely identifies a writer or character or text as White/Black/Native/Asian, etc. (as in “Well, the Black kids take a taxi to the White part of town…”). Then a White student will insist that the non-White student is making it “all about race.” In addition, many students, race affiliation aside, will argue that “things are better” and as proof, during discussion of these films, they will point to the exalted position of the magical Black male. After all, they may argue, these Black male figures are the agents of change. The Black characters make amazing things happen; they have the power to propel the hero to greatness; they make the White male hero see or fight the good fight. (In Hollywood film, the person who fights for social justice usually gains rewards not generally garnered by those who actually fight for social change.) Sometimes, as in The Green Mile, the Black male character passes some special power on to the White hero. The Black male figure is never “bad” in the final evaluation; the exception here is Elijah Price in Unbreakable who is, bizarrely enough, trying to convince the main White character to help curb his (Price’s) own evil actions. However, if there is any question of “bad or good,” the Black character might end up dead, which means he no longer has to be considered or dealt with and might even be a martyr. Compare Ned in The Unforgiven to Morpheus in The Matrix. In any case, the magical Black man always acts selflessly in relation to the White male character.
In response, I ask students to look at the whole picture and see the pattern. Why isn’t the exalted Black male character presented as “the hero” helped by a magical White man? One possible answer: it’s important for Black male writers/producers/directors to present this option, and White male writers write White male heroes. But we don’t see the opposite pattern in the (few) Black-produced films available at first-run movie houses, no raft of magical White men coming out of Hollywood. This leaves the nagging question: How do so many White male writers “know” this peculiar Black male figure so uniformly? What is it in the White writer’s psyche that wants to paint the Black male character as magical, in control (to a limited extent), and temporary?
The uniform portrayal points to a certain social configuration or desire, just as stereotypes, another sort of uniform configuration, are established by group dynamics. The figuration of the magical character is part of a larger structure that works to “fit” the Black male into White narratives. Certainly, there is a long history of the attempt to fit people of color into the narratives of White people in the U.S., and a long history of theory and criticism on the same. For instance, there’s an enormous amount of scholarship on the relation between Jim and Huck in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which belies the obvious. Several generations of scholars have had to contend with Leslie Fielder’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!” The revealed patterns of the Black/White pairing are seen as the “loyal sidekick,” the “buddy formula”(Guerrero 127-128), and as homoerotic subject/object. And these patterns, which are commented on extensively in the critical literature, can equally apply to the magical Black man films. Richard Dyer’s White, for instance, provides an in-depth discussion of the “position of white authority” (xiv) and the structures it works to maintain. The book describes several notable White representations in film and seeks to pinpoint the trajectory of White authority as inscribed by Whites. Dyer’s conclusion is that White media images “aspire to the heights of humanity and yet supposedly speak and act disinterestedly as humanity’s most average and unremarkable representatives” (223). Dyer directly connects his observations on White behavior in film to the playing out of White colonialist and imperialist political structures.
Similarly, when we turn to the magical Black male films, the White men assisted by the magical Black male must be taught to see their potential since the White men all begin “ordinary” in some way. Their worst personal mistakes, their failings, come to haunt them, and their historical mistakes, their former chattel, eventually assist them. As a result, the White men make the save, win the game, get the girl, vanquish the enemy, and otherwise leave their failings behind. The White characters’ move from one extreme to the other is catalyzed by magical Black men, but it’s the White men that embody a perfect solution. After all, the West loves a dichotomy better than a messy paradox for there isn’t anything very difficult about a dichotomy.