Early in The Green Mile J.C. resurrects a mouse, and later he....

....cures the warden’s dying wife (right) of cancer in a scene rife with allusions to Southern rape fantasies.

Don Cheadle in The Family Man is a petty criminal who teaches Nicholas Cage about the potential of home and family.

In The Matrix Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne recognizes the White man, Neo, as The One and shows the youth The Way.

Nicholas Cage plays John Campbell, the Family Man who leaves his failings behind.

In The Legend of Bagger Vance Bagger (Will Smith) is a caddie who helps Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a former golf pro ruined by WW1.

One person has a history of war trauma from WW1. The other comes out of nowhere to save the first.

Bagger hands Rannulph the “right” club, while the White people in the background look the other way.

Bagger stands supportively behind Rannulph while he takes a tough shot. Note their facial expressions.

The crowds around them never seem to notice Bagger.

The magic quickly allows us to read the Black male stranger as safe.

In To Sleep with Anger, directed by Charles Burnett, we see a
Black director’s satire on the “blackmagic” theme.

In Dogma, Chris Rock plays the Thirteenth Apostle.

Note Chris Rock’s expression in Dogma, haggard after a day helping the White folks.


In these films, sometimes a Black character appears in the story “mysteriously” without much background or foreground, as Bagger does, out of the night. When this happens, the viewer’s mind leaps with anticipation: this is someone special. Either that, or the character is secondary, often stereotyped and flat, and the viewer dismisses the portrayal: this is someone unimportant but key to the plot. Think of the fairy godmother: she appears suddenly and magically to save the day or to propel the main character into fulfilling a dream. In the case of the White writer’s Black male figuration, the typical Black male character appears suddenly (in The Green Mile John Coffey is suddenly found with the bodies of two dead little girls) and introduces suspense and stereotype. When Bagger Vance appears out of the night, he walks too close to Rannulph as the young White man is desperately practicing his drive. Jack Campbell (Family Man) is a rich jerk, and the special character that arrives to show him his mistake is, initially, a stereotyped freaky young black man, a robber that may shoot Jack. The viewer can easily assume where the robber came from, some project or ghetto. But then, when the two quickly enter into a “deal,” we see that no, indeed, the robber’s purpose is to intercept the main character, a White man, and show him “the way.” This happens quickly, and the plot takes off. The viewer has to contend quickly with various stray “readings” of this Black man: Is he Satan? an Angel? Perhaps both, one and then the other, traveling along a dichotomy’s continuum. We aren’t ever sure what he really is because we never get any idea of where he is from or where he goes after his usefulness to the White character is established. It doesn’t matter who the Black character is. The magic transforms our reading of him from dangerous to safe. Primarily, once magic is introduced, we suspend disbelief entirely and don’t feel we need to know more because we already know that it doesn’t matter.

But even before the magic, early in the plot the Black male characters must initially be “allowed” to stay within the narrative. In this way, the Black male is saved from prejudice or harm or even himself through the intervention of the main, average, White male character first, as when Jack diffuses the situation in the bodega or Paul Edgecomb realizes that the new Big Black prisoner is a gentle man. The Black male character has to be narratively rendered “ok” fairly quickly, or the shift to magical helper is endangered. When the solitary and perhaps dangerous Black character appears, he is in a potentially powerful position. When he arrives in prison, John Coffey looks like he could overpower the whole crowd of guards. But he doesn’t. Instead he brings a mouse back to life. The Black character must be quickly identified as helping and compassionate, as contributing towards the solution of the White male character’s dilemma. Thus the bodega thief quickly informs Jack of his “if only” purpose; Elijah contacts David in order to help David see his own potential; Bagger gives Rannulph some solid golfing advice. If this didn’t happen quickly, the main White character’s initial fear, guilt, and stereotyping might repulse the audience. The worth and worthiness of the Black male character gets established through an interchange which involves the recognition of the Black man as useful by the White male main character. In the films The Family Man and The Green Mile, Jack finds the bodega thief’s claims interesting, and Paul sees that J.C. can cure his friend’s wife. Also, in each case, the White male main character is given an opportunity to show that he is not prejudiced, that he is fair, has faith, and is a reasonable human being. The audience must be shown that the White character is a good guy, however average, a protector and not reactionary or racist. We know that Paul is a good man because he quickly understands J.C.’s extraordinary abilities. At that point, the audience can feel good about both male characters regardless of other unlikely configurations of character or social relation.

The absence in these narratives of a history for these Africanist characters is also an important requirement. In Unbreakable, Elijah is born in a department store. He does have a mother (who has had sex with the devil?), and later he runs a comic-book-art gallery (he’s the very keeper of fantasy); he doesn’t have much history beyond that. In The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile, both Bagger and J.C. don’t even seem to know where they came from; in the case of Bagger there is a sorrowful hint, but in J.C.’s case he appears to have no idea. New Testament overtones are tremendous in J.C.’s case, but the metaphor is neither taken very far nor investigated too closely. Nor does Elijah configure well as a committed Satan. None of the characters has anything like a specific background. The magical Black (or, in Elijah’s case, “Black magical”) characters also disappear as mysteriously as they arrive. The exception here is Elijah, who remains at his shop presumably to be vanquished by his White, “good” counterpart. In J.C.’s case, the prisoner even tells us that he wants to go, presumably meaning that he welcomes his visit to the electric chair, a fabulous idea that is only one in a string of fabulous ideas of Black humanity in these films. In each of these films, the ultimate correctness, success or “rightness” of the White male character is clearly established through the blank helpfulness of the Black male.

Mark A. Reid’s Redefining Black Film and Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s Unthinking Eurocentrism chart a path for the history of criticism concerning non-Whites in the film industry, inside and outside the Hollywood system. Shohat and Stam take a close look at Donald Bogle’s earlier book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Blacks in order to explain the limited roles afforded to Black actors and also the ways that a final cut is controlled by White studio executives. All three books point out that even the most subversive-minded Black actor gets little say about his roles or final image in film. Films by Black directors, like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), have attempted to illustrate the complexity of that problem. Some of Hollywood’s most famous Black actors of the 90s made a claim about the subversive element in their on-screen performances, and many made claims about parts they were willing to take and parts they were not willing to consider. In one of the most remarkable recent examples, Denzel Washington’s recent Academy Award for Training Day was perhaps a reward for his accepting a nasty-looking buddy role that he had previously declined.

But the fact that Black actors are continually evaluated on the appropriateness of their professional choices rather begs the question. Whose anxiety is fueling the inquiry? At any rate, in the case of the magical Black man, it appears that most of these well-known actors were willing to try such a role, if only once. Interestingly, the range of examples I have offered in this article can be bookended by two of Samuel L. Jackson’s performances. The first in Pulp Fiction merely hints at things to come; Unbreakable is the straw that brakes the camel’s back. I suspect that Samuel L. Jackson might have refused the part of Elijah if he had foreseen the film’s final version. I have heard it suggested that he simply trusted the film’s non-White director, M. Night Shyamalan, who may also have had a different vision for the final product. However, if either the actor or the director plan on continuing to pursue a Hollywood career, we might not hear the whole story any time soon.

One remarkable diversion from the magical Black man configuration predates the others: Harry, played by Danny Glover, in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger. Glover’s character brings “country magic” to L.A., when Harry decides to show up at the doorstep of old friends, a family who moved long ago in order to join a Black urban community and raise a family. The community knows Harry, from back when, and not everyone is happy about his visit. This film, directed by a Black filmmaker, explores the community’s reactions to Harry’s hocus-pocus and self-interested shenanigans. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is a comic one. Harry is a real Black man, with real desires of his own. Real people get attached to him and get angry with him. He’s complex, as are the community’s reactions. We can read this character against the later magical characters and even take Burnett’s vision as satirical and therefore interrupting: Harry is in every way the opposite of White Hollywood’s magical Black man. At the end of the film, Harry character is so compromised that his corpse simply lays on the kitchen floor while the whole family blithely waits for the White coroner to drag the body off. While Danny Glover has certainly performed his share of buddy-acts in Hollywood before and since, even his appearance in last year’s Royal Tannenbuams suggests that he does have a sense of humor about the available Hollywood roles and stereotypes.

Laurence Fishburne, Will Smith, Chris Rock, David Clarke Duncan, and Don Cheadle all have a number of films and varying types of films to their credit. Of these, Will Smith is often the butt of comments about Black actors willing to play to White stereotypes. None of them come close to Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy, Unforgiven, Shawshank Redemption) for attracting derision in this realm. But would any of them turn down the chance to play more radical roles against the stereotype? I think not. Part of my original question concerns what roles are available to Black actors, and the other part of the question concerns their relation to the White characters they are paired with; Shohat and Stam make a very good point about the possible “dialog” in such typical racialized setups:

The appeal, including the box-office appeal, of such films suggests that they touch something deep within the national unconscious, a historically conditioned longing for interracial harmony (236).

Shohat and Stam are positing a generalized syncretic self which is White, mostly[3]. But many theorists interested in multiculturalism (including Shohat and Stam) ask whether the dynamic doesn’t work the other way around as well. In other words, we are all working on the syncretic model simply because we are here and now exposed (to some degree) to differences. We make ourselves out of many types, depending on personal experience and desire. Syncretic motivation might provide another way to look at the idea of the subversive message: Black actors may be as interested in harmony as anyone but may envision a different way of achieving it. Whites haven’t completely cornered the market on desire. I’m making no claims for these particular actors. None of this may be conscious, but we’ve all bought the idea of a melting pot to some extent.

The important point here is that even if Black actors have little say in how they are presented, that doesn’t mean they have no say in what they do. Working within the confines of the White Hollywood system may look like thankless work. But looking beyond these singular magical Black male roles and allowing that a “reverse” syncretic dialog is inevitable (again, the demographics[4]), we and the actors can gain a view of Black humanity that works against the severe limits of this particular magic role.

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