In Shawshank Redemption two prisoners look forward to their future together.
Chris Rock on a talk show. In a long run as a successful television standup comedian, Rock assumes a hip urbanite persona to mock pretensions, both Black and White. This genre gives performers more leeway for social comment than does Hollywood acting.
Samuel L. Jackson has a long career in film and television, spanning over thirty years.
I suspect that Jackson might have refused the role of Elijah Price in Unbreakable if he had forseen the film’s final version.
... its plot defies narrative logic: Why would Elijah foster the superpowers of his rival?
Die Hard: With a Vengeance: In the Die Hard series, the buddy formula finds its clearest depiction.
Denzel Washington turned down the role of the evil protagonist in Training Day the first time it was offered to him.
Training Day relies on what Morrison calls “fetishization,” using plot elements to delineate a dichotomy of civil vs. savage.
Training Day illustrates the classic paradigm of a story that seems to feature a strong Black male character but really centers on the White male character’s need to feel effective and like a man.
Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle deal with the problem that even the most subversive Black actor gets to say little about his roles or final appearance in a film.
In Bamboozled the main character, Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) becomes a caricature of himself.
The uniform magical element as it stand in these films presents a peculiar twist on current Black/White relations. A White audience in the 90s would at least be aware of race issues, no matter where they might stand on those issues. In other words, an actual African American presence on film would be complicated: by history, by opinion, by facts, by Clarence Thomas. It is probably easier for White audiences to feel good about a figure that simply appears and then leaves the narrative without imposing any messy particulars concerning the real world.
In the 1990s New World Order, it was still Whites in the U.S. who had enslaved African Americans and who still used White power structures, consciously or unconsciously, to keep themselves on top of the heap. The incredible growth of White wealth and world influence in the 90s coincided with a good deal of White male nervousness about the gains. White men appear to have felt more assailed than ever during the mid-nineties; terms like “feminazi” came into common usage, and terms like “PC” and “liberal” became definite pejoratives. Films like Wag the Dog sold Hollywood film audiences in the U.S. their own cynicism about the whole thing. In such a decadent environment, unsolved problems seemed a nuisance to be ignored or fantasized away. In order to join the average heroes, a White man had a lot of dreaming to do.
Traditional fairy godmothers were older women with the power to satisfy a character’s desire beyond wildest dreams. In fact, the character is often constructed from a desire to quell fears about elder women who might have power, linked to guilty feelings about elder women who have no power whatsoever. Such a Freudian reading also marks the fairy godmother figure as a mother figure in the Euro-American imagination: she is pure and bright and hopeful and nice. She is there to help, to assuage and to confirm, and she asks nothing in return. A Black man—about whom there can be a number of mixed reactions from a mainstream, Freudian-sensitive U.S. audience—in the position of fairy godmother certainly becomes safe. He is feminized (and we know what that means) and his Africanist baggage falls away. The viewer has no place else to put him. (Yes, I am contending that the simple existence of this character in mainstream film signals an expectation by the writers/producers/directors that the audience members have little or no experience with personal Black/White relationships.) He becomes a floating sign of desire for a pure parent. Now the viewer can feel good about feeling good about him. No strings attached. He simply and magically fulfills White desire for parental comfort. And most important, since the Black male figure wants nothing in return, he requires nothing more of the White male main character or the viewer. What a relief. The special, “magical” status solves a problem but leaves real life untouched and cleverly concealed. What is especially curious in this case is that the magical status of the Black male figure apparently requires even less contextualization than the typical “buddy-formula” Black male. Black men in contemporary Hollywood film become more unreal than ever.
In other words, in these films the humanity of the Black male character is further removed. The magical Black man’s power is absorbed by someone else’s focus; he apparently doesn’t need it himself. (Actually, that issue never comes up—another odd element of the character’s lack of history.) Check out Jules’ version of Ezekiel in Pulp Fiction for an other-wordly job description for the magical Black Male. Apparently the bodega thief in The Family Man didn’t really need anything at all, certainly not money from the Asian clerk. Why would Elijah in Unbreakable foster the superpowers of his rival? Fairly quickly in The Green Mile, the prisoner presents no further or immediate danger and certainly no complexity; he steps neatly away from his stereotype as a killer. Others remain strictly in stereotype, as is the case with the drifter, Bagger, or the evil Elijah. Either way, the extremes in characterization amount to the same thing: safety for the White men. Stereotypes are not questioned in these fillms, and expectations about the working of White authority are held in place. The social order out of which the stereotype arises is never put to the test. The messy particulars (Where do the Black men go? Why don’t they help themselves? Who are they, and what do they really want?) are quickly sublimated to the White quest for assurance, safety, and success.
The magical powers with which these characters are endowed confirms a distinct layer of White fantasy about power and authority. The John Coffey character in The Green Mile is a Christ figure, a kind of idiot-savant Jesus. But what is he sacrificed for? Apparently White illnesses (he cures White people) as well as White sins (of putting innocent Black people to death). In Pulp Fiction Jules is Lord, and he shoots people. Western Christian Metaphysics relies on savior figures to purify individual existence, to make it real and vital, to magically intervene on our personal behalf. Again, the quick and dirty overlay of a larger cultural figure (Christ the savior) saves the audience the trouble of having to deal with the complexities of individual and particular characters. Further, John Coffey’s “J.C.” status is so precarious (it’s dangerous to understand the guards as Roman soldiers) that it’s necessary to make him a near idiot. There is so much he doesn’t know about who he is or what he is doing there that there aren’t many intelligent choices for him, or the audience.
Admittedly, in other films, a magical Satan is a possibility. In Pulp Fiction, Jules, who is the baddest character of all, never gets shot and he makes it away with the special glowing briefcase; there’s also The Family Man’s imp and Unbreakable’s devil. But the “devils” never interfere beyond doing their job for the White man: only a redeeming Black devil is apparently acceptable. The figures can also be celestial (The Green Mile, Dogma), ghostly (Bagger Vance, O Brother Where Art Thou?), or even politically inclined (The Matrix). In each case, they operate on an acceptable magical plain. The magic doesn’t make things appear and disappear so much as it influences things that the White main character and audience cannot control— events, circumstances, biological processes. It’s powerful personal magic, never mere trickery. There are some suggestions that the magic is “fated,” as in The Family Man or The Matrix. This is a comforting idea: miracles are generated on the level of purposeful intervention from a higher deity and are merely channeled through a Black man. But only the White characters make the magic visible. The White men are healed, they make the shot, they realize what they must do. The audience can feel safe when they know that the main man, the average White man who ultimately receives the benefit of the miraculous power, will succeed, will do the right thing, will become a hero who guarantees social safety. In this way, the narrative stucture confirms the rightness of current White power structures that the White male is ultimately able to engage.
I would note here one special peculiarity of magic in The Green Mile: when J.C. takes “illness” into himself, he becomes ill. He chokes and gags, until he can expel the “illness” through his mouth in the form of brown flakes, something like dead rose-petals flying out in a silent scream. (One wonders if he hasn’t swallowed Mina Solari right out of American Beauty.) The obvious sexual connotation of the mouth and the gagging, the intake and lack of speech response, is vivid but quickly muted. The White male prison guards don’t comment, other than to look on the flow of brown flakes in awe. Plus, J.C. always needs a nap after one of these episodes. It’s as if he is going down on White guilt: he represents the aggressor and the subservient partner in a wonderful power-fantasy where each position cancels the other out. In one case he grabs a White man’s crotch (clear danger: race and homosexuality). The White man is healed from infection and can now have sex with his wife (there is no muting or confusion of sexual connotation in the scene between the white married couple. They are satisfied.) Later, J.C. puts his mouth over a supine White woman’s mouth in a kind of mouth to mouth resuscitation (danger: Black man raping White woman) and literally cures her terminal cancer. He magically sucks for these racially charged “sexual healings.” In light of the film’s interest in portraying the death row guards as Southern gentlemen protective of their inmates, I think we’re supposed to think of them as advocates for the men they help kill. Here the parallels to the antebellum South are worth noting. Captured Black serves White. White “protects” simplified Black. Black feels grateful to White. White actions are justified. White order is restored. One wonders if the scriptwriters composed with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in hand. At this late date, perhaps the nagging White desire for justification has led White writers to magic, and magic may signal that White men feel they are running out of options.
In Toni Morrison’s 1992 book playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination, she describes what she calls an “Africanist” presence in American literature:
Morrison goes on to discuss Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Ernest Hemmingway’s To Have and Have Not in some detail. In both cases, she briefly touches on the historical moment, the complication of the “Africanist” presence, and then she details the manner in which Black male characters have been employed within the texts of these well known White American male writers in order to tell us something about the White male main characters. Later in the book, she makes a list of “common linguistic strategies employed…to engage the serious consequences of blacks” (67). These include the following:
•“economy of stereotype,” or the use of easy stereotypes
•“metonymic displacement,” which works to suggest much about a given character, delivers little, and counts on the reader’s complicity in the displacement
•“metaphysical condensation,” where a physical detail is presented as a universal trait
•“fetishization,” which works to delineate the civil /savage dichotomy
•“dehistoricizing allegory,” a story-telling strategy which leaves difficult or inconvenient history out of the text (67-69).
Although Morrison uses literary texts from the mid-twentieth century and earlier, she also suggests that such a view can be investigated in other texts:
Much of her discussion of the two classic stories mentioned above center on the White male character’s need to feel like a man, to feel effective and in control and sexually vital.
The use of the Black male in the discourse of mainstream White media is without a doubt complicated by the industry’s none-too-flattering history. Films today, more than written works, make cultural norms available to vast numbers of people, and big budget Hollywood films have come to represent “America” around the globe. Perhaps the magical element represents the place where guilt (about the history) and desire (to remain in control) meet and come to the only resolution possible for White male writers, producers, and directors. What’s interesting and troubling is that this makes sense to a mass audience. Within that magical space, anything is possible including a clear “win” for the White male. Here the magic is bestowed by someone who traditionally has less power; in the power structure of the U.S., it’s typically anyone who is not male and White but an obvious extreme would be a feminized Black man. And when the magic is a gift, it’s a gift from the rank and file, the ultimate assurance of loyalty and trust.
But the “faithful servant” similarities are stark; the assignment of magical powers thin; the magic may work in a text or film to support a White hero’s success, but it doesn’t translate to the world that people must live in. As Morrison puts it, “Africanism becomes not only a means of displaying authority but, in fact, constitutes its source” (80). Anxiety about power, about who is retaining authority at the start of this new century, are behind a desire in which paying audiences collude. In a nostalgic move for support, White men in the U.S. look to Black men for help. Such an extreme gesture removes acknowledgement of basic human interaction, even beyond the devices of the buddy tradition it comes out of, and so it makes the desperation unmistakable.