JUMP CUT 45, Fall 2002
copyright 2002, Jump Cut:
A Review of Contemporary Media

White Hollywood’s New Black Boogeyman

by Audrey Colombe

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 average 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 be entertained and also 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[1]; 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)[2] 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.

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 narrativs 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 breaks 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 have also had a different vision of the final product. However, if either the actor or the director plan on continuing to pursue a Hollywood career, we may 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 magi” 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.

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.[5] 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 workings 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 the 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:

Rather, I use it as a term for the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people. As a trope, little restraint has been attached to its uses. As a disabling virus within literary discourse, Africanism has become, in the Eurocentric tradition that American Education favors, both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability. Through the simple expedient of demonizing and reifying the range of color on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problem and blessings of freedom. (6-7)

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:

My project is to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and the imaginers; from the serving to the served.(90)

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.


[1] The occasional Black woman is crazy or lives in the projects—see, for instance, The Matrix.

[2] Jules, in Pulp Fiction, is not overtly magical, though he does survive in a rather uncanny manner, in order to spirit the magic briefcase away. Also, the Black/White pairing in the film diverges a bit from the other, later, magical pairings addressed in this article because the White character dies—earlier in the film, though after the ending restaurant scene in chronological time.

[3] As in the case of Whites in the U. S., appropriating “the vocabulary…musical and religious styles (and the labor) of African Americans” (237).

[4] I’m suggesting that the magical Black character reflects a White backlash against the projected demographic numbers mentioned earlier in the article. Such racial tensions would inevitably be played out, in the U.S., on a White/Black stage.

[5] “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and goodwill shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and a finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee“

Works Cited

Bamboozled. Dir. Spike Lee. New Line Cinema, 2000.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continum Publishing Company, 1973.

Dogma. Dir. Kevin Smith. Lion’s Gate, 2000.

Driving Miss Daisy. Dir. Bruce Beresford. Warner Brothers, 1989.

Dyer, Richard. White. Routledge: London and New York, 1997.

The Family Man. Dir. Brett Ratner. Universal Pictures, 2000.

Fiedler, Leslie. “Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!” Partisan Review 25 (June 1948): 664-671.

The Green Mile. Dir. Frank Darabont. Warner Brothers, 1999.

Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1993.

Hollywood Shuffle. Dir. Robert Townsend. Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1987.

The Legend of Bagger Vance. Dir. Robert Redford. Dreamworks SKG, 1999.

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowkski. Warner Brothers, 1999.

Monster’s Ball. Dir. Marc Forster. Lion’s Gate Films, 2001.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1992.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Dir. Joel Cohen. Touchstone Pictures, 2000.

Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax, 1994.

Reid, Mark. Redefining Black Film. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1993.

The Royal Tenenbaums. Dir. Wes Anderson. Touchstone Pictures, 2001.

Shawshank Redemption. Dir. Frank Darabont. Warner Brothers, 1994.

Shohat, Ella and Stam, Robert. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the media. Routledge: London and New York, 1994.

Stow, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Serialized in The National Era: Brunswick, Maine, 1851.

To Sleep With Anger. Dir. Charles Burnett. Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1990.

Training Day. Dir. Antoine Fuqua. Warner Brothers, 2001.

Unbreakable. Dir. M. Night Shyamalan. Touchstone Pictures, 2001.

Unforgiven. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 1992.

Wag the Dog. Dir. Barry Levinson. New Line Cinema, 1998.

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