following is an editorial from
liberated zone of cyberspace.
Freeman plays God in "Bruce Almighty;" Laurence Fishburne
a demigod in "The Matrix Reloaded," and Queen Latifah
a ghetto goddess in "Bringing Down the House. "
What's the deal with the holy roles?
Every one of the actors has to help a white
guy find his soul or there won't be a happy ending. Bruce (Jim
Carrey) won't get the girl. Neo (Keanu Reeves) won't become
the next Messiah. And klutzy guy Peter (Steve Martin) won't
get his groove on.
In movie circles, this figure is known as
a "magic Negro," a term that dates back to the late
1950s, around the time Sidney Poitier sacrifices himself to
save Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones." Spike Lee,
who satirizes the stereotype in 2000's "Bamboozled,"
goes even further and denounces the stereotype as the "super-duper
" [Filmmakers] give the black character
special powers and underlying mysticism," says Todd Boyd,
author of "Am I Black Enough for You?" and co-writer
of the 1999 film "The Wood." "This goes all the
way back to 'Gone with the Wind.' Hattie McDaniel is the emotional
center, but she is just a pawn. Pawns help white people figure
out what's going wrong and fix it, like Whoopi Goldberg's psychic
It isn't that the actors or the roles aren't
likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior
lives. For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the
better-drawn white characters. Sometimes they walk out of the
mists like Will Smith's angelic caddy in "The Legend of
Bagger Vance." Thanks to Vance, the pride of Savannah (Matt
Damon) gets his "authentic swing" back.
A case of the yips hardly seems to call for
divine intervention, but then neither does Carrey's crisis in
"Bruce Almighty." He's a TV funny guy who wants to
be a news anchor. After he loses out to another contender, he
verbally lambastes the Lord (played by Freeman with as much
dignity as he can muster), and the Lord takes an interest.
Freeman's God can walk on water. But when
He first appears, God is mopping the floors. Yes, He humbles
Himself to teach the title character, Bruce, about humility.
He then hands his powers over to him, popping in from time to
time to save the world from Bruce's bumbling.
In "The Family Man," a 2000 version
of "It's a Wonderful Life," Don Cheadle turns up as
Cash, a meddlesome guardian angel disguised as a street tough.
Cash shows Wall Street wheeler-dealer Jack Campbell (Nicolas
Cage) how things would have been if he hadn't ditched his college
sweetheart to pursue his career. When the fantasy ends, Jack
must choose between love or money. Thanks to Cash, Jack has
a chance to make amends for his capitalistic piggishness. Cue
the heavenly chorus.
if a black person is thrust into a white universe, it is inevitable
that the white people will become a better person," says
Thomas Cripps, author of "Making Movies Black: The Hollywood
Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era"
and other books on African American cinema. "Sidney Poitier
spent his whole career in this position. Sidney actually carried
the cross for Jesus in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told.'"
In 1943 alone, black men became the moral
conscience of white characters in four World War II movies:
"Sahara, " "Bataan," "Crash Dive"
and "Life Boat." Cripps is especially fond of the
example set by actor Rex Ingram in "Sahara," the tale
of a tank full of men lost in the desert. "When they decide
to get rid of somebody so the rest can survive, who stands up
and says, 'We either all live or we all die together'? Ingram.
The black man becomes the spokesman for Western democracy."
Ingram's soldier and Queen Latifah's salty soul sister, many
black exemplars don't have halos, but they still work miracles.
Her Highness's performance "is especially unusual because
most of these characters are male," says Jacqueline Bobo,
chair of women's studies at the University of California at
Santa Barbara. "When women do show up, they end up in exoticized
roles like Halle Berry's in 'Monsters Ball.'"
Cedric Robinson, author of "Black Marxism"
and a colleague of Bobo's at UCSB, says, "Males, more problematic
in the American imagination, have become ghostly. The black
male simply orbits above the history of white supremacy. He
has no roots, no grounding. In that context, black anger has
no legitimacy, no real justification. The only real characters
are white. Blacks are kind of like Tonto, whose name meant fool."
Audiences black and white seem to be
accepting of these one-note roles, judging by the financial
success of "Bringing Down the House," which brought
in about $130 million, and "Bruce Almighty," which
has raked in $149 million and was ranked No. 2 at the box office.
yet other viewers and most critics were appalled by the extreme
odd-couple comedy "Bringing Down the House," in which
Charlene (Latifah), an obnoxious escaped con, invades the staid
bourgeois universe of Peter (Martin), the uptight suburbanite.
Charlene not only shows Peter how to jump,
jive and pleasure a woman, but teaches his son to read (a nudie
magazine piques the tyke's interest), saves his daughter from
a date-rapist and then reunites him with his estranged wife.
And she does it all while pretending to be Peter's maid.
"If you were to say to the average person
playing God was representative of a stereotype, you would get
a curious look," Boyd says. "People are uninformed.
They see a black man playing God and that's a good thing. The
same principle is at work when it comes to 'Bringing Down the
House.' People know she had a hand in creating the movie, so
everything must be okay. White people and black people are getting
along and having fun. Isn't that great?
Aaron McGruder, creator of "The Boondocks"
comic strip, didn't think so. He upbraided Latifah for her "less-than-dignified
and racially demeaning performance." His character Huey
e-mailed Latifah, informing her that the "Almighty Council
of Blackness has unanimously voted to revoke your 'Queen' status."
The mystic icon that first comes to mind
with many of today's moviegoers and film aficionados is Michael
Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile." Duncan received
an Oscar nomination for the role of gentle giant John Coffey,
a healer wrongly convicted of murdering two children. In the
movie, Coffey cures the jaded prison guard of corrosive cynicism
and a kidney infection. He also saves the lives of the warden's
wife and the prison mouse.
Ariel Dorfman sees sinister forces, something
disturbing in such portrayals. "The magic Negro is an easy
way of making the characters and the audiences happy. And I
am for happiness, but the real joy of art is to reveal certain
intractable ways in which humans interact. This phenomenon may
be a way of avoiding confrontation," says Dorfman, a playwright,
poet and cultural critic.
black character helps the white character, which demonstrates
that [the former] feels this incredible interest in maintaining
the existing society. Since there is no cultural interchange,
the character is put there to give the illusion that there is
cultural crossover to satisfy that need without actually addressing
the issue," Dorfman says. "As a Chilean, however,
I sense that maybe deep inside, mainstream Americans somehow
expect those who come from the margins will save them emotionally
Damon Lee, producer of the hard-hitting satire
"Undercover Brother," has come up with a similarly
intriguing hypothesis drawn from personal experience. "The
white community has been taught not to listen to black people.
I truly feel that white people are more comfortable with black
people telling them what to do when they are cast in a magical
role. They can't seem to process the information in any other
way," he says. "Whoever is king of the jungle is only
going to listen to someone perceived as an equal. That is always
going to be the case. The bigger point is that no minority can
be in today's structure. Somehow the industry picked up on that."
Robert McKee, who has taught screenwriting
to about 40,000 writers, actors and producers, says, "Try
to see [the issue] from a writer's POV. He or she wants to be
PC. But you can't expect writers to think like sociologists.
They aren't out there trying to change the world; they are just
trying to tell a good story."
Morpheus (Fishburne), named for the Greek
god of dreams, has an interesting mission, to ensure the rise
of the messiah, Neo (Reeves). But Morpheus is the ultimate outsider.
He and 100,000 or so others have been enslaved by the Matrix.
Morpheus, a captain in the war against the
Matrix, is both a free-thinking renegade and a religious zealot.
In other words, he is more complex than similar characters.
But his powers are in the service of the chosen one.
Such a worthy cause is no consolation for
those who would prefer a fulfilling life of their own, rather
than the power to change someone else's. Especially if the souls
being saved aren't really in dire straits.
is a project of the Black