By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
It‘s 1931. American Negroes are being lynched for sport, and Jim Crow is in full effect. God, or one of his high-ranking officials, decides it’s time to make an appearance on Earth in the form of a black man because the suffering has gotten out of hand: A white boy has lost his love for the game of golf and has to be tended to immediately. Armed with an old Danny Glover drawl and stranded in a film that‘s paced like snow melting in the Arctic, the heavenly entity teaches Matt Damon how to get his golf-course groove back. Why in the world wasn’t there an audience for The Legend of Bagger Vance?
A modern-day Desdemona who‘s studying classical dance is filled with doubt about her gift and her calling. Although a star student, she’s no longer inspired. Stumbling onto hip-hop culture and the vagaries of urban life, she‘s rejuvenated, tutored by the natives on how to dress, walk and be generally “down.” 1984’s Breakin‘? Yes. And 2001’s Save the Last Dance.
The old is the new, and Hollywood is busy jump-starting tired racial archetypes to calm white folk‘s uncertainty about their status within the roiling shifts in American culture. In America -- indeed, the world -- racial boundaries and identities are in flux even as racism itself appears evergreen, mutating into something that’s both yesteryear blatant and frighteningly insidious. Hollywood is smart enough to know that the nigger can no longer be synonymous with unmitigated evil (thank God for Arabs), so it‘s flipped the script and made black folk -- men and women -- spiritual mammies to white folk. Hip-hop, with its own uncritical resuscitation and pimping of stereotypes, has provided fresh beats for this cross-genre revival of Negro caricature; its whorish need to maintain the status quo dovetails nicely with Hollywood’s faux-progressive, reactionary tack.
On the surface, the old-school Hollywood liberal balm of The Legend of Bagger Vance and the white suburban-targeted hip-hop drama of Save the Last Dance have little in common. In reality, they‘re both about Hollywood’s reactions to the browning of the world and the undeniable shifting of cultural power, and about how these two evolutionary tracks are affecting the white audience. Black folk‘s take on all of this is not addressed. Whatever fears and hopes that particular “audience share” has is, at best, found in subtext. Bagger is rooted in a longing for the mythological simplicity of the way things used to be, when good white folk sadly shook their heads at bigotry (would even shake a black man’s hand without reservation), while white racists proudly barked their hatred from inside grotesque outlines of superiority. Racism was so . . . black and white then.
Last Dance caters to a robust youth market in which blackness is the hot commodity and whiteness holds the center. In a contemporary climate in which the standing racial hierarchy is challenged via pop culture, white folk have to be assured that black identity is theirs for the consuming. It can‘t be shown too clearly how that overdetermined identity is rooted in living legacies of white privilege or social disparity, even though the selling of the commercialized identity is predicated upon that very same privilege. In this sense, Save the Last Dance remains true to formula. Although the film is ostensibly about an interracial love story, that marketing hook barely obscures the fact that the chief narrative strand is about a white girl’s struggle and triumph. More precisely, it‘s about the way blackness welcomes and nurtures the wounded white chick; her dark-skinned beau is an anchor of support molded from cultural cliches. He tells us about his inner life; hers is placed onscreen.
Save the Last Dance is selling the lie that love is all we need. It sells that lie while giving no real love to its black female characters, who are presented in two downtrodden forms: the evil ho, and the sassy teen mother with no dreams except to transform her no-good baby-daddy and befriend the white girl. Shortly after dropping hard truths about life for black women under the crush of idealized white womanhood, the black girl is forced by the script to take it all back with “I was just tripping.” The film makes it clear that in order for there to be colorblind unity, black folk have to be silenced about the layers and facts of their lives: They can offer up the rind but have to discard the pulp of their realities. It says that friendships and romantic connections across racial lines can’t contain two chafing but not necessarily contradicting truths: that it‘s nobody’s business who you fuck or love, and that “white is right,” a belief that still floats thickly through our culture. In the end, it says that the comfort zones of white folk must be maintained at all costs.
In contrast, last year‘s surprisingly smart comedy Bring It On dived headfirst into the maelstrom of contemporary race relations with a fair degree of honesty, noting how the artifacts of black cultural production have become prized commodities, with the power to uplift and potentially save whoever owns them. (Authorship means little.) With a cheerleading competition as backdrop, the film dealt bluntly with black fears of co-option and exploitation, using comedy to grapple with long-standing black anxieties, for example, that whenever white folk hold hands with black folk and sing a verse of “We Are Family,” they’ll be evicting Negroes from the premises real soon. But the movie was still about the developing consciousness of a white girl, not the stories of the black girls who provided the dance moves -- and the life lessons.
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