By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The Legend of Bagger Vance, on its genteel surface, has nothing to do with race, which was undoubtedly its appeal to its makers. The Negro is present, but not. A calming element in the mix, he not only doesn‘t disrupt the white status quo, he repairs it. The film uses a black man to help restore a white man’s masculinity, while in no way ever acknowledging that black and white in conflict is what has shaped the very definition of what it is to be either a white man or a black man, much less an American. The film gets a jolt of energy from having the two -- Will Smith‘s golf guru and Matt Damon’s fallen golf hero -- in juxtaposition, on a quest to reclaim the godhead of virile maleness, but reduces the jolt to that of a Negro‘s loving tutorship of his white charge.
As the titular character, Smith was portraying what BET talk-show host Tavis Smiley has dubbed “the magical, mystical Negro best friend,” an otherworldly being whose sole purpose is to heal and guide white folk. In demeanor, he or she can be either wise, sassy but nonthreatening, or wise, meek and submissive. The latter representation, familiar from almost any old Hollywood film that starred Louise Beavers as a preternaturally happy, fidgeting-over-da-white-folks mammy, reached its most recent nadir in 1999’s The Green Mile, in which John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a blubbering black simpleton with the mysterious gift of healing, shuffled and sobbed his way through three interminable hours of wasted celluloid. In the film, which is set in 1935, the first words the imbecilic Negro utters are “Yassum, boss,” and it‘s downhill from there.
The supernatural black characters in Bagger Vance and Green Mile are one evolutionary cycle above the mortal but still extraordinary Negroes -- the Super Negroes -- who are favorites of black and white audiences alike, who provide the “Can’t we all get along?” palliative that America so desperately needs. They exist to give white people their better selves. Other recent examples include To Sir With Love 2000 a.k.a. Remember the Titans and Finding Forrester. The Super Negro has a few variations. The Sidney Poitier platinum model is a black character, wise and patient, who is an inarguable moral authority, someone who is seemingly beyond human in his capacity for suffering and ability to transcend it -- all the better if he can resist becoming bitter or angry, no matter how justified those reactions would be. Denzel Washington meets those requirements to the letter in Titans, but strips away the prissiness (and crisp elocution) of Poitier and doses the role with a bit of grit. His twist on type is to bring a weary, wry laugh to the table.
Finding Forrester, like Titans, hangs tightly on the premise that the authoritarian rule of the “father” is what will save us. (Black father, white father -- all that matters is that he be in control.) What makes Forrester even more grating, though, is its intraracial politics, how it reaffirms dated notions of dark-skinned black males (from the ‘hood, natch) as being more authentic than their weak, untrustworthy fair-skinned brothers. Sixteen-year-old Jamal (Robert Brown) is a Super Negro in training, evidenced by both sparkling goodness and mechanical recitation of data, the way he’s well-versed in Coleridge, Shaw and Twain. (What, if anything, their work actually means to him goes unexamined.) Black audiences get to take pride that this somber soldier can best the white man at his own intellectual game. White folk get to nod approvingly that the black kid is immersed in recognizable barometers of intelligence: works of dead white men.
In a culture suspicious of intellectual prowess and even more suspicious of anyone who actually reads poetry, Jamal‘s joyless, technically proficient grasp on art renders him safely appealing. He wields knowledge like a weapon. He’s enthusiastically embraced by the white student body of his new prep school; the only pupil who gives him grief is another black kid, one who‘s only a day-at-the-beach darker than the white kids on campus. Fair-skinned, with light-colored eyes, he’s dismissed as “just another spoiled rich kid” by Jamal‘s white-girl school guide. The film doesn’t examine the volatile issues of class and hue at work in the meeting of the two boys. It simply sets the light-skinned teen up as a paper tiger, someone who is not a “down” brother and is therefore a sham. Tellingly, the film has the two black boys do battle on a basketball court. Ultimately, Jamal trumps the sulking, fair-skinned fraud. Got melanin?
There are interventions in the madness. In David Gordon Green‘s independent film George Washington, lyrical visuals and keen social insights serve an organic tale of black and white kids growing up together and bonding over shared dreams and experiences, not commodified signifiers of cool. Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, guided by unapologetically leftist politics, locates good and evil across the spectrum of accents, skin tones and class schisms. Perhaps the richest example, though, is last year‘s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Against a cool hip-hop soundtrack, writer-director Jim Jarmusch knowingly lays bare the construction of the magical, mystical Negro best friend but keeps a steady finger on the pain beneath the construct. Here, the core friendship isn’t between a white man in need of succor and a Super Negro, but between two black men (Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankole).
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