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Same Old, Same Old

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.

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).

There are no overt lessons taught, no gifts imparted save that of one brother‘s love for “the other.” The relationship is given human scope and dynamics -- a radical approach. Almost as shocking is the fact that both men are dark-skinned, with neither possessing the looks of a conventional leading man. This means there is no contrived battle of authenticity based on features or skin tone; coloring in Ghost Dog doesn’t prove or disprove “realness.” White people exist, but are not at the core of the story, not at the core of the titular character‘s existence. Sort of the way most black folk actually live in relation to white folk.

Hollywood’s recent efforts around race are largely rooted in anxiety, same as it ever was. Black folk are still in service to whiteness, only now it‘s called multiculturalism and colorblind friendship. Since white folk’s anxiety has to be quelled, familiar representations of blackness are being dusted off and given a retooled soundtrack, and it‘s all good, yo. In truth, it’s containment passed off as celebration. These days, to shop and fuck across a Benetton rainbow of options is what passes for relevant, even progressive American cinema. But it‘s the same tired tropes, the same old song and dance that are really being sold. There’s just no more music in that shuffle.


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