Saturday, February 6, 2010

Saturday Oscar Talk of Magic Negroes and White Saviors: (Re)Reading Precious and The Blind Side

Following the post by Ishmael Reed on Precious, I decided to post this other gem (I have been saving these for my class) on the 2009 Hollywood Oscar trend of good white folk helping the poor darker races (one could add Invictus to that list as well).

A thought: Is the popularity of these nothing new, this has been a motif in American movies for decades movies, a function of an anti-Barack Obama backlash? An assertion of white salvation and relevance in an era of perceived Black triumph? A really provocative thought: Are there some black audiences that are feeling pressured by Barack Obama's triumph, and they find comfort in tales of African American pathology? Are some of us prisoners of a type of racial Stockholm syndrome where it is easier to imagine the bar set so low that being the ghetto underclass is our de facto state of being?

Certainly tragic. But, could it be true?

For your weekend reading pleasure:

Is Sandra Bullock's New Movie Racist?

The African-American teen character in the hit movie The Blind Side is loyal, polite, sexless, and surrounded by white people who love him—it's a miracle of the Obama age.

As portrayed in The Blind Side, the story of a homeless black teenager taken in by a wealthy white family and who later became an NFL star, Michael Oher is gentle, hard-working, self-sacrificing, and soft-spoken.

Though raised in Memphis housing projects, he uses no slang and dislikes the taste of malt liquor. Instead of Ecko and Sean John, he wears Charlie Brown-style polo shirts. His table manners are impeccable. He exhibits virtually no sexual desire. He is never angry and shuns violence except when necessary to protect the white family that adopted him or the white quarterback he was taught to think of as his brother.

Though he appears to be made of (large amounts) of flesh and blood, Michael Oher performs miracles for white people.

In other words, Michael Oher is the perfect black man.

While Precious is garnering a great deal of attention from critics and intellectuals for its unapologetic portrayal of blacks who are cruel, violent, and self-destructive, The Blind Side is far more popular with audiences. With virtually no preceding buzz or publicity, it nearly beat the massively hyped New Moon at the box office last weekend. And Sandra Bullock’s performance as Michael’s adoptive mother has made her an early contender for Best Actress.

The success of The Blind Side might be attributed to the fact that it is the most recent example of what some film historians have labeled the "black saint" or, less politely, "magic negro" genre, in which a virtuous black character saves the white protagonist. The term was coined to describe a series of movies in the 1950s—most notably No Way Out, Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, and The Defiant Ones—that feature Sidney Poitier as an upright black man who sacrifices himself, often with his life, for whites. These movies were so successful that they not only established Poitier as the first “serious” black movie star, but also changed the way Hollywood thought about race.

According to Donald Bogle’s history of African Americans in cinema, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, Poitier was "the model integrationist hero." For white audiences, he was "a black man who had met their standards." His characters "spoke proper English, dressed conservatively," were "amenable and pliable," and "non-funky, almost sexless and sterile." They were "the perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a colored man in for lunch or dinner."

The "black saint" genre was established by white filmmakers—mostly Jewish and left-wing—who sought to overthrow the dominant Hollywood image of blacks as either sexual predators or hapless buffoons. But their project began when the civil-rights movement had not yet become a national phenomenon and black leaders like Martin Luther King were still largely unknown among whites outside the South. So the creators of the genre were informed largely by the ideas of white liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt and the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, who wanted to create a new image of African Americans as being "just like us."

Myrdal’s bestselling 1944 book, An American Dilemma, which essentially established white racial liberalism and the new rules of race for Hollywood, instructed African Americans to overcome their cultural "pathologies" and “become assimilated into American culture.” To do this, they had to acquire “the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.” Eleanor Roosevelt issued similar directions in several influential articles and speeches. In a famous 1953 Ebony magazine cover story titled “Some of My Best Friends Are Negro,” Roosevelt praised her black friends for their “Christianity and intelligence,” their ability to “go through so many hardships and emerge so free of bitterness,” and their “serene, charming" manner.

The theme of honorable black men saving white people dominated Hollywood "race" movies into the 1960s and helped many whites become accustomed to the idea of integration. But with the advent of the "blaxploitation" films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the black saint was replaced by a new generation of "bad" black heroes who were more likely to shoot The Man than save him.

But perfect black men began to reappear in the 1980s, in films such as Mississippi Burning, Glory, and most famously in Morgan Freeman's portrayal of a wise and noble chauffeur for an elderly white lady in Driving Miss Daisy, which won the 1989 Oscar for Best Picture. Though Driving Miss Daisy was widely criticized for reviving the "magic negro," the archetype gained increasing popularity among Hollywood filmmakers.

Frank Darabont's Green Mile, which celebrates the magical healing powers of a wrongly convicted black death-row inmate, was nominated for four Oscars in 1999. The following year, Robert Redford's Legend of Bagger Vance, featuring Will Smith as a supernatural golf caddy, caused Spike Lee to announce the era of the "Super-Duper Magic Negro."

The Blind Side, which is based on a book by Michael Lewis, purports to tell the story of a real person. And Michael Oher was in fact a parentless, homeless kid who was adopted by a white family and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. But like all saints, the cinematic version of Michael Oher is pure, entirely selfless, and therefore not human. Though he appears to be made of (large amounts) of flesh and blood, he performs miracles for white people. He stops an airbag from injuring his adoptive white brother (Jae Head) and single-handedly takes down an entire house of gun-packing crack dealers who threaten to rape his white sister (Lily Collins) and mother (Bullock).

But the most important miracle Michael performs is to make his new family feel good about themselves. Throughout the second half of the film, Bullock’s steely Leigh Anne declares to all around her that adopting Michael has given her a new and complete happiness.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, members of the Republican Party circulated a song calling Barack Obama "the magic negro." They were excoriated for what many saw as a racist attack, but their inspiration was a Los Angeles Times op-ed written by the African-American film critic David Ehrenstein, which argues that Obama offers the same thing to whites that Sidney Poitier did in the 1950s. And indeed, Obama's moral rectitude and promise of racial reconciliation and redemption are similar not only to Poitier's characters but also to the character of Michael Oher. The makers of The Blind Side seem to be aware of this. The film contains a gratuitous jab at George W. Bush, much is made about Michael's academic tutor being a Democrat, and fist-bumps between Michael and his white little brother are ubiquitous.

While many are appalled by the portrayal of black sinners in Precious, we might also question what it means to portray African Americans as saints.


Anonymous said...

It's not that African Americans are being hailed as saints that bothers me the most.

More than anything, it is that these characters have no agency beyond assuaging the white middle- and upper-class American folk that their characters seem to be around almost all the time.

The actions of these saintly AA are never about self-empowerment or about empowering their own families or communities - or even their own culture as a whole. And neither is their sacrifice at the end. That, too, is reserved for the white people in the film.

And that is the problem.

jacked UP jazz said...

When I see the trailers for this film I don't see or feel white and black. I see a child trapped in a giant's body and a mama doing what every good momma is biologically wired to do. Nobody but mama chose to look beyond the giant to see the child inside. If everyone's racial identity was reversed would that change anything. For me it would not. I don't know what the real story is and how much "creative license" was applied to the film. But if this story is anything close to true it is an indictment of a lot of people and a lot of things.

Anonymous said...

The other thing that bothers me besides all of Chauncey's great points in the post and the spot on response by heavy armor (full co-signage), is that African Americans are never featured in a movie in ways that allow them to illuminate some universal aspect of the human experience without being caricatures of said experience. What they do in movies always has to offer up something revelatory about the fucked up nature of US race relations (um, no need to speak the obvious over and over again with these stock characters like Denzel in Training Day or Halle in Monster's Ball), or has to create some sort of overly Negroidian world that no viewers but black folks can ever visualize themselves being as a part of (um, Madea Im lookng at you right now, but there's too many movies to name on this end-- Madea's just the last in way too long of a line on this front...)

Can we just have a cast of strong black actors in quality movies, like an Its Complicated or The Wrestler- some kind of romance, drama, whatever story line -where the blackness of the characters doesnt so heavily overshadow the story being told? Because the blacker we are in a given movie, the more the movie becomes a way for white folks to see themselves in one of two ways- a) "Im so glad Im not one of those crazy ass negroes," or b) "black people would never get their shit together without our help"...

Maybe Im asking too much, as all movies with a majority black cast are "race" movies, no matter how hard they may try to be the opposite (though to me on surface these flicks usually dont try to be anything but race movies, I dont claim to know the backstory on how some movies end up in the final cut as far cries from where they began in the minds of screenwriters).

I live my life every day as a black woman, sure. And blackness is on my mind at any given point because of what I do for a living and where I live, and my politics etc. But my daily life getting to and from work, paying my bills, interacting with my family, and connecting with my friends, are not always "racialized" experiences... Maybe Im rambling, but are our only options Precious or the Blind Side with a dash of Madea in between? Really?

chaunceydevega said...

@heavy and natasha--It would be nice to have the freedom to just "be" wouldn't it? But, we always have the burden of representation to contend with.

@Jazz--Fair points. But, how would the movie change if the roles were reversed? i.e. a black family takes in a member of the white underclass? Would that movie ever be made? I think we have to ask ourselves despite our own humanism (black and brown folk are so forgiving) what are white audiences taking away from this? Why is this s recurring motif in films, i.e. the white savior narrative, and how do we as a people internalize it?

Scruffy Scirocco said...

Chauncy, I agree, it would be great if we could just "Be". But when that happens, no one says anything about it. Many of Danny Glover's roles were of protagonsists who just happened to be black, without the color of their skin being made an issue at all. . . his Lethal Weapon Role, or his role in Flight of the Intruder.

If you have a central cast of four people, and one of them is black, is he the token black, or is he a fair representation of the population? That can cut both ways.

Is your criticism of the "magic negro" effect that you feel blacks have to be "whitewashed" to succeed? Usually I see these stories as tales of people triumphing over adversity and succeeding against all expectations. Is the Tuskeegee Airmen story better because there weren't as many whites in it?

I've known in real life a number of very intelligent people of all colors. My economics prof was a PhD, grew up in Compton. Great guy. The fact is that you're not going to be successful in America if you speak like a hick cracker or speak ebonics, if you think that "fashion staments" like wearing wife-beater t-shirts or having your pants down around your knees is acceptable business casual attire. If you don't have manners to make yourself inconspicuous at a business lunch with clients, if you can't give a public presentation without saying "Y'awl" or "yo", You're not going to be making a very good living, no matter what color your skin. Sorry, but you have to modifty your behavior to conform to the society in which you seek to make your wealth. I grew up in a social enviornment where sentances were punctuated with profanity, in my time in the military we used the F word as an adjective, verb, noun and occasionally as an expletive. I had to modify my way of speaking and conform to a more "socially acceptable" way of speaking to get where I am professionally. I don't think that's discriminatory against west texan cowboys or vets, it's just a fact of life.

Vegetarian Cannibal said...

Natasha, your comment really summed it all up. I still can't believe Sandra Bullock won an OSCAR for this!