How the movies made a President
Published Date: 22 January 2009
By Manohla Dargis
LONG before this week's transformative breakthrough by Barack Obama, the presidencies of James Earl Jones in The Man, Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, Chris Rock in Head of State and Dennis Haysbert in 24 helped us imagine it. In a modest way, they also hastened its arrival.
Make no mistake: Hollywood's historic refusal to embrace black artists and its insistence on racist stereotypes linger to this day. Yet in the past 50 years – or, to be precise, in the 47 years since Obama was born – black men in the movies have travelled from the ghetto to the boardroom, from supporting roles in kitchens, liveries and social-problem movies to the rarefied summit of the Hollywood A-list. During those years the movies have helped images of black popular life emerge, creating public spaces in which we could glimpse who we are and what we might become.
Modern African-American history has been, among other things, a series of firsts, and the first black movie star – the first to win an Oscar in a lead role and the first to see his name featured above the title in movie advertisements – was Sidney Poitier. For much of the 1960s Poitier bore the special burden of being the only one. He became a symbolic figure, not only for other African-Americans, but also for the nation as a whole: the Black Everyman.
In 1961, the year Obama was born, Poitier played Walter Lee Younger, the flawed, ambitious protagonist of A Raisin in the Sun. Subsequent roles would draw on some of that character's anger and idealism, but they were more concerned with addressing the thorny questions of African-American male authority. How does a black man assert leadership in a society that expects, and is often willing to enforce, his subservience? How does he reach some accommodation with the white world without sacrificing his integrity or his self-respect?
Confronting these challenges in movies like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Poitier became an ambassador to white America and a benign emblem of black power, though not a favourite of the Black Power movement. Almost as soon as they were released, in 1967, those earnest, integrationist, liberal pictures started to look old-fashioned and naïve.
In 1971, two years after the black scholar Larry Neal scolded Poitier in the New York Times for his choices ("There is no sense in being a million-dollar shoeshine boy"), Melvin Van Peebles' independent production Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song helped usher in a new kind of African-American male representation.
Hailed by one critic as the "first truly revolutionary black film made", this low-budget triumph and its roving, carnal hero offered a rollicking alternative to the neutered black male of the sort that Poitier had often played.
Yet even as he stood as a not-so-benign emblem of black power, erotic and otherwise, the hypersexualized black male also became fodder for white exploitation. In the years since, much like the virgins and whores of every colour in movies about women, black male characters have often been divided along an axis of virtue and sin, forced to play cop or thug, saint or sociopath. Such is the seductiveness of the black outlaw that, after watching Morgan Freeman slink across screen as a pimp called Fast Black in the tense 1987 drama Street Smart, Pauline Kael was moved to ask if he was the greatest American actor in movies.
Not all outlaws are pimps; sometimes they just roll like them. It seems telling that in 2002 Denzel Washington became the second African-American man to win an Oscar for best actor playing a dirty Los Angeles police detective, in the thriller Training Day. Washington brought a queasy erotic charge to his character's violence that seemed intended to erase every last trace of his stoic, heroic, Poitieresque profile in films such as Philadelphia and Remember the Titans. This was Denzel the Bad, with his black leather jacket and pumping big guns, cinematic soul brother to Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction and just about every other movie Jackson has starred in where he has wreaked vengeance on anyone unlucky enough to get in his way.
The violence can be just as thrilling when it's strictly verbal. Richard Pryor was among the first comedians to discover that a white audience could be won over by being provoked and insulted. He built his stand-up act, which had wide crossover appeal, on a foundation of profane, confrontational truth-telling and never shied away from the briar patch of race.
Later, as his own career foundered, Pryor's influence spread far and wide. The line of succession passes through the career of Eddie Murphy, who provides a crucial (and sometimes underestimated) link in the continuum of black movie stars that runs from Poitier to Washington to Will Smith.
As a young member of the rebooted Saturday Night Live cast in the early 1980s, Murphy first made his mark lampooning black archetypes and celebrities of all kinds. In his concert movies and stand-up routines, he was swaggering and sometimes obnoxious, but his ability to combine ingratiating jokiness with cold-eyed hostility came through most successfully in feature films, where he made the transition from comic foil (in 48 Hrs and Trading Places) to action hero (in Beverly Hills Cop) with astonishing grace and speed.
When Murphy, on SNL, made fun of Bill Cosby – gumming a cigar and extolling the virtues of Jell-O Pudding Pops – it was an act both of homage and of Oedipal aggression. In 1984 Cosby may have already been a father figure to younger black entertainers, but his career as America's dad was just beginning, with the debut of The Cosby Show on NBC. The novelty of that series, at once revolutionary and profoundly conservative, lay in its insistence, week after week, that being black was another way of being normal.
The Cosby Show did not deny the existence of serious problems in black America – not least the problem of absent fathers – but the presence of Cliff Huxtable, in his own home and yours, suggested that the problems were not intractable.
And it is striking how powerful and appealing the figure of the Black Father has become in the past 25 years. Murphy himself, for instance, in the Dr Dolittle movies, is channelling the man he used to mock. Even Ice Cube, without shedding his gangster scowl, settled into a comfortable niche as a family man in the Barbershop and Are We There Yet? franchises.
Black men have also flourished on screen as surrogate, spiritual fathers. Routinely paired opposite callow, less expert actors such as Keanu Reeves, Ashley Judd and Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman in particular can be relied on to provide counsel and ballast to even the most lightweight genre exercises, along with a sense of purpose and moral seriousness. Much like James Earl Jones before him, though with less basso profundo, Freeman has become the go-to guy for voice-of-God narration, and for playing the Big Man upstairs.
In Hollywood, black characters have often provided this kind of advisory role, chirping friendly counsel from the sidelines, as when an avuncular Bill Robinson (aka Bojangles) teaches Shirley Temple how to dance up a flight of stairs in The Little Colonel. These mentor-student relationships invoke what the historian Donald Bogle calls the "huck-finn fixation", movies in which a good white man, having gone up against the corrupt (white) mainstream, takes up with a "trusty black who never competes with the white man and who serves as a reliable ego padder". The white hero "grows in stature" from this association because "blacks seem to possess the soul the white man searches for". For years, the price of this soul was sometimes paid in black flesh. Movie history is littered with the mangled (Joe Morton in Terminator 2), flayed (Freeman in Unforgiven) and even mauled (Harold Perrineau in The Edge) bodies of supporting black characters.
There has often been a distinct messianic cast to this sacrifice, made explicit in films as different as the 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead and the 1999 prison drama The Green Mile. In the latter, Michael Clarke Duncan plays a death-row inmate who suggests a prison-house Jesus: "I'm tired of people being ugly to each other. I'm tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day." More recently, Will Smith picked up the mantle of the Black Messiah in four of his star turns: The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, Hancock and Seven Pounds.
Saviour, counsellor, patriarch, oracle, avenger, role model – compared with all this, being president looks like a pretty straightforward job. But the fantasies of black heroism that have pervaded American popular culture give some sense of what the country hopes for in its new leader, whose burden is not the same as the one taken up by the 43 white men who preceded him.
Blazing a trail for the black acting profession in Hollywood:
1 SIDNEY POITIER The first black man to win a best actor Oscar (in 1963), Poitier blazed a trail in Hollywood, going on to star in era-defining films such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In later years he would go on to direct the huge Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder hit, Stir Crazy.
2 SPIKE LEE Over 20 years after his debut film, She's Gotta Have It, Lee remains the most visible black director in Hollywood, as well as its most provocative. His 2006 documentary about the New Orleans flood, When The Levees Broke, was a damning attack on the US government's failure to deal with a crisis situation in a mostly black-populated area.
3 WILL SMITH The biggest movie star in the world, Smith remains one of very few actors who can virtually guarantee big box-office success – even with films as dark as I Am Legend.
4 HALLE BERRY One of the most highly paid actresses in Hollywood, Berry was the first (and so far only) black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, for Monster's Ball in 2002.
5 MORGAN FREEMAN The veteran actor brings gravitas to every role he plays, which explains why he's been cast as both the president of the USA (in Deep Impact) and God (in Bruce Almighty).
Source: The Scotsman
Khamis, Januari 22, 2009
How the movies made a President