The first signs of the spiritual zeal that would eventually play a significant part in Obama’s election came not from Washington or Chicago but from Hollywood. Our moviemakers are adept at measuring the zeitgeist of the nation—of its liberal half, anyway—and are a powerful force in shaping it. And for more than a decade, they’ve been churning out what critics call “black-angel” movies. These films feature a white protagonist guided to enlightenment by a black character, usually of divine or supernatural origin or, at the very least, in touch with spiritual experiences that the main character lacks. With the black angel’s help, the white hero finds salvation.
The genre includes, to name just a few, The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), in which Will Smith—playing a caddie who is really, the film hints, God—restores Matt Damon’s golf game and love life; Bruce Almighty (2003), in which Morgan Freeman, as God, bestows his powers on a manic Jim Carrey; and the awful What Dreams May Come (1998), in which Cuba Gooding, Jr. is a wise soul guiding Robin Williams through the afterlife. These movies have been numerous enough, David Sterritt points out in the Christian Science Monitor, to confuse TV’s buffoonish Homer Simpson: in one episode, “Homer mistook a black man in a white suit for an angelic visitor, all because (according to his embarrassed wife) he’d been seeing too many movies lately.”
Far and away the best of the black-angel films is Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999), based on a novel by Stephen King, whose knack for setting his finger on the cultural pulse has made him a multimillionaire. The basso profundo Michael Clarke Duncan plays John Coffey (note the initials), a gigantic black man wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of two little girls in Depression-era Louisiana and sentenced to death; Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard who discovers that Coffey is not only innocent but also a Christlike miracle worker. Coffey’s laying-on of hands restores a dead mouse to life, cures Edgecomb of a bladder infection, and heals the warden’s wife’s brain cancer. Shortly before he is executed—the jeering of the girls’ anguished parents and the weeping of the prison guards who know the truth recall the account of the Crucifixion in Luke—Coffey has this exchange with a tortured Edgecomb:
Edgecomb. Tell me what you want me to do. You want me to take you out of here? Just let you run away? See how far you could get?
Coffey. Why would you do such a foolish thing?
Edgecomb. On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I—did I kill one of His true miracles—what am I going to say? That it was my job? . . .
Coffey. You tell God the Father it was a kindness you done. . . . I want it to be over and done with. I do. . . . 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.
The writer or director of a black-angel film recognizes the unspeakable injustices once perpetrated by his country on black people; he wants to be forgiven the sins of his fathers. If he is simply a comedian, he makes Bruce Almighty, casting a black man as God in a sort of lighthearted flattery. If his waters run deeper, he understands that no plum role can atone for the crimes that weigh on him. Instinctively, he realizes what thinkers from Aristotle to Marcel Mauss have known: that whenever a gift is given, the prestige of the giver increases and that of the recipient declines. So he tells a story in which a black man gives the greatest gift of all, suffering—like Jesus in Christian theology—for others’ sins, in fact demanding to suffer, and by demanding, forgiving. White America is pardoned its wrongs, while black America, by pardoning, is elevated to godhood.
Are these movies ultimately condescending to blacks? After all, the white protagonist, the person who will be saved or damned according to his decisions, is invariably more interesting than the serene black angel hovering nearby. Indeed, the condescension, if such it is, is a cinematic version of affirmative action—a denial to blacks of Everyman’s struggle for salvation; a magnanimous extension to them of paradise.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
The phenomenon of the "black angel"
From City Journal: