Main | Friday, January 11, 2008

HomoQuotable - David Ehrenstein

[From a March 17, 2007 column in the L.A. Times. Pertinent, in light of recent commentary regarding Barack Obama.]

"As every carbon-based life form on this planet surely knows, Barack Obama, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, is running for president. Since making his announcement, there has been no end of commentary about him in all quarters — musing over his charisma and the prospect he offers of being the first African American to be elected to the White House.

"But it's clear that Obama also is running for an equally important unelected office, in the province of the popular imagination — the "Magic Negro."

"The Magic Negro is a figure of postmodern folk culture, coined by snarky 20th century sociologists, to explain a cultural figure who emerged in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. "He has no past, he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist," reads the description on Wikipedia.

"He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.

"As might be expected, this figure is chiefly cinematic — embodied by such noted performers as Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Scatman Crothers, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Smith and, most recently, Don Cheadle. And that's not to mention a certain basketball player whose very nickname is "Magic."

"Poitier really poured on the "magic" in "Lilies of the Field" (for which he won a best actor Oscar) and "To Sir, With Love" (which, along with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," made him a No. 1 box-office attraction). In these films, Poitier triumphs through yeoman service to his white benefactors. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is particularly striking in this regard, as it posits miscegenation without evoking sex. (Talk about magic!)

"The same can't quite be said of Freeman in "Driving Miss Daisy," "Seven" and the seemingly endless series of films in which he plays ersatz paterfamilias to a white woman bedeviled by a serial killer. But at least he survives, unlike Crothers in "The Shining," in which psychic premonitions inspire him to rescue a white family he barely knows and get killed for his trouble. This heart-tug trope is parodied in Gus Van Sant's "Elephant." The film's sole black student at a Columbine-like high school arrives in the midst of a slaughter, helps a girl escape and is immediately gunned down. See what helping the white man gets you?" - David Ehrenstein, in his March 17, 2007 Los Angeles Times piece, Obama, The Magic Negro.

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