Save me, Bwana
The Malcom X story starring
A whiter shade of guile
Friday January 5, 2007
Eighteen years ago, Edward Zwick made the very well-thought-of film Glory, in which a ragtag group of feisty young black men are whipped into shape by a white guy played by the actor who brought Ferris Bueller to life - with help from the white guy who once played the Princess Bride's boyfriend, the Princess Groom. Last year, James Gartner made a very well-thought-of film called Glory Road, in which a ragtag group of feisty young black men are whipped into shape by a white guy played by an actor most famous for helping his fellow shipwreckees escape from the capsized ocean liner in Poseidon.The difference between Glory and most of these other movies is that it was historically accurate.
Now Zwick himself is back with a film in which a feisty but hapless black guy is whipped into shape by a white guy played by an actor who first achieved fame by playing a mentally handicapped boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? If there is anything black people the world over have learned from Hollywood - and there isn't a whole lot - it's that no matter how bleak the situation seems, they can always rely on some resourceful, charismatic and, in some instances, shapely white person to bail them out.
The Zwick film in question is the exciting but characteristically idiotic Blood Diamond, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a ruthless Rhodesian smuggler who specialises in spiriting precious stones out of war-torn nations whose diamonds the G8 nations have promised not to purchase, as the profits are invariably used to do very bad things. They are called "conflict diamonds".
Despite Connolly's beatific stature as the White Journalist Who Cares - and Cares Deeply - she gradually finds her role as the anointed one filched from right under her by the morally recrudescent DiCaprio. For, as the film proceeds, and as more and more horrible black rebels kill off horrible black soldiers representing the horrible black regime - every black person in the film is either a victim or a monster - DiCaprio gradually comes to realise that there are more important things in life than money, that ebony needs ivory, that diamonds are not forever.
Zwick would thus have us believe that in a society ravaged by a murderous civil war, where black children are routinely kidnapped and induced to murder other black children, after being shot up with heroin purchased with conflict diamonds from horrible white people from out of town, the man who will ultimately bring the villains to justice is a formally depraved Rhodesian mercenary who now prefers justice and racial harmony to wealth. Hmmm, say I to Mr Zwick. Hmmm!
The template for the Up With Caucasians! film was established in 1962 with the release of Robert Mulligan's preposterously overrated To Kill a Mockingbird. Based on a beloved, fabulously successful, thoroughly absurd novel by Harper Lee, who never wrote another book, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of two white children living in the Deep South in the 1930s who gradually come to realise what a heroic figure their father cuts after he courageously defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.
This is the spirit that animates films as varied as Mississippi Burning, where Gene Hackman plays a racist FBI agent who helps bring murderous Klansmen to justice, and A Time to Die, a typically knuckleheaded Joel Schumacher offering starring Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock as crusading white folks who will do anything to ensure that Samuel L Jackson gets justice in the Deep South. For that matter, it is the theme of Glory Road, a film about an all-black basketball team that beat an all-white basketball team for the 1965 collegiate basketball championship in a truly legendary, watershed contest that changed American society forever, and whose star is the very white Josh Lucas, who plays the black athletes' coach. This is like making a movie about heavyweight boxers in the late 20th century where the champion is a short white guy from south Philadelphia. Who would buy a premise like that?
But in most cases, including the newly released Freedom Writers, the missonary effect is what we see.
The white comes into a savage land and tames the natives. The idea that minorities don't need taming doesn't sell in Hollywood. There is always a white Bwana to save the day and change the negroes from savages into humans.
Minorities are rarely allowed to be the heroes of their own stories. There always seems to be the need for a white savior so the audience can "relate", as if blacks are incompetent and need to be patronized. Which is why HK films are so popular in America. When Chow Yun Fat or Jackie Chan is on the screen or Jet Li, we don't need some white nanny to save the day. They save the day.
These movies reflect a subtle brainwashing which suggests that blacks cannot perform like whites or without white guidence. Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to be the case on American TV, where strong black characters are the stars of shows like the Unit and Gray's Anatomy, and have prominent roles on shows like 24 and Law and Order.
posted by Steve @ 1:31:00 PM