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In a November 2000 editorial in Time entitled "That Old Black Magic," columnist Christopher John Farley notes that a spate of recent US films, including The Legend of Bagger Vance (dir. Robert Redford, 2000), What Dreams May Come (dir. Vincent Ward, 1998), Family Man (dir: Brett Ratner, 2000), and The Green Mile (dir. Frank Darabont, 1999), have portrayed African Americans as magical figures. Nicknaming such figures Magical African American Friends (MAAFs), he reasons that blacks are represented in these terms out of a fundamental ignorance of African American life and culture. "MAAFs exist," he suggests, "because most Hollywood screenwriters don't know much about black people other than what they hear on records by white hip-hop star Eminem. So instead of getting life histories or love interests, black characters get magical powers. (1) In this essay I would like to think further about the association of blackness with magic in contemporary mainstream films--a phenomenon which, as Farley's article suggests, has been pronounced enough to receive attention in the popular press. Specifically, I'd like to explore how black men are associated with supernatural forces and to suggest that this phenomenon cannot be separated from certain contemporary crises surrounding white masculinity. (2)
An important similarity among most of the films of what we can call the MAAF genre is that the black males are not simply magical but that their magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character. While not concerning himself with gender issues, Anthony Appiah has begun to explore such screen depictions of black beneficence toward whites in his analysis of "the Saint as a black movie type." (3) Appiah offers several possible explanations for why saintly black figures, from Danny Glover's Simon in Grand Canyon (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, US, 1991) to the powerful psychic played by Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (dir. Jerry Zucker, US, 1990), are conceived by what he self-consciously terms "'white' Hollywood." (4) He suggests that perhaps black characters must be assigned saintlike goodness to counteract the racism white audiences automatically direct toward a black character on screen. That is, for white audiences, a saintly black character is the moral equivalent of a "normal" white character. Or, he speculates further, perhaps "the Saint draw[s] on the tradition of the superior virtue of the oppressed":
Is there, in fact, somewhere in the Saint's background a theodicy that draws on the Christian notion that suffering is ennobling? So that the black person who represents undeserved suffering in the American imagination can also, therefore, represent moral nobility? Does the Saint exist to address the guilt of white audiences, afraid that black people are angry at them, wanting to be forgiven, seeking a black person who is not only admirable and lovable, but who loves white people back? Or is it simply that Hollywood has decided, after decades of lobbying by the NAACP's Hollywood chapter that, outside crime movies, blacks had better project good images, characters who can win the NAACP's "image awards"? (83)
Appiah raises important questions here, but he defers answers, choosing instead to explore whether the questions themselves matter; the remainder of his essay focuses on whether films have, in fact, any significant impact on public consciousness.
Rather than focusing on whether, ultimately, such films are racist or not, and whether, in turn, that makes their audiences racist, I would like to think about how these films reflect contemporary upheavals at the nexus of masculinity and economics. What neither Farley nor Appiah address is the degree to which many of the films made in the last decade and a half featuring magical black men specifically concern white men whose lives as workers in some way require revision. Indeed, one of the "realistic" elements of the films incorporating black magical men is their attention to the work lives of their white male characters. These work lives are represented--sometimes directly, sometimes symbolically--as diminished by trends within a service economy that critic Donna Haraway has characterized as the "feminization of work":
Work is being redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether performed by men or women. To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labor force; seen less as workers than as servers; subjected to time arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited work day; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex. (5)
It is within this context that I would like to explore the black male characters' magic, suggesting that in each film economics and magic are intimately linked. Specifically, the black men's magical powers become the means of recalibrating the relation between their white counterparts' gendered identities and work roles. Yet the films' recurrent focus on the status of white men also underscores the central irony attached to the concept of magic in the films: the magical "power" of black men in the films actually serves as an expression of their economic vulnerability. Each of the three films that I will explore--Unbreakable (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, US, 2000), The Green Mile, and Family Man--express this economic weakness through the black men's reinscription as children. Viewing the films through this lens in turn suggests that the superficial understanding of the black men as "friends" to their white counterparts must be rethought; instead, the relations between white and black men emerge as far more complex and equivocal. (6)
To Know Your Place
Given the otherworldly feel of M. Night Shyamalan's second major film, Unbreakable, it is easy to miss its preoccupation with the role of white men in a contemporary economy characterized by low-paying service jobs that bear little resemblance to the forms of public work that once served as the foundation of modern masculinity. In dramatizing the efforts of a mystical black man to help a depressed and alienated white man find his place in the world, however, the film ultimately creates a narrative about the relation of both white women and black men to white men's perceived economic disempowerment. Indeed, the main character in the film, David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis, is defined economically first by his wife, who requires that he abandon his career in order to act in accord with her values, and then by the mysterious black man, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who reasserts David's difference from his wife in order to confirm a connection between himself and David. Equally important to the logic of the film is the role of David's young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Aligned as he is with Elijah in reimagining his father, Joseph becomes Elijah's double, signaling the implicit status of Elijah himself as a child.
The two opening scenes in the film immediately communicate its preoccupation with gender, labor, and economics. In the first scene, set in 1961, we see a black woman who has just completed literal labor, having given birth not in a hospital, but in a department store. As the mother recovers from the delivery under the gaze of anxious store employees, a doctor arrives. The mother's joy and relief quickly turn to horror as the doctor inspects the infant with an expression of shock and disbelief. He demands to know whether the baby was dropped, then announces that the infant boy's arms and legs are broken. This preliminary image of a boy broken by having been contained in a woman's body is perhaps the most graphic motif of a recurrent theme within the film: men must struggle free of the influence of women, who threaten to "break" them.
The next scene, set in the present day, again foregrounds the relationship of gender to power, this time in more overtly economic terms. David sits aboard a train from New York to Philadelphia after an unsuccessful job search. As subsequent scenes will reveal, David has long worked at a college football stadium as a security guard--one of the most notoriously feminized positions in the service economy. (7) The staging of this second scene establishes the economic and gender dynamics that have left David a hollow and profoundly depressed man. In the first minutes of the scene, a young, attractive woman selects a seat next to David. He quickly hides his wedding ring and attempts to arrange a liaison with her once they arrive in Philadelphia. David's simultaneously mechanical and desperate affect during this failed seduction provides our first window into his melancholy psyche. A young girl who watches the scene with visible dismay from a nearby seat enforces the audience's sense of David's moral bankruptcy. Yet more telling is the brief conversation David has with the woman, who proves to be a sports agent en route to meet a football star at Temple University. The woman's youth underscores her extraordinary success in what was once a male-dominated profession. Moreover, her intention to manage the young athlete's career prefigures the way that David's own life was managed, at least tacitly, by his wife, who, we later learn, would only agree to marry him if he cast aside his …