Race to Mars

I don’t know if the voting Academy of The Oscars include any representatives from Mars.  I’d be curious to know what a Martian might think of life in America after screening Precious and The Blind Side, both nominated this year for best picture.  Both pictures about teenage black characters living in poverty, tell their stories through a remarkably different prism.

Precious takes place in Harlem in the late 1980s.  Precious is a shy, overweight 16 year old, pregnant with a second child by her own father, and subject to astonishing physical and verbal abuse by her idle mother.  Despite no self esteem, suicidal feelings, and lack of any resources, Precious has a rich imagination and a small spark in her deep set eyes that a few conscientious adults seem to see.  Among these adults are strong willed black women, who perhaps recognize some of their own terrible upbringing through Precious.  But ultimately it is Precious who musters the desire to finish school, take care of her children, believe in herself and, most significantly, stop believing in the crippling negatively of her acerbic mother.   Precious sells a story of redemption and hope without ever being sugary or unrealistic.  And this seemingly authentic story of triumph over hopelessness in the ghetto comes from fictional material.

For a true story of black life in America, Our Martian voter has The Blind Side.  Compared to Precious, The Blind Side has all the grit of a margarine commercial.  The Tuohy family of Memphis, Tennessee, dove-white, upper middle-class, Christian, and Republican are raising a girl and a boy who will grow up untainted by pre-marital sex, dope, cussing or economic need.  Into their Glen Beck utopia galumphs Micheal Oher, a mammoth black teenager from the housing projects but adaptable to the Tuohy’s life of Kodak moments and saying grace at the family table.  He calls white ladies ma’am, and prefers to wear the stripped rugby shirts like your ma’am might give you for Christmas (if she’s not a crack head).  It’s not clear what’s missing from the Turtle Waxed lives of the Tuohy’s, but they need to embrace him as their own. And they lift him from a likely life of failure and violence to left tackle position for the NFL Baltimore Ravens.  What the Tuohy’s altruism represents to Michael in familial and material terms is what brings the audience obvious pleasure in this true fable.  What Michael really means in this context is something more complicated.   Mrs. Tuohy, the narrator and heroine of this story,  is an announced member of the NRA.  She warns black thugs, from Michael’s would-be other life, not to come to her side of town.  Meanwhile her adopted black man-child is in wealthy East Memphis, playing Madden Football with her precocious ten year old and shyly glancing away from her nubile teenage daughter.

Why would a wealthy, white, conservative Southern family be so quickly enchanted with a kid like Michael?  Because he’s a magic negro.

Described in a 2007 L.A. Times op-ed by African-American columnist David Ehrenstein:

“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”… 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, and Will Smith”

Sidney Poitier in particular was discussed in a seminal book on blacks in cinema by Donald Bogle called  Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, andBucks:

“In all his films he [Sidney Poitier] was educated and intelligent.  He spoke proper English, dressed conservatively, and had the best of tablemanners.  For the mass white audience, Sidney Poitier was a black man who had met their standards.  His characters were tame; never did they act impulsively, nor were they threats to the system.  They were amenable and pliant.  And finally they

Poitier in "Lilies of the Field"

were non-funky, almost sexless and sterile.  … Poitier was also acceptable for black audiences.  He was the paragon of black middle-class values and virtues.”

The magic Michael performs is to make his new white family feel good about themselves.  While Michael is a likable character, who is compelled by a desire to act decently and to protect his allies, he is a cipher.  He is written and acted as a nothing onto which the Tuohys, and a largely white, conservative film audience, project their racial anxiety, and congratulate themselves with a sense Christian reward.   Interesting that “magic negro” was the same politically charged nickname racist conservatives borrowed to scorn support for Barack Obama, sworn in as the first African-American president the same year both of these movies were released.  Both movies show impoverished black teenagers propelled to their own kinds of success, one by strength of will and community, the other arbitrarily plucked out by a benevolent white hand.  What would a man from Mars say of our confused and sometime disingenuous images of race and equality in American cinema?  Take me to your leader?

Precious (2009)

The Blind Side (2009)

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