The Matrix: Reflections on Neo and Morpheus

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So there’s this film that was made in 1990’s where Keanu Reeves and his best friend end up on a science-fantasy journey, during which he says “Whoa”.

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I had to go there

No of course i mean The Matrix starring Laurence Fishburne instead of whoever the fuck Bill is. Granted, unlike Bill in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) , Morpheus doesn’t share equal billing with his friend Neo and is relegated to a support role instead. Not to say he’s unimportant, however,he is an example of prevalent archetype in world culture ; the wise mentor.

The Matrix makes a not so subtle attempt to parallel the story of Neo with the Campbellian monomyth. A hero ends up in a foreign world in search of enlightenment and adventure. With that in mind, the mentor figure takes on many classical elements. As a mentor, Morpheus resembles what anthropologist Joseph Campbell would have called a “threshold guardian”, who tests the resolve of the hero to continue the quest at hand. In this case, the test is philosophical: would you want to see how far you can stray from the familiar or do you want to go back to it? A similar option comes up often in Lord of The Rings with Bilbo and Frodo who have to choose between staying in the cozy yet isolated shire and the larger,  intimidating Middle Earth.

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The pill choice serves as Neo’s “call to adventure”, where the hero is given the choice of whether or not he wants to embark upon the journey at hand. Morpheus could’ve told Neo the sinister purpose of the Matrix or the fact that he thinks Neo’s the One, but he intentionally leaves out the best arguments for either option, instead opting for ambiguity. This foreshadows Neo’s later meeting with the Oracle, who tells him he’s not the One even though he is. Telling him would possibly force him in his predestined direction, but allowing him to come to the conclusion himself allows for him to fully realize it (which plays into the end of the series). Neo’s role as the One is as a messiah, not a hero. That means that his primary role is to sacrifice himself for others.

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As such, when he’s told he has to choose between saving his own life and Morpheus’, he chooses Morpheus because he thinks him to be more important than himself, which is the level of humility he needs as the One. Ironically, from Neo’s point of view, Morpheus was the true hero of the story whereas he was merely a supporter.

While I would deem Morpheus’ role as fairly “race neutral”,his role as a mentor overlaps with the archetype of the “magical negro” initially. To clarify, this term was first coined by Spike Lee in a lecture on film in 2001 and the unfortunate frequency of morally pure subservient characters who often were mystical as well (The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, specifically).

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Disney’s “Song of the South” (1946)

The formula was goes like this: a white person, often from a wealthy background yet fraught with “first world problems”, meets a sage black person who gives them advice and/or magic from beyond their culture. A great example is Don Cheadle’s character in The Family Man (2000), a seemingly criminal young man who teaches Nicholas Cage’s character the importance of family by warping reality to give him the one he never had. Given the magic realism of the film, he’s never given much characterization other than being jovial and helpful to the protagonist. The issue with characters like this is, as with any caricature, it’s flatness. Real people have goals, ambitions, and desires. Therefore, a dude who is simultaneously as powerful as a “magical negro” yet lacking these attributes seems a little flat. If Bagger Vance is such a philosophical and brilliant golfer,why the fuck would he caddy for some white guy? One could make a good case for Morpheus falling into this stereotype. Neo is introduced as a lost man; a hacker with an empty life. Meeting Morpheus allows for him to gain knowledge about a world beyond his pale (pun intended).

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He also teaches Neo how to fight, which is a pretty black thing to do

 The “mysticism” of the character is due to his closer relationship to the nature of the Matrix than Neo’s. This is visually evident from the first time they meet, just look at how Morpheus’ glasses stay on his face despite not even having those thingies on the side.

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That’s fucking weird

Lawrence Fishburne’s entire performance is initially as foreign as possible due to his slow deliberate speech and stoicism. Morpheus is the first person of this obscure world that is both clearly “strange” yet willing to accept Neo in , unlike the agents he meets beforehand. And obviously, like a magical negro, Morpheus’ primary goal in the first film is to boost the esteem of the white protagonist. With all that being said , Morpheus is still quite far from being a flat supporting character. What keeps Morpheus from being a true “magical negro” however is his own unique character arc. In the first film , his belief in Neo isn’t just for his sake, it’s for the sake of Zion. It’s the last piece in his vision for humanity. It’s not as if he doesn’t have a plan and the ability to fight the machines beforehand. Morpheus is as important to the citizens of Zion as Neo is (if not more). He even has a beta romance with Niobe (who is, unsurprisingly, black as well) , which makes him a bit more human.

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Also, a bit more pimp

After the first film , the characters begin to diverge from a protagonist/foil relationship (the foil being a mentor in this case) to more of a protagonist/deuteragonist relationship. To clarify , this means that Morpheus become a secondary protagonist that takes on an almost as important role to the plot. This is generally accomplished by having an immediate and/or practical goal for the deuteragonist to take on while the protagonist takes on a more significant thematic goal. Often the deuteragonist’s goal allows for the protagonist to reach the goal in the first place. Probably the most famous deuteragonist is Aragorn in Lord of The RingsWhile Frodo has the “load bearing” task of destroying the true macguffin of the series, Aragorn has to take care of the more immediate task of fighting Sauron’s forces. In addition, he also has the more practical task of creating post-war order as the King of Middle Earth’s menfolk. Morpheus’ almost beat for beat fulfills the same role: we see in Matrix Reloaded (2003) that he is the actual leader of the freed people and has the practical experience to lead an army against the machines. Morpheus acts as a contrast to Neo as the One: Neo stands alone for the most of the film with most of his influence to the rest of Zion being tangential. When a child thanks him for saving his life, he brushes him off rather rudely. This in contrast to Morpheus’ fatherly attitude towards his men; Morpheus’ power comes from his ability to directly influence people. Fittingly, in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), while Neo fights in the Matrix, Morpheus is the one actually responsible for the preservation of Zion. It’s also implied that he ends up being the spiritual leader of humanity after the defeat of Smith, making him the “King of Men” himself.

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The relationship between Neo and Morpheus pays off the most in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), specifically the shifting of spirituality between the two. In the first film, Morpheus completely trusts in the prophecy of the Oracle, whereas Neo spends most of the film skeptical of it. While this is at first portrayed as a character flaw of Neo’s, it actually ends up becoming an advantage over Morpheus. Morpheus’ absolutist belief in the Oracle’s teachings makes him rigid. Sure, his beliefs are inspirational, but they also have a glass-like fragility. In The Matrix Reloaded, we learn that “The One” is all part of the Matrix’s plan for humanity; a way of dealing with eventual anomalies. Morpheus completely drops his faith upon this revelation, stating that ” I dreamed a dream, but now that dream is gone from me“. Revolutions shows him to have lost much of the confidence that defined his character to the point where he doesn’t even offer a word of encouragement when the war effort starts going south. When Neo decides to go to the source of the Matrix , Morpheus is unconfindent in his fate , telling Neo that he “can only hope [he] knows what [he’s] doing“.

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Neo on the other hand is resolute in his decision. Neo doesn’t know WHY he should be resolute , but he’s willing to trust his instincts. This is something Morpheus can’t do, he needs the clear prophecies that the Oracle gave him to be as confident. This is why, until Neo makes his sacrifice, Morpheus lacks his trademark proud bearing. Neo is the one who inspires humanity at this point. Niobe, who doesn’t even believe in “The One” begins to have faith in Neo, calling his proposed action “providence”. While Morpheus helped create the spiritual path of Zion , Neo was the one who kept the spirit going once the path became murky. Neo’s skepticism allows for him to fully realize what the Oracle wants him to do; to reject the fatalism inherent in the Matrix. In the series final battle, Smith questions his resolution in continuing to fight when all seemed lost. His response is simple…

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This is ultimately what makes him Zion’s true Messiah and not Morpheus: he doesn’t need a grand narrative to move forward, he only needs choice. Several figures in the series make absolute claims about the nature of the Matrix, including the Oracle. Neo chooses against them in favor of his own whims. Just as Jesus rejected the rule of the ruling religious authorities, Neo rejects the reality the machines have set before him. This allows him to not only defeat Smith, but also rejuvenate the independent spirit of humanity, beginning with his mentor.

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For more posts on Sci-Fi:

A Gullible Breed: What Men In Black Says About Humanity

Three Things About The Thing

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in the Batman Mythos

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“This isn’t Metropolis…this isn’t the city of tomorrow…it’s Gotham,and if you want to see what that means, just check out your squad room”-Gotham Central #7

Superheroes tend to be subversive of law enforcement. Aside from the illegality of vigilantism, it’s difficult to have much respect for a a moderately trained guy with pistol when compared to a billionaire genius ninja detective. Despite this, most superheroes since the induction of the comic code have had genial relations with law enforcement. It helps that superheroes rarely target “mundane” crime. Superman’s enemies tend to be as strong as he is; the X-men stick to “mutant crime” and so on. Despite this, Batman works with the police. Or really, I should say a single policeman: Commissioner Gordon. Mostly because Gotham cops are fucking dicks. Most “gritty” iterations of the franchise portray the police as at best impotent and at worst, as bad as Gotham’s criminals. This element is prevalent enough to even be present in video games such as MMORPG DC Universe Online, where Gotham cops are enemies to hero players.

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Just so you know: he’s a dirty cop

The GCPD’s corruption makes sense for a few reasons. For one, the Batman franchise derives heavily from film noir, a genre with cynical attitudes towards humanity and fate. Even the police can’t be relied upon in the genre; in Frank Miller’s Sin City, every character, no matter their alignment, is wary of the police.

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Sin City

In addition, Batman fights predominantly “normal” people (at least by comic book standards), who the cops should be able to handle. Law enforcement has to be ineffectual in order to justify the need for a Batman. Sometimes they’re just incompetent; Tim Burton’s Batman had a Commissioner Gordon who was nothing more than a face for the police (the guy wears fucking tuxedos to busts).

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Dumbass

Incompetent cops just aren’t enough to get across the dramatic weight of Batman’s quest. Giving the city a culture that enforces crime allows for an even bleaker Gotham to save. This is most prevalent in Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller’s origin story that details the beginning of Bruce Wayne and James Gordon’s careers. We see through Gordon’s introduction that calling the GCPD corrupt would be an understatement…

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The Commissioner even implies that he wants officers who are dirty.

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As you could see, Frank Miller tends to veer towards the “extreme” side of police corruption where everyone is as evil as possible. This isn’t totally ridiculous; LA’s infamous “Rampart scandal” in the 90’s involved a branch of the police called C.R.A.S.H. who literally REWARDED murder and evidence tampering with commendations. In Dekalb County Georgia, corrupt sheriff Sidney Dorsey assembled a group of cops to pose as gang-bangers in order to assassinate his political rival Derwin Brown, showing that even those at the top can be as corrupt as Gotham’s ex-commissioner.

Despite Frank Miller’s extreme depictions, Batman:Year One was considered canonical by DC Comics, meaning that all of the events “really” occurred in continuity. So Gotham’s previous police department ordered a hit on a newborn, blew up a tenement with civilians in the vicinity, and casually beat up teenagers on the street. Holy shit. Miller definitely went with the amoral cops route for police corruption, which works well for his “dark and edgy” stories, but has several unfortunate implications. In Metropolis, we can at least assume that the police department works in the favor of the people’s interest (as one would like to assume of most law enforcement), meaning that we can trust the local government by extension, and thus we can trust the city itself. If Gotham’s cops are corrupt, and its government is corrupt, then the CITY itself is, by default, corrupt. And if that’s true,why should anyone care if it gets saved? As with most superhero works, there are no “normal” people to care about, just heroes and villains. If the police are bad guys too it almost makes Batman’s quest silly (well, silli-er). It’s no wonder why so many antagonists seem to suggest just destroying Gotham; what Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker, and Bane all seem to agree on in the Nolan trilogy is that crime is inherently systemic. It begins from the top and ends at the bottom in the slums of Gotham. Until the police are reformed, the city can’t improve.

250px-GothamCentralCv22 One way to alleviate the unfortunate implications of Gotham’s corruption is by showing that the police force, even when misconducting themselves, have the best intentions. The biggest canonical kinda dirty/kinda good cop in the franchise is Detective Harvey Bullock (to the left). In case you’re wondering, he’s that fat cop in the animated series who’s kind of a douche. In comics, he’s probably the closest thing you get to a sympathetic corrupt cop. He takes bribes, but other cops trust him. He allows a attempted murder suspect’s identity to leak to the mafia, but that’s to avenge Commissioner Gordon. He has ties to the organized crime but uses it to gain info on crimes. He’s complicated.

Strangely enough, despite being quite a staple of the franchise, Bullock doesn’t appear in media outside of the comics and the animated series but is represented by characters who are pretty much the same person. His representatives in the Batman films are decidedly less morally ambiguous. In 1989’s Batman, his stand-in Detective Eckhardt accepts bribes from criminals and attempts to murder the same guys in order to stay out of trouble. In Batman Begins (2005), his stand-in Detective Flass (who for some reason has the name of the guy from Batman: Year One) is just as corrupt. I guess Bullock just looks so unsavory due to his fatness and manner that most adaptations just make him dirty to contrast with Gordon. In addition, comic writers can’t seem to decide if he has good intentions or is just corrupt. The is probably because, no offense to them, most comic writers aren’t capable or willing to get across the conflicts of being an ACTUAL crime fighter. The series Gotham Central goes in this direction, basically turning the Bat mythos into Dragnet with real cops interacting with the rogues gallery the way real cops would. Police misconduct is portrayed in reasonable degrees as opposed to extremes.

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Gotham Central

Gotham Central2 Gotham Central3Sometimes cops have to break the rules in order to get a job done. Sometimes cops just run out of ideas. While these methods aren’t always the best, they are human responses to often difficult scenarios. In the world of Gotham Central, normal cops have to go against men like Mr. Freeze and the Joker, people way outside of their pay-grade. It would be hard to conceive of how would one deal with such threats without being forced or compelled to go outside the line.

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Arguably, the best commentary on police misconduct in Gotham is the character Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), played by Matthew Modine (who oddly enough WASN’T a character from the comics). Remember how I said a cop has to be either corrupt or stupid in order to make Batman look good? Well he manages to do both to a realistic degree.

Foley is introduced talking to Gordon at a high-class party, where Foley tries to convince him to pay attention to crime statistics, which Gordon rejects in favor of his “gut” feelings. He also suggests that he talks to the mayor, which Gordon also dismisses by saying that’s Foley’s department. We get some quick distinctions here between the two: Gordon is more concerned with crime on a personal level that goes beyond statistics, which is all Foley knows about. Gordon doesn’t care about political maneuvering whereas Foley relishes it. If Gordon is the “good cop” than Foley is by default the “bad cop”. He’s not evil at all, only his aims have been “corrupted”. Rather than focusing on public service, he’s more concerned with personal glory. For example, when Batman appears, his main interest is one-upping Gordon to make himself look good by catching him, rather than containing the more immediate threat of Bane’s gang. His lack of “good cop” goals seems to affect his competency as well; when Blake is introduced as another “good cop”, his passion for the job allows him to believe fellow good cop Gordon’s story about soldiers in the sewers, which Foley of course scoffs at. Blake also manages to connect corrupt Wayne Industries board member Roland Daggett to Bane through ambitious detective work, which Gordon implies Foley was supposed to do, but clearly failed. Foley’s lack of “good cop-ness” comes to a head after Bane’s takeover, where he flat out decides to not get involved with the plan to save his fellow officers. Up until this point, the guy seems like a lost cause…until Batman returns to Gotham.

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Eventually, we see the effect the symbol had on Foley during the siege on Bane’s troops, when Foley not only joins the cops, but leads them in full uniform.

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Foley dies doing his duty. The film never elaborates why the symbol of Batman meant so much to Foley then when it didn’t mean anything before, perhaps it was something akin to a “spiritual rebirth” that born-again Christians often allude to. While this could easily be chalked up to sentimentality (and it definitely is), that doesn’t take away from the fact Foley, a cop who seemingly had no more “good cop” left in him, was redeemed by the hope Batman brought. He became a “born-again officer”. In a “realist” scenario that Nolan claims the films take place in, Batman is just a man. He can beat up bad guys but he can’t fight crime alone. As Bruce Wayne postulates in Batman Begins: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy”. For the police officers of Gotham, that meant inspiring them to risk their lives to save their city. This is in stark contrast to The Dark Knight (2008), where many police officers are said to have been in the pocket of organized criminals which culminated in the fall of Harvey Dent. The last film left us with a disturbing view of the GCPD, but this film manages to redeem them along with Foley. The cops retaking of Gotham and Foley’s sacrifice shows what makes Batman (and the superhero in general) such a resonant character: he makes us want to be better.

For commentary on the questionable morals of Batman himself: 

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 3: Noble Savages

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If you haven’t, read the first two parts in the series, “Cornball Brothers” and “Black Supermen”

While black male caricatures have vacillated heavily over the years,  some have stuck more than others. The most prevalent ones refer to black men’s “badassery” (I missed out on that gene). This has roots in the slave trade where “big black bucks” often got attention from slave owners due to their strength and stamina. In the same way a pet owner can feel a sense of pride in a pet’s prowess, slave owners were able to feel a sense of pride in what their slaves did. It didn’t help that blacks were also bred as chattel by forced mating, which caused whites to associate them with “bestial” sexuality. While these attributes furthered the separation of slaves and owners (and thus lessened slaves’ humanity), it also created an odd sort of respect towards the slaves. Everyone wants physical and sexual prowess, even if it is due to circumstance. As I mentioned in my reflections on Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, black male fetishism exists because of these perceived strengths. And it actually makes a lot of sense: the often-invoked narrative of the “negro’s journey” is a more “American” tale than actual white Americans; a group of people under the thumb of an oppressive government eventually break free and forge their own identity. Sounds familiar?

Americans’ collective pride is commonly attributed to our perserverance, adaptability, and boldness. We frame our progenitors as romantic warrior-kings, not politicians or ambassadors. America LOVES tough rebels, it’s how we were born. Once African-Americans became more prevalent in media, they became perfect racial shorthand for badass rebels due to their history.

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Most attribute the first “badass” portrayals of African-Americans to 70’s “blaxpoitation” films. These films were defined by the presence of all black casts in mostly action or crime dramas. Most of these protagonists were anti-heroes (due to their propensity for violence and promiscuity), but also could be considered “noble savages” which (according to Wikipedia) “expresses the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other”. The most common target of this trope has been Native Americans, who’s virtues were praised by Benjamin Franklin and have been romanticized in films such as Dancing With Wolves (1990)and The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Unlike Native Americans , modern African Americans’ are romanticized for their urban prowess: in the same way that the traditional “noble savage” embodies an earthy power, the black equivalent has adapted to the urban jungle; thus developing street smarts, comfort with violence, and sexual bravado. As such, many of these films established the locale before anything else, examples including Super Fly (1972), Black Caesar (1973)and of course, Shaft (1971).

Even films that didn’t place in the city ( or even the appropriate time period ) had a modern funk soundtrack to generate the “urban” miasma anyway, like the film Boss Nigger (1974) which is a western.

Probably the biggest element of this archetype is it’s intense sexual power. Before blaxpoitation films, the only times mainstream media alluded to black male’s sexuality was to demonize it, most horrifically shown in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915) where a black Union soldier attempt at raping a white woman leads to her jumping off a cliff. If that were Shaft, the only place that white woman would have jumped into was his leopard printed bed. The ultimate threat of black male autonomy that Birth of A Nation alluded to was the corruption of the white race by black rapists. Black male sexuality was a threat to whites, which helped create a mystique among some women about what’s so “wrong” about it. This was helped by more attractive black figures in mainstream media like athletes and actors. This made viable the “romantic” black heroes we see in blaxpoitation films, who had the “terrifying” sexual aspects of previous characters, but in a more attractive way. The film considered the first blaxpoitation film is Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song (1971) (and yes,that’s spelled right), which centers on the titular sex performer Sweetback attempting to go to Mexico after interfering with police brutality. Or at least that’s what Peebles claims it’s about; i’d call it an overly long porn movie.

sweet5pThe character of Sweetback is such a sexual dynamo that his first sexual experience is as a fourteen year old boy being propositioned by a hooker (for FREE,mind you) and his large penis and prowess leads her to dub him “Sweetback”. As you can see in the picture above, even white women aren’t immune to his charms. What’s funny is that he has sex with the white woman to actually gain the support of the biker gang surrounding them. One could argue that the spectacle he creates for the audience in-universe represents the spectacle blacks in this genre created for the American audience. Of course blacks were happy to see romantic protagonists, but it’s important to remember that these were mainstream films that whites saw as well (not to mention these films were almost entirely directed by whites). Why these audiences enjoyed these portrayals has been controversial for years: was black masculinity being celebrated or, as the genre’s title insinuates, being exploited in the same way it was during slavery? Was Sweetback a performer or a prostitute?

The notion of “exploitation” has always been a bit murky. Romanticizing a race puts them in a positive light but also caricaturizes them. Portraying East Asians as skilled in math turns them into two-dimensional cartoons and ignores the nuances of their culture. But at the same time, aren’t we supposed to celebrate these differences? It is an important part of East Asian culture to be skilled in math so shouldn’t that be acknowledged?

In the 19th century, the theatrical tradition of “blackface” (where white men made up their faces to appear African American) was at it’s highest.

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For some reason, a lot of people found this kind of offensive

Blackface performances went beyond just make up and involved vaudevillian comedy and upbeat singing and dancing (as seen here). This popularized the “ever-jovial shine” stereotype which persisted until guys like Malcolm X started scaring white people. This form of art is almost unanimously denounced by the African American community, to the point where any white man who puts on brown makeup is immediately given negative attention, as actor Ted Danson found out in regards to his controversial award show outfit at the roast of Whoopi Goldberg.

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One of the most famous practitioners of this art was Al Jolson (pictured above). One would assume Jolson would have no respect for African Americans due to his routines, but reality suggests the opposite. In Al Jolson: A Biography (2003), he describes his love of blackface was because it “gave [him] a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known“. He was also one of the first non-black civil rights supporters back in 1911, openly fighting theater restrictions against black attendance. Even if it was an affectation for the sake of whites, much of early African American culture was shaped by enthusiastic song and dance.  The slaves often enjoyed it as much as the owners, hence why it was adapted into art forms like jazz and ragtime. Jolson, a Russian Jew who knew the hardships of discrimination, took solace in the exuberant method of coping that blacks developed. Film historian Eric Lott feels as if this attitude pertained to other blackface performers as well:

For the white minstrel man to put on the cultural forms of ‘blackness’ was to engage in a complex affair of manly mimicry…. To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon, or gaité de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood.”

Like blackface performances, blaxpoitation films allowed for an audience to “put on the face” of black manhood Lott alludes to. The strengths and struggles of the heroes become our own and we immediately recognize them. Who doesn’t want to “stick it to the man”? Who doesn’t want women to lust after them? This sentiment carries over to modern media as well, primarily in hip hop music. Just as whites reveled in the abandon of blackface, suburban whites get the chance to revel in a world they fear yet wish they were “strong” enough to live in. Does this kind of art pander to the lowest common denominator? Pretty much. But what is art if not a way to connect people together? Is it the best thing in the world that the first black person people think of is 50 Cent? No, but at least it’s something that brings African Americans into the mainstream. At one point blacks weren’t even hired to be in film (Birth of A Nation had whites play blacks, for example). As much as I bristle at filmmakers like Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, they are at least getting some amazing black actors a chance to become household names. And this was partially due to the “big black bucks” and “ever-jovial shines” of Hollywood’s past.

For most posts on Afro American History in Media:

Black Masculinity In Narrative Media Part 1: Cornball Brothers

Black Masculinity In Narrative Media Part 2: Black Supermen

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

For those who would care enough to buy it, there’s a great documentary titled White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books which inspired some of this post and the previous one. You can find it here:

http://newsreel.org/video/WHITE-SCRIPTS-BLACK-SUPERMEN