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TheRootDC
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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/24/2012

Chronicle and the myth of the ‘Magic Negro’

This movie review contains spoilers.

So I’m pretty conflicted about this movie “Chronicle”. It’s a movie about high school kids who gain telekinetic abilities and the impact on each of their lives as a result. It’s a cool idea that’s well executed, especially the digital effects.


From left, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, and Dane DeHaan are shown in a scene from "Chronicle." (Alan Markfield - AP)
Some are framing it as the first superhero story told in the “found footage” genre — a style originated by “The Blair Witch Project “and popularized by the “Paranormal Activity “ series, where what the audiences sees is supposedly edited video footage shot by one of the characters in the story — leading to an edgier, often “shaky cam” style. (However, the energy spent trying to come up with excuses to have characters recording themselves seems a bit silly and distracting when I don’t think the audience cares all that much.)

But Chronicle isn’t a superhero movie as much as it’s a movie about drug addiction. In that edgy, testosterone-fueled kind of way, there is a definite strain of “Jackass“-ery in the flick, and most of the action takes place in that cultural space: rambunctious young men addressing their suburban ennui by pushing the limits of their abilities with the aid of an, ahem, “transformative element.” In “Jackass,” it’s alcohol, crank or whatever those guys are on. In “Chronicle,” it’s telekinesis.

And telekinesis is a hell of a drug.

(Or is it power?)

The film is clever in its knowledge that everybody handles drugs differently: Some become addicts, some use it for recreational enhancement, and others use it as a “creative aide.” And this is the layout of “Chronicle” pretty much as exemplified by the three central characters. There’s the alienated nerd, the happy-go-lucky class president and the good-hearted stoner.

They seem destined to come into conflict with one another, but can you guess who lives and who dies? Of course the alienated nerd becomes the addict and goes the dark side. And after the lovable class president (a pitch-perfect performance by the accurately/unfortunately named actor Michael E. Jordan) is murdered/struck by lightning, the good-hearted stoner ultimately has to confront the power-mad nerdy guy. But why did the happy-go-lucky (black) guy have to die?

Now I don’t want to be “that guy” and say the class president had to go because he was black, but...there IS a pattern. Some will say “c’mon man, he was class president! He was nice, smart, talented, friendly, sexually confident, what else do you want?” and I will say “I want him to survive to the end of the movie.”

And others may say that’s just good screenwriting, raising the stakes and all that, but ... really? They couldn’t team up? Don’t get me wrong, I have to give the filmmakers (Josh Trank and Max Landis) props for a cool movie. They seemed well intentioned enough.

There are much larger systemic issues going on that probably explain the phenomenon of the good black character dying – but I do find this martyred-magic-Negro-as-gatekeeper-to-greatness a particularly poignant brand of soft social control. The “talented black guy” is too often an object meant to be consumed by white main characters, helping them reach their “full potential.”

This is the world we live in. We don’t get black protagonists who are driven to avenge the tragic death of their joyful, talented and sexually confident white friend. But if you’re gonna be cool and next level, like I think this movie was in other ways, then go all the way with it. It’s the difference between a B+ and an A- in my book.

It’s a lot like one of my other favorite movies from last year, “X-MEN: First Class.” So they invented a black taxi driver character named Darwin and then martyred him? There has to be a better way to build dramatic tension in these generally cool popcorn movies.

Could it be a “tearing down while raising up” cultural phenomenon going on? Are we looking at the modern equivalent of those pre-Civil War entrepreneurs who would secretly free slaves only to capture and sell them back to the very same owners?

And speaking of martyrs — I have this sneaking feeling that Denzel will die at the end of “Safehouse” after helping a well-meaning but misguided Ryan Reynolds “self-actualize.” He seems too hardcore in the previews to be allowed to live (kind of like he was in “Glory”or “Training Day”or “Fallen”or “Deja Vu” or “The Book of Eli.”

But like I said, I think Max Landis and his friends are well intentioned. I just want them to be careful to not be part of the problem.

But they seem like nice kids:

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By Paul Francis  |  11:00 AM ET, 02/24/2012

Categories:  The Root DC Live

 
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