"What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars?" comedian Chris Rock impishly asked, a few days before hosting the show. Well, I did, and I saw three straight black men play starring roles -- Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman, who won the two awards for male actors, and Rock himself. I'm probably too optimistic, but maybe, just maybe, it will turn out to be a cultural milestone, the end of an era in which black men on celluloid had to represent either pathology or salvation.
The pathology part is familiar, and host Rock (who tuned himself down to Rock Lite) lampooned it with his bit about how films meant to appeal to black audiences don't even have proper titles, just place names -- "Barbershop," "Car Wash" and so on. Could "Laundromat" and "Check-Cashing Place" be far behind?
The joke didn't seem to electrify the assembled Hollywood aristocracy, but I'll bet it resonated with black viewers. Even more provocative was Rock's taped visit to the inner-city Magic Johnson cineplex, where he asked moviegoers, most of them black, whether they had seen "Million Dollar Baby" or any of the rest of the Oscar-nominated films. No, said the respondents, but they had loved the Wayans brothers' shuck-and-jive-fest, "White Chicks."
The truth is that many African Americans are ambivalent about these "pathology" films in which black men are either buffoons or vicious criminals. We decry them, but we also pay to see them. Are we so brainwashed that we don't care about movies in which black men are complex, rounded characters? I think not -- when Hollywood makes "Ray" or "Training Day," we spend money to see them, too. Lots of money.
With his best-actor Oscar, Foxx joins Denzel Washington and Will Smith on the short list of black men certified to play multifaceted roles in big-budget movies. Smith, with the huge opening of his new comedy "Hitch," has even officially become Hollywood's top box-office draw. I'd conclude that the millennium has truly arrived, but films showing black men as more than one-dimensional are still few and far between.
Much more common are the "salvation" roles in which black characters exist to provide moral, spiritual or even supernatural guidance to white characters. It's been called the "Magic Negro" syndrome (a term I first encountered in a Time magazine column by my friend Jack White). Think Whoopi Goldberg as the medium in "Ghost," reuniting Demi Moore with the deceased Patrick Swayze. Or Michael Clarke Duncan as the otherworldly giant who heals Tom Hanks's soul in "The Green Mile." Or Lawrence Fishburne as Morpheus in the "Matrix" trilogy, helping Keanu Reeves find his inner superhero.
Morgan Freeman, a great actor who received a well-deserved Oscar for best supporting actor, has been an all-purpose dispenser of salvation during his long and distinguished career. He redeemed Jessica Tandy in "Driving Miss Daisy" and Tim Robbins in "The Shawshank Redemption." He played God in "Bruce Almighty." And now he finally wins his Oscar for "Million Dollar Baby," in which -- again -- he is wise, compassionate, subsidiary to the main characters, and instructively moral to the bone.
Not to take anything away from Freeman's talent and accomplishment, but these "salvation" roles make me angrier than the "pathology" ones. Maybe it's the fact that the white characters change and grow and develop over the course of a two-hour movie, with the black characters' guidance, but the black characters themselves stay the same -- they're more like objects, dramatic foils, than real people. Or maybe it's just my having grown up in the South in the early 1960s, and reacting viscerally to images of black subservience. As far as I'm concerned, Miss Daisy can drive her own damn self.
But I said I was optimistic, and I am. Morgan Freeman has his Oscar now, so maybe Hollywood will give him a suitable leading role, which he richly deserves. Maybe even a love scene. And most encouraging of all, Jamie Foxx won for portraying a man, Ray Charles, of rococo complexity -- steadfast husband and shameless womanizer, musical genius and heroin addict, a giver of great joy who spent his life fighting inner monsters that threatened to consume his soul.
How great: a black man in the movies who isn't a tuxedoed waiter carrying a silver tray of salvation but a guest at the table waiting to be served.
Chris Rock may have presided over the Oscar show that obliterates his no-straight-black-men rule. I'm hoping that "salvation" is on the wane, that "pathology" keeps to its niche, and that Hollywood will give me more reason to feel invested in who gets a golden statue and who doesn't.