Morgan Freeman plays God in "Bruce Almighty;" Laurence Fishburne a demigod in "The Matrix Reloaded," and Queen Latifah a ghetto goddess in "Bringing Down the House."
What's the deal with the holy roles?
Every one of the actors has to help a white guy find his soul or there won't be a happy ending. Bruce (Jim Carrey) won't get the girl. Neo (Keanu Reeves) won't become the next Messiah. And klutzy guy Peter (Steve Martin) won't get his groove on.
In movie circles, this figure is known as a "magic Negro," a term that dates back to the late 1950s, around the time Sidney Poitier sacrifices himself to save Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones." Spike Lee, who satirizes the stereotype in 2000's "Bamboozled," goes even further and denounces the stereotype as the "super-duper magical Negro."
"[Filmmakers] give the black character special powers and underlying mysticism," says Todd Boyd, author of "Am I Black Enough for You?" and co-writer of the 1999 film "The Wood." "This goes all the way back to 'Gone with the Wind.' Hattie McDaniel is the emotional center, but she is just a pawn. Pawns help white people figure out what's going wrong and fix it, like Whoopi Goldberg's psychic in 'Ghost.' "
It isn't that the actors or the roles aren't likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives. For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters. Sometimes they walk out of the mists like Will Smith's angelic caddy in "The Legend of Bagger Vance." Thanks to Vance, the pride of Savannah (Matt Damon) gets his "authentic swing" back.
A case of the yips hardly seems to call for divine intervention, but then neither does Carrey's crisis in "Bruce Almighty." He's a TV funny guy who wants to be a news anchor. After he loses out to another contender, he verbally lambastes the Lord (played by Freeman with as much dignity as he can muster), and the Lord takes an interest.
Freeman's God can walk on water. But when He first appears, God is mopping the floors. Yes, He humbles Himself to teach the title character, Bruce, about humility. He then hands his powers over to him, popping in from time to time to save the world from Bruce's bumbling.
In "The Family Man," a 2000 version of "It's a Wonderful Life," Don Cheadle turns up as Cash, a meddlesome guardian angel disguised as a street tough. Cash shows Wall Street wheeler-dealer Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) how things would have been if he hadn't ditched his college sweetheart to pursue his career. When the fantasy ends, Jack must choose between love or money. Thanks to Cash, Jack has a chance to make amends for his capitalistic piggishness. Cue the heavenly chorus.
"Historically, if a black person is thrust into a white universe, it is inevitable that the white people will become a better person," says Thomas Cripps, author of "Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era" and other books on African American cinema. "Sidney Poitier spent his whole career in this position. Sidney actually carried the cross for Jesus in 'The Greatest Story Ever Told.' "
In 1943 alone, black men became the moral conscience of white characters in four World War II movies: "Sahara," "Bataan," "Crash Dive" and "Life Boat." Cripps is especially fond of the example set by actor Rex Ingram in "Sahara," the tale of a tank full of men lost in the desert. "When they decide to get rid of somebody so the rest can survive, who stands up and says, 'We either all live or we all die together'? Ingram. The black man becomes the spokesman for Western democracy."
Like Ingram's soldier and Queen Latifah's salty soul sister, many black exemplars don't have halos, but they still work miracles. Her Highness's performance "is especially unusual because most of these characters are male," says Jacqueline Bobo, chair of women's studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "When women do show up, they end up in exoticized roles like Halle Berry's in 'Monsters Ball.' "
Cedric Robinson, author of "Black Marxism" and a colleague of Bobo's at UCSB, says, "Males, more problematic in the American imagination, have become ghostly. The black male simply orbits above the history of white supremacy. He has no roots, no grounding. In that context, black anger has no legitimacy, no real justification. The only real characters are white. Blacks are kind of like Tonto, whose name meant fool."
Audiences -- black and white -- seem to be accepting of these one-note roles, judging by the financial success of "Bringing Down the House," which brought in about $130 million, and "Bruce Almighty," which has raked in $149 million and was ranked No. 2 at the box office last week.
And yet other viewers and most critics were appalled by the extreme odd-couple comedy "Bringing Down the House," in which Charlene (Latifah), an obnoxious escaped con, invades the staid bourgeois universe of Peter (Martin), the uptight suburbanite.
Charlene not only shows Peter how to jump, jive and pleasure a woman, but teaches his son to read (a nudie magazine piques the tyke's interest), saves his daughter from a date-rapist and then reunites him with his estranged wife. And she does it all while pretending to be Peter's maid.
"If you were to say to the average person playing God was representative of a stereotype, you would get a curious look," Boyd says. "People are uninformed. They see a black man playing God and that's a good thing. The same principle is at work when it comes to 'Bringing Down the House.' People know she had a hand in creating the movie, so everything must be okay. White people and black people are getting along and having fun. Isn't that great?"
Aaron McGruder, creator of "The Boondocks" comic strip, didn't think so. He upbraided Latifah for her "less-than-dignified and racially demeaning performance." His character Huey e-mailed Latifah, informing her that the "Almighty Council of Blackness has unanimously voted to revoke your 'Queen' status."
The mystic icon that first comes to mind with many of today's moviegoers and film aficionados is Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile." Duncan received an Oscar nomination for the role of gentle giant John Coffey, a healer wrongly convicted of murdering two children. In the movie, Coffey cures the jaded prison guard of corrosive cynicism and a kidney infection. He also saves the lives of the warden's wife and the prison mouse.
Ariel Dorfman sees sinister forces, something disturbing in such portrayals. "The magic Negro is an easy way of making the characters and the audiences happy. And I am for happiness, but the real joy of art is to reveal certain intractable ways in which humans interact. This phenomenon may be a way of avoiding confrontation," says Dorfman, a playwright, poet and cultural critic.
"The black character helps the white character, which demonstrates that [the former] feels this incredible interest in maintaining the existing society. Since there is no cultural interchange, the character is put there to give the illusion that there is cultural crossover to satisfy that need without actually addressing the issue," Dorfman says.
"As a Chilean, however, I sense that maybe deep inside, mainstream Americans somehow expect those who come from the margins will save them emotionally and intellectually."
Damon Lee, producer of the hard-hitting satire "Undercover Brother," has come up with a similarly intriguing hypothesis drawn from personal experience. "The white community has been taught not to listen to black people. I truly feel that white people are more comfortable with black people telling them what to do when they are cast in a magical role. They can't seem to process the information in any other way," he says.
"Whoever is king of the jungle is only going to listen to someone perceived as an equal. That is always going to be the case. The bigger point is that no minority can be in today's structure. Somehow the industry picked up on that."
Robert McKee, who has taught screenwriting to about 40,000 writers, actors and producers, says, "Try to see [the issue] from a writer's POV. He or she wants to be PC. But you can't expect writers to think like sociologists. They aren't out there trying to change the world; they are just trying to tell a good story."
Morpheus (Fishburne), named for the Greek god of dreams, has an interesting mission, to ensure the rise of the messiah, Neo (Reeves). But Morpheus is the ultimate outsider. He and 100,000 or so others have been enslaved by the Matrix.
Morpheus, a captain in the war against the Matrix, is both a free-thinking renegade and a religious zealot. In other words, he is more complex than similar characters. But his powers are in the service of the chosen one.
Such a worthy cause is no consolation for those who would prefer a fulfilling life of their own, rather than the power to change someone else's. Especially if the souls being saved aren't really in dire straits.