Almost unremarked, blacks have come to dominate American popular culture. According to Variety, there are now more blacks on network television than ever before, and the only certified hit of the new season is the "The Cosby Show" (last week, it led the Nielsens). In music, four names top everyone's list: Michael Jackson, Prince, Lionel Ritchie and Tina Turner -- all black. And in movies, Eddie Murphy has emerged as the leading box-office attraction of his generation.
Murphy's "Beverly Hills Cop" and Prince's "Purple Rain" were two of last year's big hits. And the new "Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon" grossed $6 million last week, on a weekend crowded with new releases. Even "A Soldier's Story," a serious black drama with a largely unknown cast, has grossed $20 million so far -- considering its small budget, that's a nice profit.
When I outlined this one night for a pundit grounded in rational economics, his answer was simple. There are a bunch of talented black performers around, he said, and the industry is particularly open to them. The invisible hand, clenched in a righteous salute.
Perhaps it is as obvious as that. But in culture, as in dreams, things are rarely that simple.
Blacks have long been shunted to the perimeter of the film industry -- they tap-danced through supporting roles, pigeonholed as squealing maids and gravel-voiced butlers. On the fringes, an indigenous black film culture, films made by blacks for blacks, dates at least to the '20s (a cache of such films was recently unearthed by professor G. William Jones of Southern Methodist University). Such films were independently produced and distributed, shown mostly in the South.
Sidney Poitier emerged as a black star in the mainstream in the '50s and '60s, but the films he made (and others of that period) tended to be more about whites' problems with blacks than about blacks themselves. The breakthrough came with Ossie Davis' "Cotton Comes to Harlem" in 1970. Based on the novel policier by black expatriate Chester Himes, this comedy/mystery about a preacher ripping off the poor starred blacks, was set in a black ghetto, yet proved a box-office success (in other words, it won a white audience).
What followed was a mixed bag, ranging from earnest, serious dramas (the Oscar-nominated "Sounder") to avant-garde black power tracts (the films of Melvin van Peebles) to standard action fare ("Shaft") to exotic street fantasies ("Superfly").
But the spate of black movies was short-lived, dribbling off into what became known as the "blaxploitation" genre ("Blacula"). Partly, this was the work of television, which took over both the comic low ground ("Good Times") and the moral high ground ("Roots").
Mostly, though, it was the work of studio executives' perception of the marketplace. According to Hollywood's logic, white audiences wouldn't "cross over" to black movies; and the black moviegoing audience wasn't large enough to recoup the ever-escalating costs of making movies. More important, black movies performed poorly in foreign markets, at a time when foreign sales had evolved as the chief insurance policy against domestic box-office failure. With the exception of Richard Pryor, blacks were pariahs in Hollywood.
In a way, when blacks broke back into the movies last year, nobody wanted it to happen; it violated the rules that made the reputations of the marketing geniuses. "A Soldier's Story," "Purple Rain" and "The Last Dragon" (and, to a lesser extent, "Beverly Hills Cop") had to come in the back door, make it on their own terms. The result has been a boon for audiences, movies with a ring of authenticity in a film culture that is profoundly synthetic, movies that combine entertainment with a subtext of seriousness.
Of the four, "A Soldier's Story," rereleased this week at the Key Theater, is the most overtly serious and artistically the least interesting. Charles Fuller adapted the movie from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which was structured as a timeworn whodunit with all the problems inherent in the genre. Once you know that Colonel Mustard did it in the kitchen with a wrench, the story loses all interest -- there's no reason to watch it again.
"A Soldier's Story" is a continuation of the Poitier genre, and its dubious nostrum is the same -- that heroism for blacks lies in the cultivation of a diamond-hard sense of dignity. Dignity, of course, should be as available to blacks as it is to everyone. The problem is that in brawling, rash, crass America, dignity has never been at a premium. America is larger than life, and dignity rather smaller -- it's no accident that there are no American saints.
What advances "A Soldier's Story" beyond the usual civil rights melodrama is that it's not about white racism, but about black self-hatred. What might have been an open-and-shut case (black soldier killed in redneck town) is complicated by the fact that his black charges hated him, and he hated them, "geechies" who, so easily patronized, made the advancement of blacks like himself impossible. "A Soldier's Story" shows how the drive for equality created pressures that tore blacks apart -- it gives us the civil rights struggle from a uniquely black perspective. Despite its mousetrap structure, it's an extraordinarily daring movie.
In a white-dominated society, the black is Ralph Ellison's "invisible man," who only exists as whites see him. Such alienation is intolerable, and the solution is to take the white man's images and, by a sort of jujitsu, use them against him. Such is the genius of Eddie Murphy. He has been scolded for pandering to black stereotypes, for the "Buckwheat" and "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" sketches on "Saturday Night Live"; according to his liberal critics, he's simply giving white people what they want, endorsing (via his very blackness) the kind of comfortable condescension that harkens back to the '50s. This is the Reagan Era, goes the logic, and we are moving backwards in time.
But by telling half the story, these critics miss the point. Demeaning black stereotypes, after all, were black creations -- and in one sense a brilliant defense against the white man; some blacks fell unconsciously into the pattern, but some knew exactly what they were doing. Playing Buckwheat was a sly joke (the kind of thing that the Indians in E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" talked about when the British weren't around). Murphy, by letting white people in on the joke, actually subverts the stereotype.
The strategy is underscored by the way Murphy slides effortlessly into the other black stereotype: the black man as violence personified, as sexual superman and physical menace. That was the essence of his bravura scene in "48 Hrs.," in which he announced "I am your worst nightmare" to a bar full of yahoos and brought them to their knees; it's the way he bluffs his way into a customs warehouse in "Beverly Hills Cop." Quite blatantly, it's all an act (in "Beverly Hills Cop," he even instructs a black cop in the proper cadences). Murphy segues seamlessly through black characters that inspire condescension and fear and liberal guilt (the black man turned away from the Beverly Palm Hotel); and in so doing, he questions all of them.
"Beverly Hills Cop" is a very funny movie, but to say that's all it is is like calling "Huckleberry Finn" a boy's book. This tale of a sweatshirted detective in a beat-up Chevy spieling his way through a ritzy foreign environment is a parable of black America, of the perennial outsider surviving by his wits, who breaks the rules (search warrants, for example) because they've been broken against him so many times before.
One of the joys of "Beverly Hills Cop" lies in Murphy's vivid, pell-mell monologues, the way he uses language as a weapon. In "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin remarked on "something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech -- and something of Dickens' love for bravura." Black language evolved as a sort of code to keep the white man out; it coruscates with unflagging inventiveness, a healthy irreverence for the rules of grammar and diction, a flair for metaphor, a heightened sense of English's rhythms and sonority.
The great talker of "Purple Rain" is Morris Day, Prince's antagonist. For Day, language is a particular kind of weapon -- a weapon of seduction. Trying to charm the lovely Apollonia, he flatters her, "Your lips would make a lollipop too happy." Day's in love with his own words -- he giggles maniacally after each zinger. A scene with his valet, Jerome, discussing a secret password, echoes Abbot and Costello's "Who's on first?" shtick, but it's even better -- the syncopated rhythms of their byplay grow as mesmerizing as a Hal Roach solo.
Language in "The Last Dragon" is a whirligig that inspires a kind of vertigo. Louis Venosta's brilliant script spins with puns and put-downs and rhymes upon rhymes. The movie slyly parodies square whites who can't tune into this verbal brio -- a white mobster, for example, calls archvillain Sho'Nuff, the self-styled Shogun of Harlem, "Mr. Nuff." And the hero, a black martial artist who has adopted Oriental ways, has to be tutored by his little brother, a midget motormouth, in the art of slang (he walks down the street rehearsing, "What it is?" "What it be like?" in the cadences of Charlie Chan).
Styles of dress in these movies are as vivid as language. Prince knocks around in an Edwardian get-up of frock coats and ruffled shirts; Murphy may wear a sweatshirt in "Beverly Hills Cop," but in L.A. that's style, and in "48 Hrs." he dons Armani suits that follow his lead the way Rogers followed Astaire; and the Shogun of Harlem wears flamboyant satin pants-suits. When Morris Day appears on stage, his valet, Jerome, appears with a mirror so he can comb his already combed hair. "Cutting a figure," in black culture, serves the same function as language -- it's a defense against anomie. "Am I the prettiest?" queries the Shogun of his meinie, who reliably answer, "Sho'nuff!"
There is a dishonesty at the center of "Beverly Hills Cop." Murphy, the lithe, attractive stud who swaggered through "48 Hrs." obsessed with "getting some trim," is castrated; he buddies around with Lisa Eilbacher, a streamlined beauty who seems to have emerged from the womb in a clingy knit dress, and never makes a pass at her. A sexual threat emanates willy-nilly from Murphy, but it's nowhere in the story. Yet sexual superiority is warp and woof of the black myth (the hero of "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song" makes his living from "doing the thing," and gets out of more than one scrape that way) and even a burden (like the Don Juan complex in Italy, no one can live up to it).
"Purple Rain," on the other hand, finds its fulcrum in sex. Prince has set himself up as a sort of messiah of the orgasm -- you half expect to find him sitting in an orgone box. He's so macho, he can dress in ruffles and pomade his curly mess of hair like a girl's. At the beginning, he seduces women by abusing them (he tricks Apollonia into jumping in the lake), and he treats the women in his band like sled dogs; his "bad angel" is, again, Day, who, early in the movie, has his valet toss a woman in a dumpster.
Leroy Green, the hero of "The Last Dragon," undergoes the same transformation, from the other side. There's something effeminate in the way he avoids both sex and conflict (his little brother tells him as much); but the movie also makes it easy to understand why. The only alternative to Leroy's childlike meekness is Sho'Nuff's brutal bravado (he's more than Superfly -- he's Ultrafly). The flamboyant misogyny of Morris Day, the superstud excesses of Sho'Nuff, appear in mythic form, as an accepted way of being a black man that seems to brook no alternatives.
The achievement of "Purple Rain" and "The Last Dragon" is that they find a middle ground. By the end, Prince discovers that misogyny is a dead end; he even plays a song composed by the members of his band. Leroy, similarly, acts against Sho'Nuff and wins the girl, without disrupting his essential sweetness. Three cheers for the Sensitive Man!
George Trow once remarked that there are two communities in modern America: the community of 200 million and the community of one. If, as Trow implies, we are all outsiders, that's one reason blacks make such attractive heroes. And because there is a unified, centralized, national culture, we work out our traumas in public; movies work on us like dreams, a way to cleanse the soul. And nothing, of course, needs to be purged more than what remains "the peculiar institution" of race.
In this context, these movies offer hope. White people are going to see them, and admire their heroes; white kids are memorizing Eddie Murphy's monologues and singing Prince's songs. An identifiably black style like Prince's or Murphy's is avowedly self-created: Prince, after all, is the product of a biracial household, and his band is racially mixed; Murphy is a middle-class suburban kid from Long Island, and (to update Tolstoy) all suburban kids are alike. Implicit in the way Murphy switches masks is the message that black characters, Buckwheat and Badass, can be played by anyone.
The popularity of "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Purple Rain" has made racial flair a species of attire attractively displayed in a great Bloomingdale's of the soul. This strategy is made explicit in "The Last Dragon." Leroy plays Chinese; his father, owner of a black pizza parlor named Daddy Green's, plays Italian; and a crew of Chinese, slinking around their boom box like the Temptations, plays black.
What these movies suggest is a way to steer between the Scylla of segregation and the Charybdis of liberalism, between a hateful, fragmented society and a bland one in which everyone is equal because everyone is alike. According to "The Last Dragon," you can, on any given day, be black or Chinese or Italian, regardless of birthright. Race isn't indelible, but it isn't flattened, either; it's freed from genes and made available to the will, as the rootedness of racial style evanesces in absurdity.