For some mindless summer fun, I went to see "Total Recall," an insane, action-packed, blood-and-guts movie that attracts Arnold Schwarzenegger cult fans such as myself.
With stale popcorn and watered down cola in hand, I was having a pretty good time, howling, squealing and moaning at the sight and sounds of destruction.
But then came this scene in which the only black guy in the movie -- a likable fellow, a humorous sidekick out of the Eddie Murphy mold -- turns out to be a traitor.
Up until this point, this character had been cultivated in a way that allowed him to grow on the audience, win our trust and make us laugh as he used comic bravery to help Schwarzenegger advance his heroic cause. He was the kind of black character who ordinarily would never live to see the end of a movie -- but maybe, just because he was Old Arnie's friend, you figured this one just might hang in there long enough to see the credits roll.
Instead, it was as if someone in Hollywood suddenly decided, "This black man is becoming too likable and we can't have that!" So the character is recast as an undercover mutant miscreant with the arm of some slimy insect.
Not only does the black guy cause the murder of innocent people, he puts at risk the life of the hero, whom he had spent the first half of the movie trying to save.
The audience, black and white, reacted with vocal disappointment. "What?" some screamed. Like, who thought of this twist? It was a real downer. People sunk into their seats, "Ah naw," they moaned.
Now I'm not one of those moviegoers who believe that all black characters must be good guys -- and I'm certainly accustomed to having the only black guy die before the movie ends. But having black guys portrayed as underhanded, conniving traitors really annoys me, to put it mildly.
The reaction of the audience to this betrayal was the same as it was in another so-called summer blockbuster that I saw, "Die Harder." In it, a strong black man, an Army major assigned to lead the strike force against international terrorists, befriends white hero Bruce Willis. As in "Total Recall," the audience is led to believe that the two would become buddy-buddy.
All of sudden, the black major pulls out a knife and cuts the throat of an innocent Army recruit. He's not a strike force leader. He's a traitor too.
The white guy next to me in the theater sat up in his seat, dejected. "Aw hell," he drawled.
Of course, in the wake of betrayal, the black characters become repositories of anger and disgust.
In both films, I was struck by the absence of black women. But given the way black men were treated, it was probably just as well that they were not subject to the same kind of degradation.
What disappointing shows to kick off the summer of 1990. For a while, it appeared that blacks were making progress on the movie set, with black and white men paired off as buddies throughout the past decade. Of course, as black film historian Donald Bogle has noted, "More often than not, the black performer functions as a sidekick, or blesses his white friend with a tender loyalty and imparts some comforting spiritual insight."
But it was a start.
We had moved from the "Rocky" series with Carl Weathers and Sylvester Stallone, through "Officer and a Gentleman" with Richard Gere and Louis Gossett Jr., and on to "Lethal Weapon," with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and "48 Hours," with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte.
A lot of this was quite superficial and, in Bogle's view, avoided the complex and often contradictory dynamics of real interracial friendships. But it was better than seeing Will Rogers and Stepin' Fetchit or Jack Benny and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.
With "Total Recall" and "Die Harder," I left the theater feeling that Hollywood's modicum of progress had done more than simply come to a halt. With the advent of black betrayal as a theme, Tinseltown had taken a turn for the worse.