The damsel in distress rescued by the white knight has been a storyline in Anglo-Saxon European fiction for centuries. If the black hero was not protecting the chastity of the white woman or the safety of white people, he had no longevity as a leading character-hero type.
Matthew Hughely, PhD., Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University wrote in an article in a California Journal, “While African-American characters are now more than stereotypes of “mammies,” “coons,” and “bucks,” as they currently portray lawyers, doctors, and gods, they seemed welcomed only if they observe certain limits imposed upon them by main stream, normative conventions. The mainstream normative convention and scared cow in the Hollywood movie theme, in my opinion, no matter what other elements the story used to entertain us was and is, the white woman must be saved in the end.
From the concept of creating a self, we create heroes. In American film, the black hero only got to taste the sweetness of a private revenge, if he got to taste it at all. His audience may have rejoiced, but there was no revenge and victory for the people—his people. In Django Unchained, even the slaves on the plantation got to rejoice and the slaves being transported by slave catchers got to run free.
Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, was close to making this point, but it was more about the power, limits, and virtues of the United States law codified, more than a black man’s right, to seize his own freedom even with violence.
The SWW theory is one that I developed and its premise regarding movies has been chiseled in my conscience from years of watching black characters in scenes representing images akin to a piece of furniture or a fly on the wall.
Hollywood has long been in awe of the self-sacrificing black character that laid their souls on the line to guarantee and perpetuate the comforts of the elite and upper class whites. This character has become preferred stock—the uneducated person who possesses supernatural powers. These powers are used to save and transform disheveled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation. Think The Green Mile with Michael Clarke Duncan (RIP), or Man on Fire and Flight—Denzel Washington.
Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) made a quote that still resonates with me today. The public criticized McDaniel and called her an “Uncle Tom” for her portrayal in the role of Mammy in the award-winning movie Gone With the Wind. She said, “I would rather be portraying a maid and make $700 a week, than actually be working as one, and make $7.00 a week.”
McDaniel’s point is well taken, but on another level, if filmmaking is all about making money, no longer can Hollywood justify its past facades that movies exalting black heroes do not make money. According to moivefone.com and Box Office Mojo, Quentin Tarantino’s movie came in second place for the Christmas weekend earning 64 million dollars against strong competition such as Le Miserables and The Hobbit.
To see a black hero, in mainstream media, risk his life and go into the bowels of slavery to save his black woman/wife whom he loved and come out victorious to ride away in the sunset with her is a racial ceiling buster in this country; just like Barrack Obama’s election, as the first black President of the United States.
© El Espada 2012.