Monday, June 18, 2012

The Black Death

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Monrovia, California

Some time back I mentioned the Final Destination movies.  I’ve just finished watching the most recent of them, Final Destination 5.  Twice, in fact, so I could see some of the most absurdly gruesome splatter scenes again.  This series follows a predictable formula that goes like this: at the beginning of each movie one of the principal characters has a premonition of a disaster in which a number of people die in spectacular ways.  In the first one it was a plane crashing on takeoff; the second featured a ridiculously complicated multi-vehicle freeway accident; in the third a roller coaster malfunctioned; and in the fourth the disaster took place at a stock car race where several cars went flying off the track and into the stands, which collapsed, but not before tires and miscellaneous car parts decapitated, crushed, and impaled people.  In Final Destination 5 we have the collapse of a suspension bridge due to high winds (similar to the real event that happened at the Tacoma Narrows in Washington back in 1940) while a busload of young business types are on their way to a management retreat.

After having the premonition in each movie, the prescient person “wakes up” just in time to warn others of what lies in their very near future if they don’t leave the airplane, or highway, or roller coaster, or auto race, or bridge.  Of course no one believes that person, who nevertheless bolts from the danger spot.  A few of his or her friends leave, too, just to see what’s wrong with their seemingly crazy companion.  Then in short order the real disaster happens and dozens of people die, leaving only this handful of lucky survivors--the one who had the vision and the ones who went along out of curiosity or concern.  They watch in awe and horror as people get burned, sliced in half, have their heads crushed like cantaloupes, and so on.  Then they retreat, usually to the police station, to regroup and ponder their good fortune while grieving for those who didn’t make it.  The cops scratch their collective heads, try to figure out if they can arrest anybody, and ultimately let the survivors go. 

But here’s the thing.  Death has been cheated, and Death is not happy.  Why, I don’t know, since eventually Death gets everybody, right?  Death in these movies seems to be rather peevish and lacking in the patience that ought to come quite naturally after so many eons of grimly and steadily reaping its harvest.  What’s a few decades more or less where existential certainty is concerned?  Anyway, Death is angry, we’re told, and it continues to stalk the survivors throughout the movie, taking them out one by one in a series of bizarre and imaginative misfortunes that more often than not require simultaneous failures of multiple mechanical and electrical systems and ask the viewer to forget that the circuit breaker and ground fault interrupter were ever invented.  In several of the movies, death’s insistence on gathering the succession of superficially lucky youngsters to its fold is explained by a mysterious black person.  In the latest movie (and maybe in one or more of the others, I forget) he’s the local coroner, a person who apparently is quite well acquainted with Death in a professional capacity.

I mention the fact that the coroner is black because in this movie and in the rest of the series there are few other black people, but they tend to have a closer connection with Death, or at least a better understanding of the reason things are happening, than the white members of the cast, who tend to take solace from the horror of their situation in trips to each other's houses, where they philosophically drink and talk and ultimately decide to live for today.  Cinematically speaking, in general, it seems, when it comes to helping clueless people to understand the deepest of realities, it’s necessary for a person of color to do the explaining.  The use of an African American character as the link between the world of insouciant white good fortune and the dark void of the unknown is part of a long tradition in the movies, which have consistently employed those of duskier hue to unite us with the most primitive and basic elements of human existence—fear, lust, privation, and death.  One black person, skillfully utilized, can do the duty of all of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, including the pale rider.  Call it the economy of tokenism.

In the 1930s, when cinema made no attempt at subtlety (as if it does now), the black seer was often the comical minstrel-show Negro whose big eyes glowed white and whose nappy hair stood on end as he saw a ghost, while the more suave Caucasians laughed at him and saw nothing.  Black folks, it was understood, had a greater tendency to believe in the supernatural, in part perhaps because of their more "primitive" roots, and in part because there weren't a whole hell of a lot of earthly delights available to them, comparatively speaking.  Sometimes the person with the enhanced vision of the inherent ignorance of the wealthy and carefree was somebody’s wet nurse, with a bandanna tied over her hair, shaking her heavy head at the foolishness of the white folks and saying, “mmm, mmm, mmm” in a resigned singsong voice.  Half-comic relief and half Greek chorus, the darkies would generally tend to be right about the fact that something was wrong.  Later, as we began to strive for cinematic and social "realism," we played on another image, that of the sexual threat inherent in the black presence--sweaty muscular men and women grinding the night away on the sawdust floors of juke joints, drinking to excess, smoking dope, and gyrating in primitive ways that no decent, respectable W.A.S.P. would countenance.  In any event, the black folk were always a degree or two closer to the basic truth of things, even if they appeared to be merely shucking and jiving and clowning.  They knew, down in their jungle souls, what was important, and it wasn’t martinis and starched collars and briefcases, believe you me. 

Lest we think that the age of Buckwheat and Mammy and Mandingo is gone, however, we should take a look at the more recent past, and for that matter, the present.  There is, and has been for some time, a stock character in American drama known as the Magic Negro.  He or she is often a servant (what else?) or sometimes a sidekick or petty criminal, who seems to appear out of nowhere to help the white protagonist out of a jam with a combination of common sense and street smarts, and if all else fails, by laying down his life for the hero. If nothing else, this created jobs for black actors, sad as they might be.  At the TV level, think of Jack Benny’s manservant Rochester, of Starsky and Hutch’s underworld pal Huggy Bear, or Maude's maid Florida.  In the movies there are too many to list, but you’ll easily recall them.  I’ll let serious students and critics of the genre like Spike Lee expound on this phenomenon and will only mention it here.  Then again, often the black person in a movie is the first to die, or be killed by the alien, or get sucked out of the airplane.  Why?  First, because he’s expendable and frequently has no mate, due to the still-heavily-enforced cinematic anti-miscegenation rule which dictates, in contravention of reality, that a black man cannot have a white woman, only a black or Hispanic woman, unless of course that black man is a criminal.  (Here I should mention that this rule is not necessarily imposed without the complicity of both races; I once saw a woman on a documentary dedicated to Denzel Washington—an actor who scrupulously adheres to the black-to-black, or at least black-to-brown, rule in his movies—rather pettishly claim him, as an African American, as “ours,” which was particularly odd because the woman who was making the claim was only about one-sixteenth less white than my own mother.)  Another reason black people die first is that generally the protagonists are all white, and the nonwhites are just there for variety.  I will say, in defense of Final Destination 5, that one of the main young upwardly-mobile survivor characters is black, and although he doesn’t have a love interest like some of the whites do, he does manage to survive almost until the end of the movie.  That's progress.  You might say “big deal,” but in a sense it is just that.

And let’s not forget the miscellaneous voodoo priestess, or the spirit mediums (Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost); or the other persons with the supernatural powers (Scatman Crothers in The Shining and the black guy who could see ghosts just like the little kid could in Stir of Echoes).  Where there is something going on beyond the pale, so to speak, you can count on a black person being there to personify it or at least explain it.  It’s scary Mother Africa calling us all back to our pre-civilized roots.

But in Final Destination 5 the black man is the messenger of Death itself, and he is still there at the end after the kids have all perished horribly, reminding us of our scant mortality.  Also, and this can’t be underestimated, the black character is there to remind us of our Great National Sin, the institution of slavery, for which we all must pay and pay, both now and in the afterlife.  The very subject I’m discussing here would have little meaning outside that sub-context.  Put a black man in a Dutch or Swedish movie and people would just say, "Hmm, an African.  Izhn't dat veerd?"  But our black guy, our messenger of death, was there when this country made its original bargain with the Devil, to exist half slave and half free, and he’s here now to help us pay the Faustian price.  He'll be there shaking his head grimly and loading bodies into the back of his van when we’ve all been sliced in half by flying lawnmower blades, beheaded by shards of glass, immolated by carelessly stored chemicals, impaled by malfunctioning airbags and broken pieces of PVC pipe, and fried to a crisp in tanning booths gone haywire.

Call him the Black Death.  

No comments: