I Am Obama: The American Imagination and the New Black Hero

2007-12-14 (General release)

America is ready for a new black hero. But, it didn’t need Barack Obama’s strong showing in the Democratic primaries to confirm this. Three weeks before the Illinois senator claimed the January 3rd caucus in corn-fed, white bread Iowa, the science-fiction blockbuster I Am Legend swept through theaters like a prophetic, cinematic wind whispering: “Obama cometh.” The film grossed over $70 million in its opening weekend as audiences and critics celebrated Will Smith in the potently symbolic role of “the last man on Earth” — the isolated human survivor of a viral epidemic that has decimated the species.

In the predictable arc of the film’s plot, Smith’s character manages to rescue humanity from probable extinction. His blockbuster portrayal of the solitary savior of the human race is a watershed in American film history. Never before has a black actor been granted a major Hollywood role with such symbolic power. As much as Obama’s viability as a presidential candidate, America’s eager consumption of a narrative in which the fate of humanity is left in the hands of a black man surely signals an important development in American race-thinking.

Anyone who has found him or herself in CNN’s “Situation Room” knows that these are heady times of “hope and change”. The millions of movie-goers who paid money to watch Smith single-handedly lead humanity toward a new beginning seem to confirm the rhetoric of the chattering classes. If Americans are willing to believe that the former Fresh Prince of West Philly can save the world all by himself, then there is a possibility that a black man may be the next president of the United States. This possibility quickens the heart of many Americans — white men included — because it suggests that the nation is coming into the social maturity defined in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and imagined in so many poetic American dreams.

However, some close analysis of the Obama candidacy and Smith in his I Am Legend role also reveals that the viability of the new black hero is dependent upon his ability to carefully regulate his blackness. To satisfy the needs of the national imagination, he must cultivate the patina of blackness while radiating a transcendent racial identity that is not immediately linked to black community, which remains profoundly stigmatized. Because he maintains a prescribed distance from black community, the ascendancy of the new black hero is no way equal to a national desire to redress some of America’s most pressing race problems. Ultimately, America’s recent fascination with a darker national savior has to be considered in the context of a rich tradition in its narrative in which self-sacrificing men of color offer both salvation and absolution to white protagonists.

Smith’s public character has been delicately molded so that he can play the new black hero. Smith exudes the cool that is so marketable in black men, while meticulously suppressing any trace of the racial angst popularly associated with blackness. In part, he has been able to maintain his non-threatening persona by working in films that often attempt to mute issues of race. For example, in The Pursuit of Happyness, his 2006 film that looks back nostalgically upon the 1980s (what could be better than Reaganomics and Rubik’s Cube mastery?), Smith plays a capitalist striver who must sever his ties with black community –represented by his ungrateful wife, and a triflin’ friend — in order to achieve success in the white world of finance.

Despite its seemingly important themes of integration and black social mobility, the film diligently avoids any attempt to treat race as Smith’s character struggles through the Horatio Alger narrative. This suppression of racial subtext is not uncommon in movies that call upon the star power of bankable black actors. To produce films palatable for large white audiences, Hollywood often strips black stars of their racial identity by divorcing them from a recognizably black social sphere and other cultural markers. Put simply, black superstars are usually surrounded by all-white supporting casts. (Think of Smith in the Men in Black movies, Eddie Murphy in the Beverly Hills Cops franchise, Jamie Foxx in his post-Oscar films — excepting Dreamgirls — and Wesley Snipes in almost any movie before or after he stopped paying taxes.)

For his part, Obama has also carefully calibrated his blackness in order to become the new black hero of America’s political realm. Because of his mixed African and European ancestry, Obama’s effort to regulate public perceptions of his race is a complicated matter that has received ample attention in mainstream media. Commentators have noted his expert ability to leverage a genetic heritage that is clearly marked by both whiteness and blackness, and the reassurance that his European lineage offers to some fans of the new black hero.

We know that Obama has struggled mightily to ensure that he does not become simply a “black presidential candidate” — Jesse Jackson. Although his effort to avoid this stigma was often noted in the context of his prickly encounters with the Clintons amidst the South Carolina primary, it is important to remember that Obama’s decision to announce his presidential candidacy in the mostly white town of Springfield, Illinois was pivotal in his quest to become the new black hero with wide appeal.

Obama was scolded by significant black critics like Cornell West and Tavis Smiley because he chose to formalize his bid for the presidency in Springfield, rather than in Smiley’s 2007 State of the Black Union conference, held the same weekend of Obama’s announcement. (The senator also spurned the 2008 gathering.) While it is customary for presidential hopefuls to launch campaigns from strongholds that are symbolically linked to their base constituencies, Obama did not have that option. Although his most consistent support has come from African-Americans, had the senator launched his campaign from within a recognizably black social context, he immediately would have undermined his quest to become the new black hero, settling for the far less glamorous role of the “black leader”.

To successfully navigate the treacherous seas of American demography, every presidential candidate must possess the monomania of Ahab and the wile Jack Sparrow. But, the new black hero must also captain a ship of tragic irony. Even as the nation congratulates itself for its historic contemplation of a black president, it mandates that the new black hero avoid strong advocacy for the black community. This is why the symptoms of the nation’s most urgent “race issues” — harrowing rates of African-American drug addiction, fratricide, incarceration and economic dereliction — cannot be central talking points in Obama’s campaign. The moment he begins to regularly address the unique litany of maladies facing African-Americans (what poet Robert Hayden collated as the “riot squad of statistics”), he runs the risk of being seen as overly-attentive to his ethnic compatriots. However much he may want to, the new black hero cannot ignore the nation’s deep skepticism of those who are too closely associated with black community.

During the greater part of I Am Legend, Smith is utterly alone on the screen. The film’s post-apocalyptic narrative is set in a world without human society, rendering his character a black hero without a supporting cast, without a community. Thus, Smith’s blackness carries so little social consequence in the narrative that audiences can enjoy the heroics of this character without giving much thought to race, or black community. However, because of the function he performs in the American imagination, it is important that the blackness of the new black hero is never fully erased. His special role requires him to display a modulated affinity for the culture of his people. For the most part, this affinity can be adequately demonstrated by the occasional lapse into language and intonation that is coded black.

In I Am Legend, Smith’s striking ability to mimic an asinine dialect of “black language” is demonstrated when his character voices some of the lines spoken by Eddie Murphy’s Donkey character in the movie Shrek. Because the Donkey of the children’s cartoon is a harmless buffoon — a contemporary incarnation of the emasculated coon of old Hollywood — this strange scene helps assure audiences that Smith is “authentically”, but non-threateningly, black.

As Cynthia Fuchs points out in her review of I Am Legend, music is also used to mark the race of Smith’s character. The lonely hero finds solace and sanity in the reggae of Bob Marley, particularly in the comforting tune “Three Little Birds”, which turns on the refrain, “Every little thing is gonna be alright”. When Smith’s character is finally joined by another human being, he explains his attraction to Marley by mentioning that the singer believed that music could unite races.

This focus on unity to the exclusion of principles of justice and rigorous egalitarianism is required of the new black hero. Had Smith’s character been stirred by the more fiery side of Marley, expressed in revolutionary anthems like “War”, “Africa Unite”, or “Burning and Looting”, he would be marked by an unacceptable blackness, dangerous in the American imagination.

Of course, hip-hop culture produces the music most associated with the threatening type of blackness that should not be detected in the new black hero. So, perhaps it is ironic that Smith was once known as a rapper — although almost always comedic and never menacing — and that Barack Obama has expressed a liking for rap. When the senator was asked about his musical preferences at an Iowa rally, he mentioned Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire as “old school” favorites, and in support of his claim that he was “sort of hip to the younger stuff” he evoked Beyoncé and everyone’s favorite white hip-hopper, Eminem. Obama’s choices in music are suited perfectly for the aspiring new black hero. They demonstrate appropriately black cultural affinities and they link him to several generations of Americans.

Obama’s apparent attraction to Eminem is particularly strategic because it associates him with the ubiquitous hip-hop culture of youthful voters while sufficiently distancing him from the necessarily threatening black men who spit fire in almost every rap song that Eminem has not made. Had he not been the aspiring new black hero (in Iowa), Obama might have shown sincere appreciation for a brother from his own neighborhood: Chicago’s perpetually relevant but somewhat Afrocentric Common. In 2004, before The Obama Girl knew about politics, Common was probably the first person to

set the senator’s irresistible surname to popular music, dropping the perfect couplet: “Why is Bush acting like he trying to get Osama? / Why don’t we impeach him and elect Obama?”

Despite the need to vigilantly regulate the public perception of his blackness, the new black hero cannot let white America forget that he is actually black. Smith and Obama seem to understand that the blackness of the new black hero gives him appeal. He offers something to the American imagination that the white hero cannot. He offers the opportunity for absolution. America’s enduring inability to fully incorporate and enfranchise its darker citizens has produced a national guilt that can only be assuaged the properly forgiving black man. Our first black hero, Martin Luther King Jr., offered this forgiveness; the nation now looks to the new black hero to provide contemporary relief to one of its basic psychic afflictions.

In narratives that have long-fascinated the American imagination, heroes of color sacrifice themselves so that white characters may live more freely, implicitly absolved of the original American sin of racial oppression. Countless Hollywood films and foundational works of American literature like The Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin play out this fantasy of the American imagination again and again.

Literary critic Leslie Fiedler remarks on this egoistic dream in his landmark work Love and Death in the American Novel: “[W]e find it easy to believe that our dark-skinned beloved will rescue us from the confusion and limitations of a society which excludes him. Certainly, our classic writers assure us that when we have been cut off or have cut ourselves off from the instinctive sources of life, he will receive us without rancor or the insult of forgiveness. He will fold us in his arms…he will comfort us.” Oddly, this old American fairy-tale is the compliment of King’s more celebrated vision of a nation united in the belief that “all men are created equal”. The new black hero fulfils both these dreams at once. He implicitly forgives America by offering to save it, and America lives up to its ideals by allowing him to be its savior.

As I am Legend draws to its close, Smith’s character dutifully sacrifices himself to ensure that humanity, reemerging in America, will flourish once more. After he is gone, the audience is reassured by scenes of a nascent multi-racial community coming to life in a pastoral Vermont village, replete with white steeple church and star-spangled banner. The tableau powerfully speaks to the longings of America’s desperately hopeful moment. Hollywood’s new black hero gives his life so that the nation may begin again as a “shining city on the hill” in the sinless Eden of New New England. It is a fantasy of America reborn: not without its darker races, but without the seemingly intractable divisions that Americans face in the real America, where Barack Obama now offers his own version of renewal.

Derik Smith lives with his wife and three children in Dubai where he teaches in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zayed University. Contact him at [email protected].