Musings

Mine Enemy, My Brother is not Mine Brother, My Enemy by Micheaux Mission

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Before we even get into this, let’s be perfectly clear: I really just want to talk about Enemy Mine.  Enemy Mine is one of those fantastically bizarre science fiction films that were churned out during the eighties.  It had a fairly high concept but nothing too challenging, a bit of special effects, and a cast that is much better than the film warrants. In this case, starring Dennis Quaid and Academy friggin’ Award winning actor, Louis Gossett Jr. ; much more about him in a second.  The plot seems pretty straightforward at first.  We’re at war with an alien race and a soldier from each side finds themselves stranded and forced to rely on each other to survive.  Through shared circumstances, they find commonality with one other and form a friendship that transcends the political differences of their respective cultures.  

In 1985, smack dab in the middle of the Cold War and the Reagan years, this aspect of the story couldn’t have been less subtle if the alien race were called, “The Sovietronians.”  But, wait! That’s only half the movie.  The other half involves the alien dying and Dennis Quaid’s character finds himself raising his new friend’s alien child. That’s right.  What started out as an antiwar allegory becomes a wacky tale of a guy, woefully unprepared, thrust into parenthood.  Hijinks, as they say, ensue.  And then!  Quaid gets rescued and his surrogate son gets kidnapped by, uh, I don’t know, space pirates? To finish the film up, Quaid’s character has to rescue the alien child and everyone lives happily ever after. As you can probably tell from the description, Enemy Mine has a whiplash inducing ever-changing tone and Quaid and Gossett’s performances are so earnest and well meaning that they end up being unintentionally hilarious.  It goes without saying that I have loved this bonkers ass movie from the moment I saw it. And it seems like it’s tailor made to be discussed on the Micheaux Mission.  

Enemy Mine   is a 1985 West German-American  science fiction film  directed by  Wolfgang Petersen  and written by Edward Khmara, based on  Barry B. Longyear 's  novella of the same name . The film stars  Dennis Quaid and  Louis Gossett, Jr.  as a human and alien soldier, respectively, who become stranded together on an inhospitable planet and must overcome their mutual distrust in order to cooperate and survive.

Enemy Mine is a 1985 West German-American science fiction film directed by Wolfgang Petersen and written by Edward Khmara, based on Barry B. Longyear's novella of the same name. The film stars Dennis Quaidand Louis Gossett, Jr. as a human and alien soldier, respectively, who become stranded together on an inhospitable planet and must overcome their mutual distrust in order to cooperate and survive.

There’s just one problem-it’s not a Black movie.  Hell, there aren’t even any Black characters in it.  Yes, Louis Gossett is the co-star but he plays the alien and is completely submerged in a full prosthetics for the entire film. And, I mean, he is unrecognizable. Yes, Gossett is Black but his racial form is invisible.  Did I mention this is a film he made after he won an Academy Award for his performance in An Officer & A Gentleman?  (So, funny enough, I always thought this was the movie he made right after he won the Oscar but, looking at his filmography, that honor goes to another “only in the 80’s” film, that’s right, Jaws 3D). 

Although we can ask why he took role that completely hid his Blackness-and, honestly, we should ask Gossett why he took a bunch of those roles; I mentioned Jaws 3D but don’t get me started on the Iron Eagle series, or, as I like to call it, “Iron Eagle-For People Who Thought Top Gun Was Too Cerebral!“ (Too late!  I looked it up and there were four-FOUR!!!!! -Iron Eagle movies.  Four!  And Gossett appeared in all four!  Jason friggin’ Gedrick only appeared in the first one!  Oh, Lou…)-you can totally understand why they cast a Black actor to play the alien.  Hollywood has a long and well-documented history of utilizing aliens to be stand-ins for race and you can see how Hollywood culture went the final logical step and started casting Black actors in the alien roles. One of my favorite cliché bits from eighties standup is how aliens are always Black people with some weird butt on their head.

The “alien with the butt on their head” bit is, obviously, about Star Trek. Once Michael Dorn was cast as Lt. Worf, it seems like there was a never-ending parade of other Black actors cast in the role of Klingons (some became famous in their own right.  Most of us know Tony“Candyman”Todd had a recurring role as Worf’s brother, Kurn but did you know Gabrielle Union played Klingon officer, N’Garen on Deep Space Nine?  And, yeah, she’s kind of sexy too.)  Keith David has played a gang of alien/otherworldly beings throughout his career, including voicing the Martian Manhunter on the legendaryJustice League Unlimited cartoon.  Speaking of which, DC has continued with tradition as Black actors have played all of the Martians on the live action Supergirl.Whether through prosthetic, as a voice or, sometimes, as in the case of Supergirl, the actor actually shows up, Hollywood loves to cast Black people as aliens.

And it’s not cool.  Look, anyone who’s thought about race in America for more than fifteen minutes knows how this works.  In America, the default mode is white and, anything outside of whiteness, is automatically racialized.  That means that, historically, if you wanted to depict humanity in a science fiction setting, that human would be white.  Conversely, race and, specifically, whiteness is predicated on there being an Other; for there to be a “normal,” there has to be something out side of those parameters that defined, “abnormal.”  Regardless of how long other minorities have been have-including Indigenous Americans who, literally, have been here before there was a here-nothing encompasses The Other in America like Black people.  Thus…we always playing some damn aliens.

Sidebar: This is what makes Men In Black such a radical film.  While, yes, Tommy Lee Jones plays a human agent, he’s the “grizzled veteran” who’s more comfortable in the alien world than in ours.  There’s only one truly human character in MIB and a Black man plays him.

As we wrap up our focus on science fiction, I have to say, it’s a bit frustrating how much of my favorite genre doesn’t have any Black people in it but is also completely about Black people.  Here on the Micheaux Mission, we have a rule about only critiquing Black films.  And, unfortunately, a lot of science fiction with a lot of Black people in them don’t fit that criteria.  

AND I JUST WANT TO TALK ABOUT ENEMY MINE!


— Vincent Williams @MicheauxMission

And in comes THE BLACK GUY by Micheaux Mission

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By MOE POPLAR @MauricePoplar

The 1980’s brought us hip-hop, some cool people… and the rest was kinda BS. Hairstyles were bad, fashion was bad and the media wasn’t great for black folks. One of the worse cinematic tropes invented - ‘just add a black guy’. Somewhere, somebody thought an amusing turn of the ‘fish out of water’story, would be to add a black guy and you’d have instant comedy classic. This formula was amusing at first, but wore thin pretty quick because it’s pretty damn racist and depressing.

It might have all started with 1982’s 48 Hours. Now, this is a damn good movie. The plot is dumb, but Eddie Murphy is brilliant as a convict who gets to play a cop for two days. Some decided this was an excellent formula - two cops, one good, one bad trying to solve a crime - and the buddy cop genre was born. But also born was the idea that a cop movie is funnier if you add the antics of a poor, uneducated, black guy to the mix. That is… a regular black guy. And with that, the ‘Just Add a Black Guy’genre was created.

Then we get a slew of movies that rely on the fact that America is super-segregated and loves to make comedy from stories of black men in white spaces. In 1982, we getThe Toywhere a wealthy white father gives a black man as a toy to his son. In ’83, here comes Trading Places, a black guy working as a stockbroker, and Superman III, a black man as Superman – sort of. In ‘84, Beverly Hills Cop, a black cop invades the Beverly Hills Police department. In ’85, Brewster’s Millionspresents a black guy with three million dollars who runs for President of the United States. We get the 1986 two-piece of The Golden Child, a black guy as pulp adventurer, and Jumping Jack Flash, a Black woman (originality, y’all!) as a spy. 1987 brings Critical Condition, a black guy who’s a doctorto the theaters. In 1992, it’sDistinguished Gentleman, a black man as a political insider, and Sister Act, a black woman as a nun. In 1999, we see Wild Wild West, a black guy in the old west, and 2002 delivers The Adventures of Pluto Nash, a black guy in space.

Eddie Murphy was literally THE fish out of water in  Trading Places  (1983),  Beverly Hills Cop  (1984),  The Golden Child  (1986) and  The Distinguished Gentleman  (1992).

Eddie Murphy was literally THE fish out of water in Trading Places (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), The Golden Child (1986) and The Distinguished Gentleman (1992).

The premise is simple: things go awry when a black person, full of sass and urban flare, dances and stumbles through situations they absolutely don’t belong in. The problem with these films is they work on the premise that black people, outside of an urban context, are a joke. In 1966, Greg Morris plays a black spy in 1966’s Mission ImpossibleTV series with all the gravitas the profession implies but Whoopi Goldberg as a spy in the ‘80s is ammunition for laughs.  In real life, Daniel Hale Williams performs the first successful open heart surgery in 1896; 100 years later, Richard Pryor is cast as a black doctor. Theses films don’t just disregard history; they are outright racist in their imagery, and perpetuate segregated spaces.Honorable mention goes out to Caddyshack(1980) and Back to School(1986), Rodney Dangerfield films with the exact same shtick, only played for class instead of race. 

Fortunately, this theme starts to run out of steam in the 90’s. Gone from the television screens were the Give Me A Break, Different Strokesand Webster. In came The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Once again you have a black kid playing the fish out of water, but this time the context is class - he lives with different black people, not white people. His wealthy California cousins can learn to appreciate Will, and he can learn to appreciate them. There are no seeming indelible barriers of race that the ‘put a black guy in it’ troupe lives by. Likewise, Will becomes ‘The Fish’ in this fish out of water story, not an entire race of people out of water. Just like The Beverly Hillbillies, Will has a choice to code switch and pass or not. He is not permanently ‘othered’. Even Eddie Murphy came correct with Coming to America, a hysterical Pan Africanist fish out of water story in scope. Boomerang, Harlem Knights, and The Nutty Professorproved that he grew to know better.

Just like the Jheri Curl and new wave, I’m really glad we’ve outgrown this cinematic cliché. Today there is plenty of black centered cinema and television. Look at the work of Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Ava Duvernay and the late John Singleton. Hollywood, seeing better, is doing better. Hopefully, unlike Hammer pants, we don’t see this particular style make a comeback.


Moe Poplar is a husband, dad, writer, filmmaker, Micheaux Missionary, habitual line stepper, and former bed wetter.



 

SPIDER-MAN BEEN BLACK by Micheaux Mission

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Like all good and true Black nerds (or, “blerds,” if you will.  I don’t really “blerd” myself because I’m a traditionalist that respects the Oxford comma, two spaces after a period and, yes, actual words as opposed to some unnecessary amalgamation of two terms. But do you.), I am beyond the moon excited about the success of Spider Man: Beyond The Spiderverse.  Besides the fact that it’s a smart, kinetic, joyous, snap-crackle-pop celebration of everything that makes superheroes wonderful, …Spiderverse is also the culmination of the ascendancy of Miles Morales, the Black Spider-man.  As an aforementioned Black nerd (yes, yes, or “blerd”), and, one of a certain age, I am truly enjoying pop culture’s embrace of the concept of the Black Spider-man.  Of course, according to my mom, Spider-man has always been Black.

Some background:  I don’t think my parents were extraordinarily political.  Neither of them participated in any formal Civil Rights Movement activism.  There was a copy of Roots in the house and I remember my Dad buying The Color Purplewhen it was a thing but that’s it for extensive Black literature.  Well, my aunt was in the Nation of Islam so a copy of Eat To Live gathered dust on top of the refrigerator.  My siblings and I did get a lot of, “don’t embarrass us/act like you come from something” as we ventured out into our integrated environment. But that’s it.  I think our family was like most Black families vis-à-vis what we’d call, “wokeness.”; real regular.

            There was one detail that does stick out, however. My mother did not play with the images her kids were exposed to.  All the art in our house had black people in them.  Our books had to feature Black characters or, at the very least, anthropomorphic animals (lot of Beatrix Potter and Frog & Toad in my house.)  My sister had all Black baby dolls, and me and my brother were only supposed to play with Black/nonwhite action figures.

            If you know anything about nerdom, you can figure out how this was a problem.  Remember folks; we’re talking late seventies here.  There was no Black Panther or John Stewart or Cyborg action figures to choose from. Nope.  If you were a kid and wanted a superhero action figure, you had to play with a Mego one and, except for Falcon, “The BLACK superhero,” your choices were the standard Batman, Robin, Superman, etc.  And my mother was not happy about it.  In her defense, I ended up owning a fair number of them but, again, it was like pulling teeth to get my mother to relent.  Now, Hulk, I could do because, well, green.  Funny enough, I could slip the Human Torch through too because the flames covered up his face.  

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            But my absolute favorite superhero figure was Spider-Man.  Outside of Batman and Superman, Spider-Man is the most iconic figure in the American mythology of superheroes.  The really fascinating aspect of the figure and, what’s relevant to our conversation, is that Spider-Man’s face is covered.  That means he could be anyone under that mask.  And, yes, as far as I was concerned-and my mom too!-that means Spider-Man could be Black.  So, that meant, when one of my Spider-man figures, uh, mysteriously came up broken, my Mom didn’t fight too hard to grab me a replacement one.  In the Williams household, Spider-Man was always Black.

            This actually makes sense for a few reasons. Now, we can get high falutin’, if you want to, and examine the historical, cultural and entomological antecedents of the character.  Everyone agrees that Spider-Man is a trickster character; he’s strong, yes, but his greatest attribute is his wit.  He uses humor to disarm and confuse his opponents.  Now, historically, there are trickster characters all over the world; Reynard the Fox from European folklore, Anansi the Spider from African traditions, hell, pre-United States, on this continent, coyote tricksters appear throughout Indigenous stories.  Again, the imagery is not unique.  But, when we talk about tricksters in the American tradition, we talk about B’rer Rabbit. And ol’ B’rer Rabbit is one hundred percent African American.  There are plenty of parallels between B’rer Rabbit-not to mention his more famous sanitized version, Bugs Bunny-and Spider-Man and, if you focus on them, boom, Spidey is Black.  So, yeah, you can go that route if you wanted to.

            Honestly, I don’t think you have to do all that to. If you really want to make the case that Spider-Man should be Black all you have to do is describe his life.    Spider-Man is perpetually trying to make ends meet as he juggles school and work. Spider-Man has a sick relative that depends on him.  Spider-Man is maligned and lied on by the press. (Seriously, how are the Daily Bugle’s choices for him, “threat or menace?”?  What kind of Fox News nonsense is THAT?)  And, not to put too fine a point on it, but, uh, the police are always harassing and shooting at him.  Spider-Man is a character whose life is informed by unspeakable tragedy but, regardless, he rises above it all to do what needs to be done with wit and style and, most importantly, he looks damn good as he does it.  And, if that ain’t Black, I don’t know what is.  There’s a quote I always go back to from writer Thulani Davis; “Always Negroes doing fabulous, unheard of things and always with style, even if the minks and gloves were borrowed.” Spider-Man is b-boys and Black Twitter and Black Boy Joy and Black Lives Matter all rolled up in a package that everyone admires but, because of the unspeakable tragedy and huge responsibility he carries, no one wants to actually become.  To paraphrase another great writer, Paul Mooney, everyone wants to be a Spider-Man but don’t nobody want to be a Spider-Man.

            So, yes, I have been a fan of Miles Morales since day one. And I’m super happy with the success of the character as well as Spider-Man: Enter The Spiderverse.  I’m also ecstatic for all the little brown children who see themselves in such an iconic character as we move into more inclusive and multicultural fandoms. But my mom?  She always knew the score.  Spider-Man been Black.


— Vincent Williams @MicheauxMission

The Magic Negro and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Micheaux Mission

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By MOE POPLAR @MauricePoplar

Hollywood is so equitable, you don’t have to be a negro to be a Magic Negro. Sure, the cliche is so typically a black dude, hence the name, but Mr. Miyagi is also playing the Magic Negro role.

The problem with the Magic Negro role is he doesn’t have a goal of his own; he sacrifices his life for the hero and he lacks community, history and his own story. One of the oldest examples of this is possibly “Nigger Jim” from Mark Twain’s 1884 classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yup, this cinematic trope comes from the great American Novel. But more precisely, it’s a thing of the American imagination: black people don’t have histories, they’re just here to help us, and we get the credit. Three guesses on who ‘we’ are?

There are tons of cinematic examples of the Magic Negro from Morpheus in the Matrix, Will Smith’s character from Bagger Vance, Morgan Freeman from Driving Miss Daisy AND Shawshank Redemption, Michael C Duncan in the Green Mile and plenty others. In the remake of Robocop, Michael K Williams literally dies twice so that our hero can live. And you don’t have to be a dude to be a Magic Negro: Hattie McDaniels, Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer won Oscars being agenda less, sexless and sacrificial to help some white folks get over the hump. I don’t mean to suggest that these women are not amazing, award worthy actresses, but it’s noteworthy that these are the roles they’re recognized for.

The same is true for the Manic Pixie dream girl. Think Natalie Portman from Garden State, Angelina Jolie from Wanted or Zooey Deschanel from 500 Days of Summer. Another way to describe this cliche is the ‘hooker with a heart of gold.’ These women have nothing to do in their lives but sleep with a loser guy to make him feel better about himself, no strings attached. Again, this character seems to exist as extremely attractive, available and aggressive in pursuing and encouraging of our protagonist, usually a man.

Curiously, the Magic Pixie Dreamgirl is rarely ever a sista. Only Rae Dawn Chong in Soul Man comes to mind. This film is so problematic… of course it checks all the boxes. Serpent and the Rainbow and Angel Heart are pretty foggy in my memory, but I seem to recall them fitting the bill too. Is the issue that black women aren’t easily imagined as ‘quirky, and supportive,’ or is it that in order to have a Magic Pixie Dreamgirl, you need a white man as a protagonist?

This tradition is old and played out. There is an idea that race IS background, history, description, etc. That frumpy quirky girl or sage black/ Japanese/ Latino/ Native American dude who seeks to rescue our hero and make him better. They pour everything they have, know and are into the white guy, because that’s how the world should be. Regardless of how lazy and undeserving this makes the hero look, it’s OK, he’s ‘chosen.’ A film like Django Unchained tries to flip the trope on its head, to marginal success. The problem isn’t race, it’s poor storytelling. But the race stuff is a problematic too. Even Howard the Duck gets the treatment. And he’s a duck.

If this were the 80’s, I’d turn and say, “Brotha’s need idle, helpful, white women to support their inadequacies and desires too.” But alas, we’re more woke than that these days.  (And if it wasn’t clear, that was a joke, folks.)

Ironically, we can look to the 1980 for a great couple examples of minorities; race and gender,  in cinema. 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back includes Lando Calrissian and Princess Leia. Both have backstories, goals and agendas that don’t necessarily correspond with the protagonist. Lando is Han’s old friend but he’s got responsibilities now so he sell’s Han out. Leia isn’t just available for any old guy to pick up. She’s got a rebellion to lead. Sometimes she’s helping Luke and Han… sometimes they’re helping her. Leia is an example of how a woman can be a romantic interest, an enabler and a whole person. Lando is an example of how ‘The Other’ can be normal, interesting and not just a throwaway character. One typical trope of the magic negro is that he’s neutered. Lando is not Neutered.

Now Yoda, is a whole different story. Yoda is chillin’ on Degoba, waiting for a young helpless (white) boy to show up. Then the Jedi Master teaches Luke everything he knows, imparts some sage wisdom, and, his work being done here… promptly dies. If that ain’s some movie n!&&@ s#!+, I don’t know what is. Equal rights for puppets, yo! Puppet lives matter!

So, my point is, Hollywood knows better. And on occasion, Hollywood does better. But typically, in the movies black folks and cute white women are just scaffolding to help white boys become men. And the sistas. The sista’s don’t exist unless they’re light skinned, or playing Mammy.  What’s really funny though, is when you meet a white boy who’s seen too many movies, and thinks you’re going to be their footstool to greatness. Yeah, that’s real funny, until one gets elected.


Moe Poplar is a husband, dad, writer, filmmaker, Micheaux Missionary, and habitual line stepper.