Saturday, November 21, 2009

Black Madonnas, Black Messiahs

I was just speaking with my mother about the new disaster film 2012. While we disagreed about the merits of the film (mom loved it, I hated it), we agreed that as African Americans, the portrayal of our race was quite gratifying. 2012 featured not only an African American President (talk about art imitating life!) but two key characters who were African American Ph.D's. A central protagonist of the film is a black geologist who discovers the impending end of the world. Not only does he provide leadership in the effort to save the human race from extinction, but at a critical moment, provides moral clarity that saves thousands more lives and the souls of the surviving world leaders. This character made a black man want to stand up and shout Amen.

This movie reminded me of other recent films that featured people of African descent as saviors of humanity. One of the most magnificent and thought provoking was the film Children of Men. In Children of Men, the threat to human survival was not geological, but reproductive. People had stopped being able to have babies. But then hope arrives in the body of a young black woman who is miraculously pregnant. A scene late in the film after the arrival of her child shows this woman being escorted by her white protector through a raging battle field that suddenly becomes completely silent at the sight of her. This film turned the much vilified image of the unwed, young black mother completely on its head.

Though his films are generally less profound than Children of Men, Will Smith's characters save the world pretty much every summer. Most recently he was a military scientist saving the world from a viral apocalypse in I Am Legend. Earlier in his career he was saving the world from an alien invasion in Independence Day.

What I find fascinating about these movies is that they go far beyond simply portraying blacks in a positive light. Lots of movies these days show blacks as middle class professionals doing good things. Movies like Children of Men however, portray blacks as potential contributors to the very salvation of human civilization. Such a portrayal is the antithesis of the dehumanizing images of blacks in film that have haunted us since Birth of a Nation.

This emerging image of blacks as saviors of civilization is very much in line with the way blacks are viewed in Baha'i teaching. Baha'u'llah referred to blacks as "the pupil of the eye...dark in color but a fountain of light and the revealer of the contingent world." The Baha'i Faith teaches that blacks have "great gifts of mind and heart" that they will offer to the creation of a new, global civilization, in Biblical terms, the Kingdom of God on earth. Could it be that films like 2012 are preparing popular consciousness for acceptance of black men and women as sources of spiritual and moral leadership?


  1. You forgot "Hancock", not one of Will Smith's better films but an interesting insight into the woes of the average superhero.

  2. Reed, I thought about including Hancock but decided that Will Smith's movies could take up a whole post of their own.

  3. I bet you would have loved 2012 too if it had included a zombie apocalypse as the well as the regular kind. :)

  4. Lani, you might be right.

  5. Rebecca6:43 AM

    Africa," the beloved Guardian assures us in one of the letters written on his behalf, "is truly awakening and finding herself, and she undoubtedly has a great message to give, and a great contribution to make to the advancement of world civilization. To the degree to which her peoples accept Bahá'u'lláh will they be blessed, strengthened and protected."

    (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 341)

    Hearing recent reports of IPGs in large cities in Europe including Paris, France where I grew up, reminded me of this. One can see from these reports that a very large portion of receptive populations are Africans who then take on core activities thus reviving once sleepy communities.

  6. Anonymous12:51 AM

    Seems to me we had black presidents in movies a decade before it happened in real life. The first I recall is Deep Impact (1998). Probably there are several prior cases?

  7. Rebecca, nice quote.
    Anonymous, it is true that we've had black presidents before. I think 2012 may feature the first black geologist on film though!