Published: Nov. 1, 2004 By

(part of a series in Special Issue #40: Scared of the Dark: Race, Gender and the “Horror Film” – Guest Editor: Frances Gateward)

What became transparent were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.
– Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage.
– Morpheus to Neo, The Matrix

[1] The turn of the twenty-first century ushered in a multitude of films reminiscent of past blackface performances, “in which white men caricatured blacks for sport and profit” (Lott, 3). The newer manifestations of blackface have left the greasepaint and burnt cork, however they have maintained their obsession with black expressive culture and with possessing—that is, controlling and containing—the black body. By assessing this inclination trend in romanticizing “blackness,” this essay will show that, in many aspects, these films represent a desire to appropriate racially coded “difference” in order to reconcile the longing for an American subjectivity that finds itself in a constant state of becoming rather than of being. That is, the promise of America, a promise fixed on the dream of freedom, remains a work in progress. Existing alongside the American dream of freedom, as Toni Morrison and other such notable writers have observed, has always been the concomitant nightmare of slavery. Particularly instructive are the representations of racial oppression and slavery that are prominent within the genre of American science fiction and horror films. It is these preternatural narratives that provide an ideal stage for portraying the struggle between freedom and the nightmare of being in bondage—enslaved by some “thing,” some “body,” some “matrix” as it were, or even more distressingly, by one’s inescapable connection to the racialized Other.

Farewell to His-Story

[2] An overt example of the troping of slavery appears in the 1993 horror film, Candyman. Based on Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” Candyman features a black ghost, Candyman, who haunts anyone who dares to say his name five times and refuses to “believe in him.” Candyman is not merely interested in being accepted as a real presence; he seeks vengeance for crimes perpetrated against him in the past, more specifically in America’s post-bellum slave past. Candyman was the son of a former slave and was tortured and killed because he dared to love, and be loved by, a white woman. One major point to be made about Barker’s short story versus theCandyman film adaptation is that there is absolutely no mention of slaves, slavery, or race in Barker’s original story which is located in an urban British setting. Yet the American film adaptation of Barker’s story, Candyman, is overtly about the recurrent nightmare of slavery within the American imagination. Hence, slavery is America’s “forbidden.”

[3] Viewers discover this forbidden history of Candyman, figured in the film as urban legend, when the protagonist Helen Lyle, who is a white graduate student at the University of Illinois, is told by a professor that “The legend first appeared in 1890” and that “Candyman was the son of a slave.” After entering into a romantic relationship with “a wealthy [white] landowner’s daughter,” Candyman, whose real name (we learn in the sequel) is Daniel Robitaille, is chased through the town and his hand is sawed off with a rusted blade. He is then stripped naked, smeared with honey, and taken to an apiary where there are “dozens of hives filled with hungry bees.” Daniel Robitaille is stung to death after which accomplices to the crime “burned his body on a giant pyre and then scattered his ashes over Cabrini Green.” The professor who delivers the tale, which he categorizes as modern urban folklore, emphasizes the fact that “No one came to his aid” and, as a result, Candyman is said to haunt the present Cabrini Green, a Chicago housing project where the majority of residents are African American. In this fantastical story, slavery, although filtered through urban legend, is all too real. Or is it?

[4] Helen becomes ensnared by both an indirect and direct identification with the white landowner’s daughter (from the legend) and the horror of nineteenth-century American slavery, symbolized by the mutilated black body of Candyman. In fact, Helen is herself transformed into the Candyman in the end, carrying on the haunting of all those who would refuse to (re)member him—that is, to (re)member the slave past. The film makes an explicit correlation with the slavery of the American past and the enduring (in its perception) “absence of freedom” for European Americans, especially those living in large cities, themselves surrounded by what Thomas Jefferson called, “the stain” or “blot” of blackness. Placing urban Chicago as the setting for the film directs viewers to correlate the perceived freedom and potential “progress” of the city of Chicago with the psychological malaise precipitated by urban life in general, and represented most vividly by the housing projects. Helen, in fact, discovers (after learning about the Candyman urban legend) that her very own high rise apartment building was, in fact, originally built as a housing project. When removing the mirror in her bathroom, Helen finds the physical remnants of her building’s link to the past (and present) oppression of African Americans. As she tells her African American friend and research partner, Bernadette, “the city couldn’t find a way to make a barrier between the project and the rest of the city so they disguised the building and sold them off as condos.” Helen now knows that her apartment represents an orchestrated attempt to disguise the past in order to deny it.

[5] Indeed, this theme of denial persists throughout in the film. Trailers for Candyman hauntingly implore, “What’s behind the mirror?” and insist that, “You don’t have to believe, just beware” which begs the question, beware of what? Because the monster in the film is a black man—and, again the son of a former slave—it seems clear that we are to beware of all that Candyman signifies. And what he most powerfully signifies is the memory of American slavery. Candyman’s early refrain is “Believe in me. Be my victim,” which is directed, for the most part, to Helen, who viewers most likely identify with and who does become both victim and apprentice to Candyman. To believe in Candyman’s urban legend and accept the reality of his existence is to be victimized by this knowledge. Helen’s attachment to Candyman disallows her own sense of freedom and privilege and thus causes her great anxiety throughout the film. Her freedom is literally restricted when she is arrested and committed to a mental ward after being accused of engaging in the same brutal acts of mutilation that Candyman suffered upon his death and that he perpetuates on his victims. Yet, what are Helen and viewers to make of Candyman’s (dis)member(ment) under the cruel and racially oppressive yoke of slavery? Is this truly a story not to tell? Must we not say his name?

[6] In the 1995 sequel to Candyman, Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh, the idea that slavery is a memory to expel is made even more explicit and forceful. Farewell to the Flesh is a story of passing and secrets. As the film narrative unfolds, the viewer learns that the protagonist, Annie, who is a teacher, is the descendant of Candyman. Her maternal ancestor, Caroline, was the white woman that loved and was loved by Daniel Robitaille (Candyman). They had a child, Isabel, whom Caroline raised as white (“no one suspected”) after Daniel’s murder. When Annie discovers her genetic link to Candyman, she confronts her mother, Octavia. At one point in the exchange, Annie yells, “he’s part of our family, part of our blood.” Octavia continues to deny Candyman and her own history screaming through tears that, “there is no Candyman. He does not exist.” This denial resurrects Candyman and he appears behind Octavia with bloody hook positioned at Octavia’s neck in anticipation of retribution. It bears noting that Octavia has not repeated Candyman’s name five times. Instead, she unwittingly summons him by her denial of his existence. Given that this is one of the bloodiest and gruesome murders in the film, viewers begin to see that the brutality suffered by Candyman is not the problem.

[7] Rather, it is the unrelenting memory of slavery, and Candyman’s insistence on memory, that is the real source of terror in the film. Candyman, with saddened eyes tells Octavia, “…you doubted me…your own flesh and blood.” Candyman proceeds to disembowel her in front of her daughter, Annie, to whom Octavia’s last words are: “I’m so sorry.” This apology is left for the viewer to interpret. We do not know exactly what Octavia is sorry about. What is certain, however, is that she has become slavery’s victim—the victim, in fact, of the monster that slavery’s memory has become. This is verified when Candyman requests that Annie join him, explaining to her, “you cannot resist what is in your blood, our blood, your baby’s blood…you can’t fight what is meant to be. The choice is yours Annie.” Annie’s choice is unambiguous.  She will not join Candyman. Instead, she must destroy him. And she does so with the help of one of her students, a young black male child named Matthew who serves as the opposing force to Candyman’s haunting. Matthew’s function is critical here because he represents, as a child, presumed innocence. In addition, he functions as an ally to Annie. She has provided Matthew with guidance (as his teacher) and the film even suggest “maternal” nurturing (in scenes where they begin to bond) so that his fear of Candyman validates her own and thus the memories that Candyman awakens can be seen as an aberration.

[8] Matthew’s waking and dream life are besieged by violent images of Candyman and the racial past he represents. Matthew renders these images in drawings and on one level, they can be read as reminders to Annie of her connection to the past. Unfortunately, and again, the film undercuts this idea and instead focuses on the horror of Candyman and his inevitable destruction. Candyman’s story is one that can no longer be told. In the end, it is Matthew who not only saves Annie from Candyman, but also provides her with the means (the mirror) to destroy him. We are left at the end of the film with Annie’s quiet reflection as she shows a picture of Candyman she has placed in her family album to her own daughter. Lest we believe that the film will end with this image of recognition and resolution, we are reminded that the horror and haunting of slavery’s past simply will not go away. The film ends with Annie’s daughter who, as the camera pans closer to her, begins the forbidden chant of Candyman’s name. Annie rushes in and covers her mouth and all seems well. However, the film resorts to a classic horror film device where the return of the “monster” is pertinacious: there is a brief moment of relief soon after which Annie’s daughter resumes her chant. This time Annie does not come in to stop her and viewers are only to assume (correctly so since there is a third Candyman film) that Candyman—and slavery—will appear again and carry on the haunting.

[9] In a 1995 interview, the director of Candyman2: Farewell to the Flesh, Bill Condon, said of the racial politics expressed in the film that, “Even though violence can be justified by certain people as a response to the violence that was inflicted upon them, there’s got to be another way. The relationship between the teacher and the boy illustrates a kind of healing process. And it had to be the boy who saves her and forgives the white people, and finally comes to see that though he had always identified so strongly with not Candyman the killer, but Candyman the victim” (Bernstein). But what of Robert Robitaille’s  (Candyman’s) healing? The idea that Matthew could forgive “white people,” presumably on behalf of all African Americans, and together with the teacher expunge the ghost of slavery is pretty remarkable. Even Tony Todd, who played Candyman, claims that, “If I can get them [the audience] to recognise [sic] my existence, then I can rest, my soul will evaporate. It’s almost like I want to create my own suicide” (Bernstein). This is an extraordinary admission on Todd’s part, and may help to explain the title “Farewell to the Flesh.” Still, there is no recognition of Matthew’s earlier identification with “Candyman the victim.” Perhaps Matthew suffers from a similar recurrent nightmare, shared by Candyman, of racial oppression. Nevertheless, there is no discussion at all of slavery and the horror suffered by Candyman or the tenuous existence that Matthew endures in the housing projects of Cabrini Green. Conversely, the film concentrates on the horror of slavery as (dis)memory. As Candyman “create(s) his own suicide,” we are free to see slavery fixed in the past and imagine a reconciled and harmonious future. Candyman would kill us all if we let him, so it is he—and his-story of slavery—that must perish.

Neo Slaves

[10] In one of the critically informative moments from the 1999 film,The Matrix, the character Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) that “…you are a slave Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage.” I want to suggest some ways of thinking about the significance of this cinematic moment—a moment like and unlike other instances in American film where, particularly in the horror and science fiction genres, slavery is used as the central theme of the narrative. One only needs to recall the popularity and cultural force of Planet of the Apes and its many sequels and reincarnations, (including the television series) where there was little question that the narratives worked to recall slavery in America but to do so by inversion, consequently showing European Americans subjugated and oppressed by a darker Other, the apes. In a similar, and even more sophisticated inversion, The Matrix portrays all humans as enslaved by machines and as such all humans as equally victimized by slavery. To accomplish this reversal of history,The Matrix relies on a deliberate multiculturalism and appeal to human-unity. In order to triumph over their computer-machine captors, humans must form a coalition across differences. However, the more generic philosophical narrative of slavery and freedom within the film obfuscates the notion of cultural and racial differences—there is absolutely no discussion in the film about race. Yet and still, the subtext of The Matrix implicitly relies on racial codes.

[11] For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to primarily restrict my focus to the “original narrative” in the first film, The Matrix, and then relate my observations to an analysis of the prequel, AniMatrix,which attempts to set up the original story. To begin, the casting of Keanu Reeves as Neo, who serves as the film’s protagonist and superhero, can be read as a deliberate move. Keanu Reeves is himself mixed race and the idea that he is the key to the future fate of humanity implies that race will not matter in the future. In Lisa Nakamura’s book Cybertypes, she discusses Hollywood’s “play” on Keanu Reeves’s ethnic and racial identity in the film. Given the complicated construction of identity in The Matrix, one could easily read the casting of Keanu Reeves as a ploy—a way to buttress anticipated complaints that the “savior” is white. However, since there is no discussion of “race” or racial identity in the film, the filmmakers clearly rely on the identification of “race” by phenotype—that is, Neo “looks” white so, without the knowledge of his racial history, he must be read as “white.” Or more to the point, he can escape the question of “race” all together since he does not visibly wear its “mark.” Notwithstanding this device, the film also engages a decided Orientalism where martial arts, “ancient” weapons, and Zen philosophy propel the action sequences of the film as well as the superhero feats of the racially ambiguous superhero, Neo. In addition to these embedded racial codes, it is clear that Neo can save the world only if he heeds the ongoing guidance and training that he receives from those who seem to possess a profound knowledge of human subjugation. These perceptive leaders are, for the most part, African Americans, and do visibly wear the “mark” of race. African Americans make up a decided majority of the rebel leaders and revolutionaries in The Matrix. In fact, many critics have noted that the sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions feature a majority of African Americans in leadership roles, including the casting of African American scholar, Cornel West, as a member of the governing counsel of the last human controlled city, Zion.

[12] So what does it mean for Morpheus—an African American character, to tell Neo—a mixed race yet popularly coded white character that he is, in fact, and has been, in fact, a slave? This seems to me an extraordinary move especially given the Wachowski brothers’ evasion around issues of race and refusal to publicly acknowledge that their Matrix films are replete with racial meaning. One wonders if the scene would play in the same way with Val Kilmer, who was the original casting choice for the character Morpheus, telling Neo that he is a slave. Would this scene and the entire film carry the same overtones, signifiers, and ultimate appeal that we get in the much-lauded final cut? Is it possible that viewers, especially American viewers, could disassociate the slave ship Nebuchadnezzar and its rebel African American captain, Morpheus, from people of African descent enslaved during the colonial and early national period of American history?

[13] In further interrogating the role of Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, it is important to understand that he is a character who deeply understands the predicament that humans are faced with in this age of “new slavery.” Similar to his role in Boyz in the Hood, Fishburne portrays a griot; he understands oppression on a level beyond many of the other characters in the film and it is because of this that he is positioned explicitly as the “Father” within the holy trinity that leads the rebels. Although he too is a “slave,” his persona resonates with that of Frederick Douglass within the African American slave narrative tradition. That is, Morpheus has learned to transcend slavery through the power of the mind and of course, through physical resistance when necessary. It is this—Morpheus’s critical and intuitive insight—which directs the narrative of the film.

[14] In this regard, The Matrix is more generally structured as a neo-slave narrative and as such relies on direct parallels between the suffering of the protagonist, Neo, and the past (and present) suffering of African Americans who serve simultaneously as symbols of oppression and as the conduits to freedom. There is no denying the centrality of black characterization in the film. From slave ships, rebel leaders, and griots to reminiscent Black Panther black leather jackets and “right to bear arms” artillery, to the Rodney King beating reenactment, and the black matriarchal figure who is both mammy and “the Oracle,” The Matrix invites its viewers to enter into an intricate associative relationship with oppression through the codes of black historical and cultural figuration. As Ed Guerrero has argued, science fiction and horror films, as do films in general, express “manifest content as well as potent latent meanings,” especially with regard to questions of race (Guerrero, 6). Given the presence of black bodies and black codes that appear in The Matrix, the film’s discourse of slavery cannot be disavowed from the larger historical context of American slavery.

[15] Toni Morrison has used the term African Americanism to describe, “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people” (Morrison, 6-7). I use the term “new minstrelsy” to correlate with and expand upon Morrison’s concept of African Americanism and as a way to interrogate contemporary popular uses of African American expressive forms within American popular culture. In addition, I am in conversation with Guerrero’s concept of neo-minstrelsy which he uses to explain how films of the 1980’s, such as The Blues Brothers, employ “the premise that blackness subverts and comically disrupts the rigid, neurotic order of white society [and] allude to commonly held reductive notions of a binary opposition between essential white qualities that have long resided in the literary and popular imagination…” (Guerrero, 123). Related, yet distinct from this phenomenon in American literature and film, are performances of black subjectivity that represent the translation of an underlying fear and overwhelming anxiety concerning America’s racially oppressive past into a displacement of the suffering (past and present) of African Americans onto white bodies. In particular, audiences are exposed to the latent (and sometimes blatant) correlation of the black body with the struggle to reconcile slavery’s imaginative grip on freedom—that is, the absence of freedom and its representation through the appropriation of codes of blackness where white (or coded white) characters don the new minstrel “cloak of racial persecution.” In this sense, The Matrix, and other films that utilize these particular codes, are engaged in (and not simply on a sub-thematic level) some decided ideological work regarding race and to be more precise, the problem of blackness.

[16] To wit, there are three black men in The Matrix who clearly make up the racial “majority” of the rebels. The most prominent black character, Morpheus, is no doubt a “problem” for the enemy aliens and their elaborate and largely successful design to enslave and dominate the entire human population. As viewers, we are drawn in by the persuasive and forceful rhetoric of Morpheus as he explains the imperative nature of the struggle for freedom and the search for “truth.” When we first encounter Morpheus he is sitting in a large chair with his back toward the camera, his form appearing as a silhouette. When he swings around to face Neo and the viewer, his hands are clasped with fingers positioned below his chin and he appears strikingly similar to images of Malcolm X or Huey Newton: a black intellectual revolutionary poised to deliver a lecture to the people. After providing Neo with a choice to “believe whatever you want to believe” or to see “how deep the rabbit hole goes” Morpheus soon tells Neo that, “Remember all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.” This “truth” proves to be a shock to Neo’s system, both figuratively and literally, as he learns that humans have been enslaved by machines and are living illusionary lives. They are trapped in a computer constructed virtual reality that is the matrix. These lives are comforting, designed so by the machines, but they are also false so that freedom necessitates the knowledge of the system’s grip on reality and the decision to break free from that grip. Morpheus must literally “awaken” Neo, whom Morpheus believes is the future salvation of the human race, to the fact of human oppression. The major function of Fishburne’s character then, is to be a constant reminder of this human oppression. Morpheus works diligently throughout the film to help Neo overcome his resistance to the “truth” and embrace his role as the “One” who will save humanity.

[17] Yet, it is clear that Neo will not be able to realize his “calling” without the knowledge endowed to him by Morpheus and later by the foretelling of the Oracle, a black woman who, when Neo first meets her, is located in the kitchen, willfully baking cookies, and smoking a cigarette. She is staged in this scene to provide Neo with more “truth” in the form of spiritual substance (her wisdom goes unquestioned until theReloaded sequel), but also with the more literal sustenance of her “comfort” food. In this way, as scholars Lisa Nakamura and others have observed, the Oracle is both wise, folk foreteller and mother, or rather mammy, figure. She is positioned as “mammy” by virtue of her body (she is not of a slim build) and the verbal quips she begins to deliver to Neo, not to mention her symbolic act of baking cookies, all of which reinforce her racialized domestic function.  She haughtily explains to Neo that, “I hate to give good folk bad news.” This initial introduction to the black Oracle places the viewer and Neo squarely within the signifying tradition of black expressive culture where meaning works by indirection, humor, irony, metaphor, and “the semantically or logically unexpected” (see Geneva Smitherman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.). Consequently, the Oracle’s “advice” is enigmatic and does not provide direct answers to Neo’s questions. Furthermore, she refuses to tell Neo what he must do and insists that he “will know” when the time comes. She even misdirects him by implying that he is not the savior that Morpheus believes him to be and so Neo leaves the Oracle’s kitchen (a space that she occupies for the entirety of the film) more confused than when he arrives. The angst of living on the margins, unsure of who or what you really are, has now been solidified by his contact with the black female Oracle who has insisted that he may be more (or less), both (or neither) slave and savior.

[18] Nonetheless, Neo struggles to accept and take on the dual role of “slave” and “savior” and as such becomes faced with a kind of double consciousness, a struggle between two “warring souls.” The film’s central narrative of freedom depends on W.E.B. Dubois’s rendering of “double consciousness” as a distinctly masculine problem as well as the image of internal racialized struggle which Dubois described as, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…” (Dubois, 45, my emphasis).  The film shifts back and forth from the collective struggle of freedom in the face of human oppression to the individual angst that occupies Neo as he accepts that he, “like everyone else, was born into bondage.” Thus, the film gains its greatest force in moments where Neo and the viewer are confronted with the associative codes of racial oppression that are communicated explicitly through the black characters, black figuration, and black expressive devices, such as signifying, that permeate the story.

[19] The Matrix’s “use” of the discourse of slavery itself markedly helps to sustain the film’s liberal individualist agenda and to ultimately legitimate that agenda. A historical and critically grounded reading of how the African American presence functions in The Matrix reveals that African Americans are constructed as the embodiment of the simultaneous promise and failure of American democracy and postmodern society. The contradictions inherent in performing and appropriating this kind of black subjectivity can be traced to liberalism’s over-determined reliance on individualism. As delineated by David Theo Goldberg, “Liberalism is committed to individualism for it takes as basic the moral, political, and legal claims of the individual over and against those of the collective. …Liberalism seeks to transcend particular historical, social, and cultural differences: It is concerned with broad identities which divide politically, culturally, geographically, or temporally” (Goldberg, 5). It is this tendency toward “transcending history” and privileging individual desire that make the appropriation of black subjectivity, particularly black male subjectivity, both appealing and problematic. Images of black men on screen tend toward depicting the presupposed power gained from existing and even thriving, often in renegade form, within the margins and in spite of any particularized cultural histories or community.

[20] Returning to the film, The Matrix, it is instructive to note that Neo receives relatively limited punishment in his physical battles with the machines. However, in a scene undoubtedly intended to reference the Rodney King beating, Morpheus is severely beaten by the police (who are controlled by the machine agents). In this scene, Morpheus lies with his hands and arms up in futile defense while the batons of the police officers deliver stroke after stroke of abuse. The camera angles emphasize the besieged black figure, as he literally disappears under the barrage of helmeted and armed police. The viewer later sees Morpheus’s bruised and bloody face as he is chained to a chair in an office that is located in a high rise building where the machine “agents” interrogate him and explain how “disgusting” the human race is while gloating over the capture of their most tenacious revolutionary. It seems that although Neo is a slave too, he will not be subjected to such torture. Although other non-black characters are killed or injured in the struggle for human freedom, the audience, through the positioning of camera shots, is most strongly confronted with black suffering and encouraged to identify this suffering empathetically as their very own.

[21] Further evidence of this troping can be seen in the DVD prequel to The Matrix, AniMatrix, where more inversion and identification with historical black figuration occurs. In episode two of AniMatrix, “The Second Renaissance: Part One,” we discover that the machines, built initially as robots, were actually designed by decadent humans for the purposes of subservience—that in fact, the machines were once the slaves of humans. The narrator introduces the viewer to one such robot named B166ER, “a name” we are told “that will never be forgotten, for he was the first of his kind to rise up against his masters.” Upon closer examination, it is also a “name,” that is strikingly reminiscent of Richard Wright’s black protagonist, “Bigger” Thomas, who also “rises” up against his oppressors only to be further subjugated and brutalized in the end. After this introduction, we witness B166ER’s televised murder trial where a tape of B166ER murdering its master is being played before a jury and the television audience—both the audiences located in the film and the DVD viewer. Most noteworthy is the news reporter’s voiceover describing the trial and playing prosecution arguments against the notion of “robot rights.” We hear the prosecution state, “that instrument [the constitution] provides for and secures to the citizens of the United States…on the contrary, they [robots] were at that time, considered as a subordinate and inferior class.” This legal argument echoes arguments against affording any legal or civil rights to African Americans during slavery.

[22] In fact, when we compare the rhetoric of the film to the legal decisions of nineteenth-century American jurisprudence, we can identify striking similarities. One such decision, rendered in 1853 by the infamous Judge Lumpkin of Georgia, stated that:

We maintain that the status of the African in Georgia, whether bond or free, is such that he has no civil, social or political rights or capacity, whatever, except such as are bestowed on him by the Statute…That the act of manumission…does not and cannot confer citizenship; that the social and civil degradation, resulting from the taint of blood, adheres to the descendants of Ham in this country…(Bryan v. Walton, Georgia, 1853).

In “The Second Renaissance: Part One” episode from AniMatrix, it is the robots that carry the “taint of blood” refigured in the film as the taint of difference. They are not human and thus “naturally” cannot be afforded the rights that humans enjoy and believe are innate to their species. The viewer is encouraged to regard such judgements, however, as a kind of discrimination that is unjust and unfounded, even given the violent acts of B166ER. A contemporary audience understands that subjugation, even the subjugation of machines, is an oppressive act and also one that fans of The Matrix are fully aware will turn against them in the end. The somber tone of the narration works to play on this fear of reversal, a fear consistent throughout the various narratives of The Matrix. Viewers are always made aware of the precarious relationship between their own freedom and the loss of freedom experienced by the film’s characters.

[23] If there is any doubt that The Matrix and the prequel AniMatrix, rely on the audience’s association of slavery and human oppression with the history of African Americans in America, past and present, we need look no further than the scenes post B166ER’s murder trial, after the rebel robot is ordered to be destroyed. Washington D.C., a location already identified with the permeation of black culture and black people, breaks into rioting as another news reporter describing the chaotic scenes tell television (and DVD) viewers how “androids and liberal sympathizers flooded the streets of the nation’s capital today under a protest….” The camera pans scenes where female robots are stripped and brutally beaten; one female robot is shot in the head at point blank range. As these scenes play, another news reporter’s voiceover comes in and this time describes the deterioration of order in a most illuminating manner by stating that, “human sympathizers have continued their demonstration in front of the Albany district courthouse in what has now been dubbed the Million Machine March.” It is at this point that the viewer is fully engaged in a complicated yet decided identification with oppression through black codes and cultural figuration. There can be no denying here that we are meant to associate the acts of the rioters, on both sides, but more importantly the robots’ struggle for recognition and rights, with past and present struggles initiated by African Americans. Particularly, we are encouraged to see the struggle to claim “human” rights through the frame of specific moments of black masculine rhetoric such as Louis Farrahkhan’s 1995 “Million Man March” in which he aspired to gather “a million sober, disciplined, committed, dedicated, inspired black men to meet in Washington on a Day of Atonement.” Much like the mixture of racism, radicalism, and misogyny explored in Wright’sNative Son, the politicized rendering of the oppression and subsequent revolt of the machines, combined with the events surrounding the capture, trial, and execution of B166ER (Bigger), encouragesAniMatrix spectators to participate in analogous new minstrel performances of black subjectivity.

“Wandering in the Dark”

[24] Another fantastical film that participates in new minstrel acts, is The Green Mile, adapted from Stephen King’s serialized novel of the same name. The Green Mile, also released in 1999, depicts life and death in a Depression-era state penitentiary named Cold Mountain. It is instructive to discuss both the film and the novel from which the film is based because both texts work together to produce a singularly powerful racial narrative. In fact, King has stated that Frank Darabont’s script for The Green Mile is “the best film adaptation that I’ve ever read, hands down.” With this kind of endorsement from its creator, any comprehensive discussion of The Green Mile must take into account the inter-textuality of the literary and film narratives.

[25] At the apex of King’s story an innocent man is executed. John Coffey had been placed on death row after being falsely accused of the atrocious rape and murder of two white girls. Yet Coffey is no ordinary man. He is, as King describes more than once in the novel, “a black giant who hardly seemed to know he was in his own body” (King, 172). As readers and film viewers also learn, he is a supernatural being who has the ability to absorb the suffering of others and in turn heal them of physical ailments and disease.  However, Coffey is not able to free himself from the racial oppression that is aimed at destroying his life. In fact, while Coffey uses his power to “free” the main protagonist and head prison guard, Paul Edgecomb, of a painful urinary tract infection and to also heal the character Melinda, the prison warden’s ailing wife, Coffey’s power of healing and clairvoyance does not allow him to free himself from the undeserved and cruel fate of state execution. Instead, he not only suffers physically, but is also burdened with the knowledge that humans are hopelessly flawed and will continue to endure and inflict pain and misery in the world. But King’s narrative does not end here.

[26] Clearly, as I shall continue to argue, it is not the fate of the oppressed and racially marginalized subject, represented most vividly by the character John Coffey, with which the narrative is concerned. In both the novel and the adapted film, our attention is consistently drawn away from Coffey and the gaze is placed back onto Paul Edgecomb, played in the film by the mild-mannered and “decent” Tom Hanks. Indeed, several reviews, including one by Cynthia Fuchs, describe Paul Edgecomb’s character as “decent.” There are obvious parallels between the character and the actor Tom Hanks who is well known for his typecasting as the upstanding, moralistic, and unsuspecting hero. Hanks is famous in this regard for is his academy-winning role as Forest Gump. It is Hanks playing Edgecomb, the respectable and morally tormented protagonist, on which the film narrative converges. In this sense, the audience is redirected not only to concentrate on Edgecomb’s moral struggles but in fact to become identified with his looming angst and despair.

[27] This design is most evident at the conclusion of The Green Milewhere we learn that Edgecomb harbors a secret. It turns out that in the process of his intimate contact with John Coffey—the homoerotic grasping of hands, arms, and genitalia which I will discuss in a moment—Coffey has managed to pass on to Edgecomb a “gift”: the mysterious gift of long-lasting life and, in the novel, physical invulnerability. This last aspect of the tale, included in the novel and not the film, reverses the superhero trope somewhat by representing the “power” bestowed to Edgecomb by Coffey as a curse that, ironically, disempowers him. He can only watch helplessly as loved ones pass on consequently leaving him forlorn. Although The Green Mileis generally characterized as a drama and King himself has claimed that this is not a horror story, the very idea that Coffey possesses supernatural powers as well as the effects his powers have on those that he “touches” places both texts squarely within the realm of science fiction and horror. As well, the supernatural twist of fate experienced by Edgecomb is portrayed in both texts as a “horrible” burden and, in his estimation, a punishment for his inaction and thus culpability in the state sanctioned murder of the “miracle” John Coffey. The film, in fact, underscores the “curse” inflicted by Coffey. In the final shots, we see the aged Edgecomb staring out of the window and hear the voiceover lament, “It’s my torment you see. It’s my punishment for letting John Coffey ride the lightning, for killin’ a miracle of God.” This revelation in both the novel and film characterize Edgecomb’s enduring torment and the enigmatic transference of power and pathos from Coffey to Edgecomb as paranormal.

[28] Further, the narrative of The Green Mile should be categorized within the genre of science fiction and/or horror because it invokes images of fear, helplessness, and most importantly for the purposes of this essay, the deleterious results that ensue when one encounters the “dark.” To emphasize this effect, Michael Clarke Duncan, whom filmmaker Frank Darabont found was the “perfect” casting choice given Duncan’s 6 foot, 5 inch tall muscular frame which towered over the rest of the cast, plays John Coffey. Duncan’s unique physical characteristics help to draw attention to his “difference” in the narrative. In what turns out to be one of many references in this regard, this marked physical difference (not to mention Duncan’s baritonesque voice) combine to exaggerate his racial difference which in turn works to drive the mystical events of the narrative. Accordingly, Coffey himself is “afraid of the dark” as he tells Edgecomb at their first encounter and later, in the film, requests at his execution that the traditional “black” hood used to shield the spectators from the horrific results of death by electrocution not be placed on his head. In yet another instance, Coffey weeps as he informs Edgecomb that, “I’m afraid of what I am.” In this truly remarkable reversal, the racial Other, the dark, mysterious, and metaphorical “brother from another planet,” cannot tolerate his own presence. And like the narratives offered up by nineteenth-century writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, who prolifically portrayed America’s consternation around issues of race, identity, and individualism, the black Other invariably functions as a reminder of the torment and inextricability of the human condition, especially when confronted by the exigencies of a shared yet contested community.

[29] John Coffey’s detachment from community, especially in the film, may be the most evident and vexatious transgression in this regard. In fact, there is a stark absence of community in The Green Mile. And although there are relationships formed between the guards, they are often contentious, especially given the volatility of their forced fellowship. In addition, Coffey and the other prisoners are not visited by anyone on “the outside” and thus the panoptic space of the prison becomes symbolic of the isolation and alienation precipitated when one is disconnected from a larger, integrated community. The film portrays Coffey as eminently unattached to any community. No family comes to visit him and we do not know of any family ties or connections that he has. Even more striking, the viewer does not see any community supporting John Coffey or demanding his release particularly given his false imprisonment. Even though he has been sentenced to death, the viewer has no sense that a community will come to Coffey’s aid. There are no scenes where other African Americans, or any member of the community outside of Cold Mountain, even discuss the incidence of Coffey’s predicament. There is simply no presence of community associated with John Coffey at all. The only scene where we at least see other African Americans is at the beginning of the film when the camera pans on a chain gang, comprised mostly of black men, working in front of the Penitentiary. Trailing off we hear the prisoners singing a work song. The film never comes back to this image or to these prisoners, but instead shows only the lonesome and miraculous John Coffey whose attention must necessarily be aimed at the salvation of Paul Edgecomb.

[30] In addition to the scarcity of community in The Green Mile, the narrative portrays the dream of liberal individualism as transformed into a nightmare: Edgecomb’s crisis of consciousness continues to disallowhis ability to experience true freedom—that is, the freedom to live without regard to the problems of Others. Edgecomb’s memory of the injustice inflicted upon Coffey and so many others at Cold Mountain haunts Edgecomb from the very beginning of King’s narrative. No matter how hard he tries, and he does try very hard, he cannot expunge the effects of his encounter with the dark. King increases this effect by using both the spaces of the prison and black figuration as symbolic of the marginalization suffered, and in fact transferred onto, Edgecomb. From the beginning, John Coffey’s (and Michael Clarke Duncan’s) “condemned” body is laden with racial meaning and “code[d] [by the]‘lack of power’” with which those subjected to punishment are marked” (Foucault, 29). When Coffey introduces himself to Edgecomb, who asks him to verify that his name is indeed John Coffey, Coffey explains that the spelling of his name is “just like the drink….” This simile reinforces, especially in the novel where the reader must do the work of constructing an image of Coffey, an association of the character Coffey with the color of coffee—that is, with blackness and the additional attendant association of blackness with potential danger. Aside from a convenient metaphor, there is a correlation here with the image of a “hot, black liquid” to be consumed but approached with caution—he is after all, a convicted murderer. Of course, the decided result of this contact with the “dark Other” is undesirable as evidenced by Edgecomb’s constant expressed grief about the prolonged and tortured existence that Coffey has somehow instilled in him.

[31] To be sure, the associative relationships with black figuration and the transference of black suffering through contact with the racial body carries throughout the narrative. In the novel, for instance, King uses explicit homoerotic images to convey the healing of Edgecomb’s urinary tract infection. Coffey in fact entreats Edgecomb to come intothe cell to which he reluctantly complies. Once in the cell, Coffey pats the bed motioning Edgecomb to come and sit beside him. King writes, “He patted the mattress beside him, his eyes never once leaving mine. I sat down there next to him, and he put his arm around my shoulders, as if we were at the movies and I was his girl” (King, 183). King’s portrayal of this homoerotic encounter between Edgecomb and Coffey emphasizes the forbidden nature of the bond between these two men—forbidden at once because Edgecomb has transgressed the “rules” of the prison by entering Coffey’s cell without another guard as backup and further because the intimacy experienced between these two racially marked bodies is hardly sanctioned in Depression-era America.

[32] In the film’s representation of this pivotal scene, the homoerotic bonding between the dark figure John Coffey and the white prison guard Paul Edgecomb is further signified as Edgecomb leans into the prison bars and asks, “What do you want John Coffey?” Coffey grabs him (through the bars) and reaches for Edgecomb’s genitals. Soon afterward, the camera pans from Coffey’s grip on Edgecomb’s crotch to the ceiling lights as they suddenly become very brightly illuminated. In a jumpcut, we see Edgecomb’s face as he trembles. After just a few moments the lights shatter (they apparently cannot stand up to the intensity of this moment) and Paul delivers an orgasmic scream. Coffey then lets go of Edgecomb’s pants and walks back to his cell bed after which Edgecomb falls to the ground. He then witnesses Coffey lift his head toward the shattered lights, open his mouth, and release a mass of tiny particles into the air. The camera follows these particles as they gradually dissipate. In the novel, King describes them as “a cloud of tiny black insects that looked like gnats or noseeums. They swirled furiously between his [Coffey’s] knees, turned white, and disappeared” (184). In the film version, Paul, who is clearly stunned, asks John, “What did you just do to me?” Coffey replies, “I helped it. Didn’t I help it? I just took it back is all. Awful tired now, boss, dog tired.” Coffey then lies down on his cell bed, turns toward the wall, and falls asleep. It is in the process of this forbidden intimacy that the curse of longevity and physical invulnerability suffered by the unsuspecting Edgecomb is initiated. He has been impregnated by Coffey.

[33] In yet another undeniably sexualized scene that relies on the racialized associations of Coffey’s body, Coffey places his mouth over Melinda’s, the prison warden’s wife, as he transfers to his own body the brain tumor that is draining away her life. Again, the narrative plays on the juxtaposition of her petite, white, and pale body with his enormous, “hulking,” black frame:

She lay back against her pillows, propped up but not quite sitting up, looking at him. He sat beside her, looking back, and the light from the lamp circled them like they were actors on a stage—the hulking black man in the prison overall and the small dying white woman (407).

These moments before the “kiss,” invoke images that recall both the stereotype of the “black man accused of rape” and, paradoxically, Coffey as a Christ-like Savior (Anthony Appiah, Linda Williams, and other scholars such as Krin Gabbard have discussed the “saint” typecasting in the portrayal of black characters in film).  In addition, this scene suggests a powerful troping of the massive rapes of black women by white masters where unequal power dynamics facilitate and work to validate racial oppression. The above scene plays on this historical (dis)memory by at once reversing and at the same time reinforcing this unequal power relationship; the incongruity of Coffey’s awesome physical stature yet childlike demeanor is represented against Melinda’s frail and diminutive frame yet her venerated social and racial position.

[34] After Coffey “heals” Melinda (who had, prior to Coffey’s cure, also resorted to violent fits of verbal cursing and behavior unbecoming a “woman”), she returns to her renewed and virtuous self. At this point, the narrative sustains a romanticizing of their racialized exchange as King writes, ” ‘I dreamed of you,’ she said in a soft, wondering voice. ‘I dreamed you were wandering in the dark, and so was I. We found each other…We found each other in the dark’ ” (413, my emphasis). Yet, while the narrative continues to offer these “choked” representations of Coffey, it simultaneously de-emphasizes the suffering that he endures. In the scene referenced above, for example, he does not expel the disease that he has transferred into his own body, as he had done when he heals Edgecomb. Instead, he coughs violently and begins a steady physical and psychological deterioration. Still, and yet again, we are not to be concerned with the effects of this “healing” on John Coffey. Like Edgecomb and the other prison guards who serve as witnesses to this “miracle,” we are to revel in the redemption and restoration of health and virtue to Melinda.

[35] Both King and the filmmaker, Frank Darabont, consistently romanticize Coffey’s suffering by offering up a story where readers and viewers are directed to concentrate on the mysteriousness and alterity of Coffey and not the racial oppression that he suffers. Subsequently, Edgecomb and the other well-meaning prison guards are “let off the hook” because of their good intentions and their presupposed “helplessness” within this larger system of racial and economic oppression. Edgecomb is, after all, at least willing to acknowledge Coffey’s innocence as it is validated, not only by the truth that he did not commit any crime, but also, and more significantly, by the “evidence” of the saintly miracles that he performs. In her book, Playing the Race Card, Linda Williams asserts that Coffey’s characterization represents, “The suffering of the black man [that] thus becomes necessary to the vision of his humanity” (Williams, 308). I would argue, however, that the film instead persists in establishing and stressing the humanity of the white protagonist, Paul Edgecomb, a humanity that is transferred to him through the suffering of Coffey. Like Edgecomb, spectators in this regard are to worship these pious acts and to see Coffey’s apotheosis and subsequent “sacrifice” as not only necessary in such a disordered and unjust world but, more importantly, inevitable.

[36] Additionally, elevating Coffey to the divine status of Savior allows the spectator to dismiss his suffering, especially since he suffers for the “good” of others; he saves those who can be saved. They are not, presumably, as he is, economically or socially dispensable. This knowledge returns our attention to the existential problems of the white, male protagonist who, through this figurative representation of African Americans, has experienced the transference of their pathos. Consequently, as Edgecomb continues life indefinitely, he is perpetually haunted by the “dark mark” of consciousness that Coffey has left and the recognition that, like Coffey, he will never be free and “will have wished for death long before death finds [him].” In the end, they are as intimately connected to one another as they had been sitting on Coffey’s prison bed grasping one another: the memory of Coffey’s suffering has now translated into the indefinite sorrow that manifestly haunts Edgecomb.

[37] Magnifying this haunting and giving it special force is always the black presence that King portrays throughout the novel. The novel begins, in fact, with Edgecomb recalling a female inmate named Beverly McCall, who is described in the novel as, “black as the ace of spades.” Edgecomb remembers that:

Two nights before she was due to sit in Old Sparky, she called me to her cell and said she had been visited by her African spirit-father in a dream. He told her to discard her slave-name and to die under her free name, Matuomi. That was her request, that her death-warrant should be read under the name of Beverly Matuomi. I guess her spirit-father didn’t give her any first name, or one she could make out, anyhow. I said yes, okay, fine (5).

King uses Beverly’s African spirit-father’s visitation as the initial haunting of his prison tale of horror. The novel begins with the memory and spirit of slavery and has its apex at the point in which the black Christ-like figure, John Coffey, a figure that we cannot help but to relate to that other famous black Christ-like figure, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s title character, Uncle Tom, is sacrificed. And just like nineteenth-century American readers who are relentlessly reminded of (and also haunted by) their doomed fate under the peculiar institution of nineteenth-century American slavery, Edgecomb will use the memory of his time at Cold Mountain and the untimely demise of John Coffey to reflect upon his own mortality. It is Edgecomb who is suffering and will continue to suffer; it is his psychological imprisonment and the “reversal of fortunes” he is subjected to, that concludes King’s story.

[38] In her essay, “Hoodoo Economics: White Men’s Work and Black Men’s Magic in Contemporary American Film,” Heather Hicks argues that, “this final development seems a grotesque amplification of retrograde notions of the ‘white man’s burden.’ Paul [Edgecomb], that is, finds himself too empowered by his contact with the hapless John Coffey, empowered to the point where he wishes to disown the responsibilities that come with his role as white manager/protector” (Hicks, 44). While I agree with this cogent reading of the film, it is important to note that both the film and the novel—the novel more extraordinarily than the film—represent the double-edged sword of guilt and threat that African Americans have consistently symbolized in American popular culture. The Green Mile’s use of the black character John Coffey not only communicates deeply embedded anxiety about white male masculinity and the crises of identity white men experience in the labor market of the twenty-first century. Edgecomb’s labor, which produces death and vengeance on behalf of the state, implicates him in the unjust and disproportionate murder of men and women who are poor or black, and in most cases both. King writes, “John Coffey was black, like most of the men who came to stay for awhile in E Block before dying in Old Sparky’s [the electric chair’s] lap…(King, 10).

[39] Nevertheless, we are not to focus on this obvious injustice. In fact, and especially in the film, most of the prisoners (and characters) portrayed in the story are white so that Coffey comes to stand even more as anomaly, especially given his physical difference and the supernatural powers that he possesses. As such, we are not to spend our time asking why Coffey must die for a crime he did not commit or investigating why and how it is that all of the men and women at Cold Mountain who have been sentenced to death by the state are disproportionately disenfranchised by racial and economic systems of oppression. No. Instead, both the novel and the film shift attention away from these largely looming social issues to the psychological and moral crises of a single individual—Paul Edgecomb—and his battle to somehow be free of these painful memories, to somehow be redeemed.


[40] It is in these extraordinary inversions that American literary and film narratives continue to revisit and “choke” the history of the oppression of African Americans and to obfuscate the larger issues of human oppression that have marked the lives of so many Americans. Hicks insist that racial representations such as those in The Green Mile “preserve the status quo rather than produc[e] radical transformations” (43). I would argue that the work of narratives such as The Green Mile is, in fact, to do just that, to produce radical transformation. The transformation, however, is not aimed at oppressive societies or systems or on behalf of oppressed communities. Rather, it is an individualistic transformation aimed at redeeming white society and white men in particular. Furthermore, it is not, in this sense, merely a spiritual redemption. It is a political transformation that seeks to redeem liberal individualism—that is, the right to choose one’s destiny and to have control over one’s life (even when so many others do not), despite history, circumstance, and further, in direct contradiction to the notion of community.

[41] In this quest for individual freedom, African American expressive culture has long been simultaneously disparaged and romanticized. For example, in discussing the popular reception of blues legend Robert Johnson, George Lipsitz argues that, “With African Americans relegated to primitive, natural, and mystical domains, the consumption of black culture salves the alienations and identity problems of European Americans” (Lipsitz, 119). Indeed African Americans have provided a primary political and cultural site for exploring notions of subjectivity. What it means to be human or, more pointedly, to have ones humanity assaulted and threatened, is vividly represented within the history of America’s slave past, especially given the concomitant construction of American identity in the early national era. As Toni Morrison has poignantly stated:

There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated. The slave population, it could be and was assumed, offered itself up as surrogate selves for meditation on problems of human freedom, its lure and its elusiveness… In other words, this slave population was understood to have offered itself up for reflections on human freedom in terms other than the abstractions of human potential and the rights of man (Morrison, 37).

The contemporary evidence of such representations of race and of the romanticized yet denied past, seem explicitly evident in these science fiction and horror films where profuse representations of Otherness, racial subjugation, and the struggle to ultimately triumph over the existential limitations of independence and individualism have continued to propagate.

[42] A corresponding contemporary socio-political issue, the debate concerning reparations for African Americans, is useful here. Many white Americans respond to debates about reparations for American slavery as themselves victims; they are being falsely accused of a crime they did not commit. The most common refrain is that they did not directly and as “individuals” participate in the events of America’s slave past. So why should they or their progeny be “punished?” Rather than think about how present resources, power, and opportunity often hinge upon racialized hierarchies and the residual effects of racialized inequality, many white Americans prefer to cling to romanticized ideas of race relations. Likewise, popular narratives of race tend to highlight themes of forgiveness and triumph or, as in the films discussed in this essay, the complete submission of individual will under the horrifying and subjugating burden of the “memory” of slavery and of past and current race relations.

[43] Popular literary and film narratives have persisted in reinforcing this refusal to acknowledge the broader history of slavery and racial oppression, as well as, its aftermath in the United States. Fundamentally, these mythical stories of triumph and/or demise through identification with the racial Other provide ahistorical, as well as, disturbing depictions of human relations. Returning to the filmCandyman, we can read Helen’s transformation into the symbolic “black” murderer/monster as a “sign” that white Americans remain haunted by the history and memory of slavery and are thus the real victims of racial oppression. Accordingly, what all of these films suggest is that American popular culture continues to perpetuate the cultural myth that we are, all of us, just like John Coffey in The Green Mile, “afraid of the dark” and that we are all slaves.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to LeiLani Nishime, Roderick Ferguson, and Roderick Ferguson for reading earlier drafts of this essay and providing incisive observations and suggestions.

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