Clean It Up and See if It Sells

September 26, 1994|By DANNY GREEN

Disney's plan to build a historical theme park highlighting American slavery in northern Virginia is distressing, but it's understandable. Hollywood's business is money. And how do movie moguls make money? By ridding some taboo subject of its disturbing elements, thereby making it more accessible to mainstream culture.

America's problem since the Reconstruction era has been how to incorporate the Negro into society. Hollywood answered in the 1920s by creating the first socially acceptable Negro, the ''tom.'' Although they were chased, beaten, insulted and flogged, toms remained hearty and submissive, and emerged as quasi-heroes in a cruel and harsh world.

The 1930s ushered in the era of the Negro servant. These characters were sweet, jolly, religious people always ready to lend an ear and a helping hand when times were rough.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of an effective black political movement. No longer were foot-shufflin', ham-hock eatin' blacks trying to prove their worth and desperately squeeze into American culture. Instead, militants like Malcolm X and Fred Hampton articulated the black rage that had been long repressed. Blacks began to resist white bitterness by sitting in, boycotting and demonstrating.

As civil-rights legislation chipped away at discrimination and poor race relations, shrewd Hollywood movie executives, like those at Disney, began thinking of ways to depict the new relationship between blacks and whites without making it seem too threatening. In characteristic Hollywood form, they slapped a happy ending on racial ambiguity.

In the ''buddy movies'' of the 1980s, pairs of white and black men were portrayed as the best of pals. More often than not, the black character functioned as the loyal sidekick, always ready to lend an ear and a helping hand to his chum when times were rough.

In the ''Lethal Weapon'' movies, Mel Gibson was the reckless, suicidal, alienated cowboy, and Danny Glover was the middle-class, middle-aged, stable eunuch; he was successful in the role of Gibson's mammy-nurturer. Whereas Gibson was invited over to Glover's house a couple of times in ''Lethal Weapon I,'' he is living there by the beginning of ''Lethal Weapon III.'' And the familiar image at the end of all three films is Glover embracing Gibson after a near-death climax and assuring him that everything is going to be all right.

Never was the black-buddy-as-mammy-nurturer portrayed better than by the twinkie-eating, lovable bear who befriends Bruce Willis, by walkie-talkie, in ''Die Hard.'' Affectionately known as Pal, he tells his buddy, Bruce Willis, that he has to ''know when to shut up and when to pray.''

O.J. Simpson is an example of this ''taboo effacing.'' Once known as the hyper-virile football player of the early 1970s, he became the cuddly oaf in movies such as ''The Klansman,'' and ''The Towering Inferno,'' in which he had the distinction of rescuing a cat. In the 1980s, he became Leslie Nielson's sidekick in the ''Naked Gun'' movies.

During the late 1980s, when the Supreme Court dealt major setbacks to hard-won gains such as affirmative action and equal-employment opportunities, black Americans realized that race relations were not as amiable as the movies depicted them.

Afrocentrism, a form of black nationalism that emerged in the early 1990s, grew out of the fear that African-Americans were becoming culturally assimilated into bitter mainstream America. Instead of putting other races' anxieties first, it put black cares, // achievements and sufferings at the center of discussion.

As the 1960s militant was at odds with the pickaninny and tom figures, so the 1990s Afrocentrist is at odds with the buddy sidekick and mammy-nurturer. But just as Hollywood executives erased racial tension in the 1930s and the 1980s, they will slap a happy ending on this situation. That is the meaning of Disney's proposed historical theme park highlighting American slavery.

Unfortunately, like its predecessors, it is destined to become a culturally devoid barrel of laughs. Isn't that what the guys at Disney want? To make the experience of slavery amusing so it can be more accessible to mainstream audience. To confront it honestly would be, at the very least, disturbing, and normally you can't disturb people and make money at the same time.

So the gruesome trans-Atlantic slave journey will become a white-water ride for cake-eating tourists, the underground railroad will be a monorail system with a big Harriet Tubman ornament on the front of it, and the arduous task of picking cotton for 16 hours under the sun will be reduced to a game to see who can pick the most cotton candy in thirty seconds.

Danny Green is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University

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