For good or evil, he holds the power. He doesn't even need a name, he's simply

The Man

September 13, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

He's burning down the Amazon. He's making you work this weekend. He ruined music, and everything else that was pure and good. He'll come down hard if you step out of line. He once owned slaves. (This is not surprising.) And sometimes, he even deals drugs.

Who is he?

He's the Man.

He's been with us for at least a hundred years, probably more, and he'll never go away. And now, for the first time, he's gotten his own movie. Last weekend, New Line Cinema released The Man, a buddy action comedy in which Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy quarrel over who really is the Man.

"You sure as hell don't look like the Man," Jackson tells the tweedy, bespectacled Levy.

"The Man?" Levy asks.

"The cops, the heat, the po-po, 5-0," Jackson explains.

The Man really needs no explanation. By now, everyone knows him. He comes up in movies, popular music, books. He even has a citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (but that's probably because he owns it, because he owns everything): "A person in authority; spec. a prison warder or governor; a policeman; an employer, a boss."

There are actually two Men. There's the bad one - the oppressor, the slave owner, the boss man. This is the Man John Fogerty had in mind when he wrote "Proud Mary," which opens, "Left a good job in the city / Workin' for the Man every night and day."

But there is another Man, a good Man, the Man who kicks the winning field goal or runs into burning buildings to save lives or picks up the check at closing time. This is the Man director Les Mayfield had in mind when he made the film, The Man.

"It's good to be the Man. You want to be the Man," Mayfield said in a recent interview. He thinks the positive meaning of the phrase is more prevalent in culture today. "It's redefined itself to a degree that now the boss man is the person to be. Now if you're the Man, you're the guy on top. It's arguably a good thing."

The film represents something of a shift in the Man's status in popular culture. As recently as 2003, in the movie School of Rock, the Man was disparaged. In teaching an elementary school music class, actor Jack Black explains to his students that the world is run by the Man.

"The Man ruined the ozone and he's burning down the Amazon and he kidnapped Shamu and put her in a chlorine tank," Black says. "And there used to be a way to stick it to the Man. It was called rock 'n' roll. But guess what? Oh no, the Man ruined that, too, with a little thing called MTV."

Black says the Man will ruin anything that is cool or pure or awesome. "So do yourself a favor," he tells his kids, "and just give up."

It's hard to know exactly when a man became the Man. Linguists say it was probably at some point in the 19th century in the American South. Chances are he was white. And chances are he owned slaves. The phrase apparently originated in African-American culture, perhaps on plantations.

Suzanne Kemmer, a linguistics professor at Rice University, said the phrase comes up frequently in African-American literature and art from the early 20th century, indicating that it had taken hold in the culture even earlier.

"My hypothesis is it goes back to slave days, or just after slave days, when white people were the employers and black people were the employees," Kemmer said. "For black people on plantations, the Man was probably the owner."

After emancipation, the Man was no longer just a slave owner. Many blacks worked on the railroad, and the Man could be the boss working them long, hard hours. The 1931 play Mule Bone, by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, includes this line: "Dis railroad belongs to de man - I kin walk it as good as you, cain't I?"

And the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture describes the Man as "a catch-all phrase for whites" and says, "The majority of southern blacks spent much of their lives `workin' for the man.'"

But, as with so much that is cool or hip about black culture, the phrase was quickly appropriated by whites. After migrating into the mainstream, it came to mean anyone in authority, and white musicians and authors felt comfortable using it.

The 1960 Roy Orbison song "Working for the Man" chronicled the life of a laborer: "I pull to the left, I heave to the right / I wanna kill him but it wouldn't be right / Cause I'm working for the man, working for the man."

The Velvet Underground portrayed the Man as the guy who sells you drugs in a Harlem brownstone. And the 1967 Buffalo Springfield song "For What It's Worth," about police cracking down on protesters in Los Angeles, showed the Man can sometimes wear a uniform:

There's something happening here

What it is ain't exactly clear

There's a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware ...

You step out of line, the man come and take you away.

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