Wednesday, March 21, 2007

There he goes again

Apparently, this ridiculous piece by old friend David Ehrenstein published in the LA Times op-ed page has achieved some notoriety, though not the good kind. Leaving morons like Rush out of it, Ehrenstein's sad imitation of Armond White doesn't begin to stand up to any kind of scrutiny. In a nutshell, Ehrenstein argues that Barack Obama is a real life manifestation of a fantasy movie figure, the Sidney Poitier/Morgan Freemanesque "Magic Negro", who somehow assuages white guilt through the sheer nobility of his being. The argument is so very, very wrong. And dumb.

To be sure, the "Magic Negro" exists as a singularly irritating Hollywood trope, and I appreciate Ehrenstein's discussion of same. I personally would've singled out Djimon "let us free" Hounsou as being the post-Poitier exemplar of the patronizing "Magic Negro" archetype (even Freeman is allowed to stand on his own sometimes), but the examples provided were fine. Attaching the label to Obama? Here's Ehrenstein's entire case:
It's the way [Obama] said it that counts the most. It's his manner, which, as presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden ham-fistedly reminded us, is "articulate." His tone is always genial, his voice warm and unthreatening, and he hasn't called his opponents names (despite being baited by the media).
I mean, that's it. That's all he has. Let's dispense with it, then, shall we? First, his entire against Obama rests on positive stylistic traits to which any number of presidential contenders aspire. Hillary is also trying to project these same qualities (warm, familiar, unthreatening) with less success. So is someone like Republican contender Mike Huckabee, who's trying to put a friendly, congenial face on social conservatism. Would Ehrenstein prefer that Obama run as Mr. Angry Black Man? He's running to appeal to the most people, not to flatter the sensibility of narcissistic culture critics. More pointedly, the Magic Negro, as defined in the piece, is a black man without a past, who exists solely to redeem the white protagonist. What does it say when Obama's campaign message is basically "vote for me because my life story offers hope for a better future." This is biography-as-metaphor, and Obama himself used his best-selling memoir as a launching pad. Obama is all about telling his own story, which is the opposite of what a Magic Negro should be doing, no?

In movie terms, Obama is more like Denzel, the charismatic, likable protagonist whose actions drive the story. We root for Denzel because we like him and he's the good guy, not because he's there to teach the white star some valuable lesson. In the same way, Obama's appeal comes from his incredible charisma, compelling biography, and the sense that he's trustworthy, authentic, and has good judgment, not because he grabs our sympathy as a noble helper guy, auditioning to be the Vernon Jordan of the post-Bush era. The whole idea doesn't stand up to one poke. One really has to wonder what's going on at the LA Times op-ed section when they run something as sloppily thought-out as this. Just because it has a provocative title? Perhaps the Times feels the need to balance the weekly lunatic ravings of Jonah Goldberg with retarded lefty rants, and David Sirota wasn't available this week.

Update: I guess there's a lot of shit going down in the Times recently. Running dumbass opinion pieces are the least of its troubles. Please Broad/Burkle/Zell, step in and do something.