"Since film is visual and since race consists first of visual difference, film is the arena where white representations of Black peoples are most exaggerated & most demonized."
To further quote Elizabeth McAlister's lecture Cellulose Spirits & White Racism: White Fear & Black Gods in Film, "Film, television shows & television commercials as well as internet ads & websites routinely serve up negative representations of African-based religions.
"The images are produced by people who are outsiders -- non-practitioners, not of African descent. The representations tend to be in either comedy, police-action or horror genres, & they are almost always racist."
Black & Hispanic folk religion (voudon & santeria) get the full-blown racist treatment straight out of 1940s Hollywood, but in the late 1980s, in John Schlesinger's retro horror fiasco The Believers (1987). From a slick production with an A director & an A cast, one expects better.
Martin Sheen is the psychiatrist who discovers not only that voodoo is real, but he has to save his pasty-white son from the evil dark people who sacrifice Christian children. Jimmy Smits shoots himself in the head rather than have his failing mind enslaved by evil negroes, who're just natural worshippers of devils.
It's well acted, mildly suspenseful for a while though not very, with a mediocre climax. Frankly, if I'd been around to "correct" the script before it was filmed, I'd've suggested they get Malick Bowens to play a heroic voodoo priest rather than an evil voodoo priest. He should've saved the boy (Harley Cross) from whatever nasty spirit it was that made him in general an unpleasant little shit.
I mean, Bowens is a powerhouse actor with Shakespearean credibility, & here he's wasted playing a scarey devil-darky. This is what passes for imagination in Hollywood.
Overlooking the central assumptions about faiths other than Christianity, the film does build up a certain momentum that allows a willing viewer to accept that, indeed, voodoo practitioners are a threat to white children. It's a parallel to the antisemitic belief that Jews use the blood of Christian babies in kabbalistic sorceries.
A perfect double-bill would be The Believers together with The Serpent & the Rainbow (1988) which came out about the same time & shares some of the same awful assumptions.
In Wes Craven's film, fear of premature burial is palpable, but once again, if you don't believe black folk-religion exists in great part to wreak havoc in the lives of white people like Bill Pullman, it's more racist than it is convincingly horrific.
Cravens took a preposterous non-fiction book that purported to solve certain mysteries of zombie manufacture, & turned a bad book into a fairly good film promulgating white beliefs about voodoo such as have been inherited from old b/w schlockers like White Zombie (1932).
Insofar as The Serpent & the Rainbow pays homage to vintage Hollywood it's pretty good, but one has to work awfully hard to overlook that it really couldn't care less if this type of stereotyping of African & Haitian religion is essentially & purely racist.
This time we have Zakes Mokae in the evil voodoo priest role. Mokae is another guy with enormous acting creds on the stage, wasted in a role that by the 1980s shouldn't've been so easily foisted on the public.
Thankfully many of today's stars like Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, or Whoopi Goldberg are no longer relegated to playing shoeshine boys, evil voodoo priests & mammies.
Oh wait, Wuoopi did play a mammy once didn't she. completely so in Clara's Heart (1988), & dangerously close to it in Corinna, Corinna (1994) which struggles for a revisionist quality to the character of the black woman who puts a white child's welfare before that of her own family. Not that I too wouldn't've preferred to a devoted black mammy instead of the abusive bug-eyed hunchbacked honky guardian who beat the crap out of my sister & me when we were tiny.
As I would've with Malick in The Believers, I'd've made Zakes the star of Serpent & the Rainbow. He should've been portrayed as a champion against evil, & not forced by the desire to be employed in cinema to pay homage to old Hollywood racism.
Rather, I would turn that racism inside out, & have Bill Pullman find out the really scarey enemies out there aren't inevitably black people after all. That reasonably intelligent directors like Craven or Schlesinger couldn't imagine it condemns not them as individuals but society for assisting intelligent people in being so minimally imaginative & maximally stupid.
Still, if the point of such a film is to make you jump & feel creeped out, & if you can overlook the inate racism of such tales, The Serpent & the Rainbow is effectly unsettling in ways the comparatively tepid The Believers never achieves.
But I fear I can't get beyond the racism. I can forgive it somewhat in a 1930s or 1940s film, but by the 1970s or 80s intelligent filmmakers should no longer be living in an alternate universe that never had Dr. King in it.
For me, stories of good white men set-upon by evil black men, or which assume the one supernatural thing on earth that is not evil is Christianity, requires a pre-set moronic phobia nestled firmly in place. Otherwise such a film cannot be horrific or startling for anything other than its ignorance & racism.
Continue to the next zombie film:
Mulberry Street (2006)
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl