The role of race in sports movies
A few weeks back, the
The Fighter is a prime example of the triumph of the white underdog, a theme that rings through most sports pictures.
Especially given both the demographics and prominence of African-Americans in the Republic of Sport, you'd be within your rights to ask: Where are the people of color in these movies? Sure, there are some black athletes rendered on the big screen.
Who's that, you ask? You actually know him well. He's become a stock character in sports movies, the font of wisdom who's typically a subordinate but able to see what the protagonist cannot. He may be a drifter, or destitute, or disabled, usually residing on society's margins. He has his limitation (and thus knows his place?), yet our hero desperately needs his help. Luckily, the AKBG is there to serve.
Morgan Freeman has, of course, made a career of playing this role, the omniscient narrator who possesses both wisdom and clairvoyance -- his half-blind janitor/trainer Scrap in
It's Fortune the stadium janitor (Charles S. Dutton) telling
Chubbs is played by Carl Weathers, who did a previous turn as the AKBG in
Perhaps the best recent example of the sports movie All-Knowing Black Guy is Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) in
What's up with these unlikely muses, so far down on the societal org chart, giving inspiration to the protagonists? At a minimum, the AKBG present a device through which the movie can offer a potential history lesson. But even there, the filmmakers let the opportunity slip by and, well. Pull punches. In
"What happened?" wonders Happy.
"I wasn't allowed to play pro anymore."
"Because you're black?"
And here we arrive at -- to use the voguish phrase -- a teachable moment, a chance to address segregation and the evils of exclusionary clubs.
"Hell, no," says Chubb. "An alligator bit my hand off!"
If this trope sounds familiar, well, it is. In
Again, despite crafting an opening to discuss baseball's color line, the movie offers a much less tendentious reason for Mertle's disappointment; he crowded the plate, got hit by a pitch and went blind.
That photo we see of Mertle in a Pittsburgh uniform, posed alongside Ruth? Presumably, it's when he played for the Crawfords of the Negro Leagues and Ruth passed through on a barnstorming tour. But how is The Sandlot target audience -- boys, ages, say, 8-16 -- ever to infer that? They're not. It's as if the filmmakers are drawn to the fascinating-but-uncomfortable realities of our racial history but at the last minute lose their nerve and back off the plate, as it were.
It's no doubt true that from a less racially-specific perspective, the AKBG is simply part of a time-tested Hollywood conceit: create some misdirection, defy some superficial expectations. It's the same reason why the salt-of-earth midwesterners invariably know the truths and life lessons that elude the ambitious, slick pedigreed elites from either coast. (We await the movie in which the investment banker travels to the Ozarks and imparts his worldliness and mastery of financial markets on the naive locals.)
But, again, the unsettling question: Why are these sports movie AKBGs always so marginalized and secondary, and so very focused on the success of the hero? To be charitable, one could argue that the wisdom of these frequently beaten-down, disabled AKBGs is a testament to the (mostly unconvincing) notion that a hard-knocks life is the best teacher. According to that logic there are actually benefits derived from being trapped in poverty, disabled, beset by discrimination -- a view that might comfort the (mostly) white filmmakers who put out these movies and the (mostly) white audiences who consume them. More cynically, could it be that without one form of life disability or another, the AKBG might be too capable, too formidable for the white-centric narrative and the anxious white imagination?
Perhaps, in the end, one of these sports movie All-Knowing Black Guys again knows best. As Chubbs says to