Through The Decades: Examining The Black Male Film Hero

Apr 1, 2016
Originally published on April 1, 2016 2:26 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The movie "Miles Ahead," about iconic jazz musician Miles Davis, hits the theaters today. It's directed by and stars Don Cheadle. In the film, Cheadle's Davis takes a shot at a record executive who he believes owes him money.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MILES AHEAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You have new material.

DON CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) My material. My session tape.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're under contract here. We actually own that tape.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Miles.

CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) You own?

MONTAGNE: Well, that didn't really happen - not in real life. But critics are lauding Cheadle for capturing the essence of Miles Davis. And a warning, his essence is conveyed in language some listeners will find offensive. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team says this portrait is the latest of a certain kind of black male film hero - the badass.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Generations of black men love Miles Davis, and not just for his music. When he began his career, Davis was a lot of things America didn't value. He was small, dark and not handsome in a way that fit the country's prevailing aesthetic. Despite that, he was steeped in pride - in himself, in his art, in his race - and would stand up to anyone who got in his way.

QUINCY TROUPE: When I was growing up I wanted to be like Miles Davis.

BATES: That's Quincy Troupe, who co-authored Davis' autobiography. In segregated East St. Louis, where both he and Davis grew up, Davis' bearing and no-nonsense attitude and way with the ladies earned him big respect.

TROUPE: All my cousins wanted to be like Miles Davis. And then I found out as I got older that the older guys - the older men - felt the same way.

BATES: Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal says Davis' willingness to speak up for himself at a time when that often had serious consequences earned him deep admiration.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Miles faced the reality of white supremacy. And he had such confidence in his music and, as he would put in his memoir, his ability to change music, that despite white supremacy, he continued to do this on his own terms.

BATES: Part of the reason many black men revere Davis, Neal says, is because they do not often see themselves reflected this way in popular culture, especially movies. Neal believes the appeal of Cheadle's portrayal of Davis as a manly black man is this. It's a welcome antidote to the plentiful stereotypes of mindlessly violent black men seen in so many movies, from glorified gangsters to thug number six or eight or ten. Those guys are not badasses. They're just bad. Los Angeles film critic Tim Cogshell agrees.

TIM COGSHELL: Generally speaking, there are only about one or two major male black movie stars at any given time that would fit the bill of the kind of character we're talking about.

BATES: Cogshell says these men share a certain set of characteristics.

COGSHELL: A serious person, can be funny but not required to be funny, to command the sort of ordinary respect afforded his white male contemporaries.

BATES: And in Hollywood history, there have only been a handful - beginning with this man.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EMPEROR JONES")

PAUL ROBESON: (As Brutus Jones) You have just had an audience with the Emperor Jones.

BATES: Paul Robeson was an actor, singer, athlete and activist whose roles were always robustly masculine, whether he was a self-made despot in "The Emperor Jones" or a stevedore in the movie-musical "Show Boat." There was a long dry spell for serious black leading men in mainstream movies until the 1960s. That's when Sidney Poitier made cultural history with his role as Virgil Tibbs, a steely homicide detective temporarily stuck in the Deep South in the 1967 thriller "In The Heat Of The Night." In the beginning, Virgil definitely rubs the local law the wrong way.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM , "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Virgil - that's a funny name for a [expletive] boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) They call me Mr. Tibbs.

BATES: Poitier had already won an Oscar in 1963 for the feel-good movie "Lilies Of The Field." But this movie indelibly branded him as a badass, especially the scene when Tibbs questions a bigoted white judge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM , "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT")

POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) Was Mr. Colbert ever in this greenhouse - say, last night about midnight?

WESLEY MORRIS: The guys slaps him, and he slaps him right back.

BATES: Wesley Morris is the critic at large for The New York Times magazine. He says the slap, as it has come to be known, is the apex of black masculine badassery (ph).

MORRIS: It takes your breath away.

BATES: It wasn't a slap only for Virgil Tibbs but a slap on behalf of every adult black man who had ever been called boy, relegated to the back of the bus or harassed by the police. Mark Anthony Neal -

NEAL: I think in some ways, it's still, like, one of the most remarkable moments we've ever seen, you know, in American film, at least in terms of its depictions of African-American men.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAYES SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

BATES: The next moment like that might have been when John Shaft crashed through a window and into movie history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

ISAAC HAYES: (Singing) Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Shaft.

HAYES: (Singing) Can you dig it?

BATES: Richard Roundtree played the private investigator, cool his leather trench, unflappable confronting mafia dons and radiating confidence and sex appeal, which, says Wesley Morris, is a key badass element.

MORRIS: I think you definitely have to have some kind of charisma that veers into the libidinous.

BATES: Roundtree, former football greats Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, also blaxploitation heroes, all fit the bill and had a learning curve when it came to women. The '80s and '90s brought Laurence Fishburne and especially Denzel Washington. Here he gives a complex portrayal of an ace pilot who saves a plane full of people from certain death in the 2012 movie "Flight."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLIGHT")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Whip Whitaker) No one could have landed that plane like I did. No one.

BATES: But Washington's older now and in the Poitier position of being a badass emeritus. There are other black male actors. Sam Jackson is one of the most bankable black male stars, and Jamie Foxx and Will Smith are also solid box office draws. But, says Tim Cogshell, they lack the presence of a true badass. So if not any of them, who? Who's heroic and sexually compelling enough to qualify? One man seems to pop up on everyone's list.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUTHER")

IDRIS ELBA: (As John Luther) She did it. She didn't yawn. Yawning is contagious. Someone in the room yawns, you yawn too. She didn't yawn. She did it.

BATES: That's Idris Elba as British detective John Luther. Whether he's investigating London homicides as Luther or running a Baltimore drug empire as Stringer Bell in "The Wire," Elba is edgy, sexy and completely compelling. And Don Cheadle as Miles Davis is all of those things and an important addition to the historical continuum.

CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) If you're going to tell a story, come with some attitude, man.

BATES: Yep, badass - Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.