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Ebony and Ivory

The trope that will not die: Freeman and Nicholson act out the ageless dynamic. Photo: Sidney Baldwin.
The trope that will not die: Freeman and Nicholson act out the ageless dynamic. Photo: Sidney Baldwin.

Bucket List, Dir: Rob Reiner, Now Playing

Ever since Barack Obama emerged as a serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, it’s been clear that not least among his many qualifications for high office—his intelligence, good looks, oratorical skill, and political smarts—is how neatly he appears to fit the stereotype of the Redemptive Black Friend.

The RBF is a familiar figure to anyone who’s flipped channels or visited a multiplex in the last half-century and witnessed America’s long-running fascination with the spectacle of white stars reclaiming their better selves thanks to the friendship of a black counterpart. The trope dates back at least to 1958’s The Defiant Ones, wherein racist Tony Curtis learned the error of his ways while shackled to righteous Sidney Poitier. The post-blacklist Noble Negro, that embodiment of left-liberal principle, morphed into the black-and-white buddy movie. That unabashed cliché has been endlessly recycled and restyled, from Tubbs and Crocket’s duet in the various versions of Miami Vice to Eddie Murphy’s turns in Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s virtual marriage in the Lethal Weapon franchise, from Halle Berry’s pairings with Warren Beatty and then Billy Bob Thornton to Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union’s dueling cheerleaders in Bring It On.

Thanks to the ubiquity of this commercial fantasy, Obama’s blackness, though it may well prove to be an obstacle in his path to the presidency, might also be one reason he has drawn fervent support from voters of all colors. Neither too angry nor too weak, too ghetto nor too deracinated, Obama reaches out to all of us offering unity and uplift, the RBF come to vibrant political life. He has become a screen on which white Americans can project this unconscious but deeply felt scenario of guilt and self-forgiveness.

What prompts these musings is the latest big-budget variation on the RBF theme, Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List. It’s one of those movies whose plot instantly evokes the pitch meeting that likely gave rise to this confection: “It’s Grumpy Old Men meets Lethal Weapon via Terms of Endearment!”

Here’s the set-up: misanthropic health-care plutocrat Edward Cole implausibly finds himself sharing a hospital room and a diagnosis of terminal cancer with poor but proud auto mechanic Carter Chambers. Despite Cole’s initial hatefulness toward his roommate, the two become friends and, inspired by Chambers’ “bucket list” of things he hopes to see and do before he dies, embark on a round-the-world tour.

Any possibility that some originality might be wrung out of this premise was scotched when the leads were cast. Jack Nicholson plays Cole as a standard selfish-but-lovable rogue, while Morgan Freeman, who’s been RBF-ing at least since 1988’s Clean and Sober and 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, devotes his well-honed gravitas to portraying Chambers. True to formula, Cole’s a poor little rich boy who is a walking catalogue of America’s sins—greedy, snobbish, and careless, with four failed marriages behind him and not a single friend. Chambers, by contrast, is noble as all get-out, married to the same woman since he was a teenager, a good father who gave up his own dreams of becoming a doctor in order to provide for his family.

Nicholson, looking distressingly convincing as a man with only a few months to live, gets most of the laughs. Freeman, who seems fit as a fiddle, plays the character with all the bright ideas, including the “bucket list” itself. Cole cares only about making money; Chambers is a self-taught intellectual, windily lecturing his pal on the history of wherever they happen to alight. While Cole’s idea of helping is to try (vainly, of course) to get Chambers to cheat on his wife with a prostitute, Chambers convinces Cole to reconcile with his estranged daughter. How noble and redemptive can you get?

What bonds these two characters is not only their grim prognosis but their shared defiance of Chambers’ high-strung wife, played by Beverly Todd. (If there’s one thing that brings men of any color together, it’s their shared dislike of pushy women.) She’s a former nurse who is distraught at the care her husband is receiving at the hospital and demands that he go elsewhere. “Let me handle this!” she cries. Rather than submit to his bossy wife’s health-care directives (hello, Hillary!), Chambers heads off into the sunset with Cole…the hospital’s owner.

Let it be said that the movie isn’t quite as terrible as it could be. There’s something rather touching about watching these two old crocks trying to reconcile themselves to death, even if the spiritual solution they come to is eating caviar in France and roaring along China’s Great Wall on a motorcycle. Like Bush confronting 9/11, their answer to every problem is to go shopping.

And like so much of our politics, The Bucket List insists that redemption is necessarily a personal matter, never a societal one. Here is a man—Cole—who apparently holds much of America’s health care in his hands, who could be a real force for social good. Yet Chambers never suggests that “helping a stranger” (one of the items on their list) might entail, say, improving the care Cole offers in his hospitals, or endowing medical-school scholarships, or lobbying for universal health care. Taking Chambers sky-diving is quite enough, thank you.

This is, after all, one of the great virtues of the Redemptive Black Friend: he wants us to be better people, but never demands that much. If he did, he might remind us of real-life African-Americans, with all their legitimate if mostly unspoken grievances, sufferings and struggles that leave white America feeling simultaneously guilty and put-upon. The enduring commercial appeal of the RBF fantasy lies in its reassuring denial of reality, its promise that we can all come together for the price of a movie ticket.

Like any successful politician, the RBF lets us pretend that change comes easy and won’t cost much. That’s why, stale though the RBF theme might be, it doesn’t seem likely to kick the bucket anytime soon. This spring we’ll see how well this beloved cliché plays as a national political strategy—and whether Obama has the stomach to play this role over and over and over. If he doesn’t, perhaps the Democrats can draft Morgan Freeman.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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