Superpathology

by Armond White
The Obama Effect strikes twice in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Belle

Jamie Foxx isn’t “poor” — he’s valued at $85 million according to celebritynetworth.com — but he is artistically impoverished. He resorts to portraying another stereotypical victim-villain in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. That dubious casting choice briefly sparks this latest, uninspired comic-book-franchise movie, but most important, it plays into current Hollywood political sentiments.

As corporate nerd Max Dillon, Foxx falls into a tank with fuses and electric eels and acquires lethal electromagnetic powers. Post-shock, Dillon-now-Electro channels his envy of Spider-Man (insipid Andrew Garfield) into destroying Times Square, a routine sequence of Hollywood’s video-game-CGI excess only inspired by peculiar pathos: Fox repeats the same sorrowful black-male oddity he used in his portrayal of a maladjusted musical savant in the mawkish 2009 race-relations drama The Soloist.

Electro’s menace and confused motives evoke still another black science-fiction miscreant, Samuel L. Jackson’s disturbed, merciless, outlandishly garbed comic-book villain in Unbreakable, which since 2000 has stereotyped the genre’s naive racial attitudes. Electro’s skin is tinted blue, like the Na’vi creatures in Avatar, but luminescent, as if teeming with SamJack anger. He cloaks his ferocity beneath a Trayvon Martin–style hoodie — a sly, fatuous political reference recalling Foxx’s awards-circuit appearances last year in a t-shirt emblazoned with Martin’s photo (commemorating the politically charged controversy surrounding the youth’s 2012 death). Foxx acts out Electro’s wounded ego to sneakily exploit the Martin case, but his role is disgraceful, silly in concept and shameless in performance.

I point this out to clarify how specious racial and political assumptions clog contemporary film culture; part of what mogul Harvey Weinstein praised as “The Obama Effect” among Hollywood elites.

Electro’s demeanor defines the limited, pathological range circumscribing Foxx, restricting his choices as with other black Oscar-rewarded actors. Some form of black pathology is always foremost in Hollywood’s current post-racial pretense, and this is what makes “The Obama Effect” so noxious. Even the action-based Spider-Man series ensnares a black character in sentimentality that allows Hollywood and the media to feel superior — a continuation of the self-righteous liberal fantasy that voting for Barack Obama vanquishes racism. All other blacks are patronized as, if not inferior to the Obama ideal, then, as Electro demonstrates, superpathetic. Outside the comic-book world, Electro would be seen as a freak. And freakishness — or Superpathology — defines Hollywood’s Obama-era view of black folk in Precious, The Help, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Captain Phillips, Blue Caprice, Django Unchained (Foxx again), last year’s 12 Years a Slave, and this year’s Belle.

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Belle is not a bleeding-heart horror show like 12 Years a Slave but a gentler, history-based costume drama about an 18th-century mixed-race girl in England. Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised by her great-uncle, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Dido’s consciousness is stirred when she endures subtle, strict protocol that blocks her from full participation in the household’s routines, her activities segregated at public functions. She becomes intrigued by her uncle’s grudging deliberation regarding a legal case about the execution of human cargo on a slave ship, which tilts this biography toward an anti-slavery treatise.

Although Dido shares President Obama’s own mixed-race heritage, Belle brushes by “The Obama Effect.” It doesn’t exactly congratulate white electorate guilt — which may explain its indifferent reviews so soon after 12 Years a Slave hit the white-guilt jackpot. Director Amma Asante isn’t a fetishistic race-hustler like 12 Years’ Steve McQueen. Her fish-out-of-water formula takes on a romance-novel aspect: Dido falls in love with white activist lawyer and vicar’s son John Davinier (Sam Reid), an optimistic resolution that soothes her anxiety as both an outcast and female chattel.

Belle’s genre pedigree includes romantic mixed-race precedents such as Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea as well as Merchant-Ivory’s 1995 Jefferson in Paris, wherein Thandi Newton’s portrayal of Sally Hemings explored much of the same racial angst as Belle. Thus Asante’s genteel approach avoids any pointed, Hogarthian political critique of its period characters. Within costume-drama decorum, Asante finds as much pathos and political resonance as Foxx, yet she comes up with a more challenging expression.

The sisterly relationship between Dido and her white cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) repeats the female inequality cutesified in The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s 2009 animated entry in the race-hustling race. “We are but their property is how Elizabeth describes England’s patriarchal system to Dido, whose deepest misgivings are roused when she is made to pose for a family portrait. Dido fears that being depicted on canvas in a subservient position will confirm her misfortune, bringing her predicament to the fore.

Dido’s concern for her artistically rendered image — concern with posterity — raises the issue of how race, identity, and politics are handled in art. It’s an original approach that Asante essays better than she outlines events that preceded Great Britain’s 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (so beautifully dramatized in Michael Apted’s Wilberforce biography Amazing Grace and referenced in Spielberg’s Amistad).

Belle’s art-politics motif helps further expose Foxx’s trite fantasy/Trayvon Martin act. Electro personifies freakish victimization — unlike Dido’s too-human dilemma — for a cheap rhetorical effect satisfying political fashion. Asante and delicate Mbatha-Raw go deeper, revealing the uneasiness of someone who’s objectified as a totem of racial condescension. (At one heartrending point, Dido anguishes over the mystery of her own flesh.)

Through Belle’s closing image of the actual portrait of Dido as playmate to her cousin, Assante questions our culture’s visual exploitation of racial politics. The painting’s superficial charm (its quaint depiction of historical disparity, painted by Johann Zoffany, currently hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland) is in contrast to its camouflage of genuinely appalling custom — and that’s the very problem of Foxx’s flashy-pathetic Electro. His overexplicit bitterness, rancor, and destructiveness are glorified through the cartoonish F/X destruction but amounts to a moral and esthetic disaster.

Belle’s historical romance is too decorous to be truly moving, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 offers the worst kind of “Obama Effect” escapism since it actually keeps viewers remote from the emotional turmoil of historic suffering and its social impact. Jamie Foxx’s moneymaking political stunt leaves us the poorer.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the upcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.