On The Legend of Bagger Vance

Featuring Will Smith (Independence Day, I, Robot, Enemy of the State, Wild, Wild West, I Am Legend, Men in Black, The Pursuit of Happyness), Matt Damon (Good Will HuntingDogmaElysiumRounders, The Bourne Identity) and Charlize Theron (Æon Flux), The Legend of Bagger Vance is the name of the novel by  Steven Pressfield adapted into this film. Certainly, I liked the film, but it is not without some flaws, as according to Feministing‘s article, “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU: SEXISM, RACISM AND TERRIBLE WRITING“:

Second, the film makes use of the “Black Angel” trope, where a black character is given impossible magic powers which she or he uses only to help a white character. In this film, the black member of The Adjustment Bureau (played by Anthony Mackie) betrays his supervisor and uses his powers to help Matt Damon get to Emma Blunt, the female lead. Hilariously, Matt Damon asks him at one point “are you an angel?”

Additionally, according to Salon‘s article, “The offensive movie cliche that won’t die“:

“You always know the right things to say,” says Cal Chetley (Devon Graye), the high school wrestler hero of “Legendary,” in conversation with Harry “Red” Newman (Danny Glover), a local fisherman.

The hero seems bewildered and delighted as he says this. He’s about to compete in an important match, reeling from melodramatic blows. When Harry shows up out of nowhere to give Cal a pep talk, the stage is set for a “Rocky”-style, go-the-distance ending. But if Cal had thought about Harry in terms of pop culture stereotypes, he could have answered his own implied question: How come you’re always there when I need you, even though I barely know you? Harry seems to stand apart from the rest of the community, even though he’s a familiar and beloved part of it. The only character who speaks to Harry directly is Cal, and their conversations are always about Cal and his well-being. He’s such the benevolent guardian angel figure that the cynical viewer half-expects him to be revealed as a figment of Cal’s imagination.

He’s not imaginary. He’s a “Magical Negro”: a saintly African-American character who acts as a mentor to a questing white hero, who seems to be disconnected from the community that he adores so much, and who often seems to have an uncanny ability to say and do exactly what needs to be said or done in order to keep the story chugging along in the hero’s favor.

We have Spike Lee to thank for popularizing this politically incorrect but very useful term. Lee used it in a 2001 appearances at college campuses. He was blasting a then-recent wave of such characters, played by the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr., in “What Dreams May Come” (a spirit guide helping Robin Williams rescue his wife from Hell), Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (a sherpa-on-the-green, mentoring Matt Damon’s golfer), Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix” (Obi-Wan to Keanu Reeves’ Luke Skywalker) and Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile” (a gentle giant on death row whose touch heals white folks’ illnesses).

The word choice is deliberately anachronistic — “negro” started to fall out of fashion about 40 years ago. But that’s why it’s so devastating. The word “negro” was a transitional word that fell between the white-comforting “colored” and the more militantly self-determined and oppositional “black.” It asked for dignity and autonomy without going that extra step asserting that it existed anyway, with or without white America’s approval. “Negro” fits the sorts of characters that incensed Lee. Even though the movies take pains to insist that the African-American character is as much a flesh-and-blood person as the white hero, the relationship is that of a master and servant. And not a real servant, either: one that really, truly lives to serve, has no life to speak of beyond his service to Da Man, and never seems to trouble himself with doubts about the cause to which he’s devoting his time and energy. “How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?” Lee asked sarcastically.

The Magical Negro character (or as Lee called him, the “super-duper magical negro”) wasn’t invented in the 1990s.  He’s been around for at least 100 years, accumulating enough examples (from Uncle Remus in “Song of the South” through the clock-keeper played by Bill Cobbs in “The Hudsucker Proxy”) to merit snarky lists, an entry in the urban dictionary  and a detailed Wikipedia page (turns out Stephen King’s fiction has been a magical negro factory).  The term gained an even wider audience when a candidate to chair the Republican National Committee mailed out a song titled “Barack the Magic Negro,” with lyrics to the tune of the Peter, Paul and Mary hit. Outraged liberals focused on the surface racism encoded in the song title, ignoring the possibility that the song, however lead-footed in its humor, was rooted in something real.

What got lost in the flap over the song was the phrase’s relevance to Obama’s candidacy: There was (among Democrats, at least) a widespread sense that replacing George W. Bush with the Illinois senator would send a definitive signal that everything was different now, that it was time to rebuild, repair, rejuvenate and move forward, not just toward a post-Bush society, but a post-racial one. It was an absurd hope, one that Obama himself seemed to resist endorsing at first, only to relent and begin publicly playing up his pioneer status as the first not-entirely-Caucasian man to pursue and then win the Democratic presidential nomination. Frequent Salon commenter David Ehrenstein tackled this subject in a memorable 2007 Los Angeles Times piece that called Obama a “magic negro” almost a year before that RNC ditty appeared. Likening Obama to a spiritual descendant of the noble, kindhearted, often sexless black men portrayed by pioneering leading man Sidney Poitier, he wrote, “Like a comic-book superhero, Obama is there to help, out of the sheer goodness of a heart we need not know or understand. For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes.”

Finally, according to the Yale Bulletin & Calendar‘s article, “Director Spike Lee slams ‘same old’ black stereotypes in today’s films“:

A new “phenomenon” has emerged in film in recent years, in which an African-American character is imbued with special powers, filmmaker Spike Lee told a student audience during a campus visit on Feb. 21.

But this new image is just a reincarnation of “the same old” stereotype or caricature of African Americans as the “noble savage” or the “happy slave” that has been presented in film and on television for decades, contended Lee.

During a master’s tea with an audience of more than 200 students in the Calhoun College dining hall, Lee cited four recent films in which there is a “magical, mystical Negro” character: “The Family Man,” “What Dreams May Come,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “The Green Mile.” In the latter film, Lee noted, a black inmate cures a prison guard of disease simply by touching him; in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” a black man “with all these powers,” teaches a young white male (played by actor Matt Damon), how to golf like a champion.

The film director, who frequently inspired the laughter of his audience as he peppered his talk with expletives, was unreserved in his criticism of this new characterization of blacks, posing to his audience the question: “How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?”

Noting that “The Legend of Bagger Vance” takes place in Depression-era Georgia, a time when lynching of blacks in the South was commonplace, Lee stated, incredulously, “Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing!

“I gotta sit down; I get mad just thinking about it,” continued Lee, standing before his audience wearing a black leather jacket. “They’re still doing the same old thing … recycling the noble savage and the happy slave.”

Lee said his latest film, “Bamboozled,” a controversial satire dramatizing the popularity of a modern black minstrel show, deals precisely with such misrepresentations of African Americans. “It’s about how film and television have been used to denigrate certain groups of people,” commented the director. “It’s about the power of images and how they hurt.”

While he acknowledged a rise in the number of African-American actors and noted that such film stars as Will Smith and Denzel Washington can now command more than $20 million per movie, Lee said that the television and film industries think they “just have to have black people on the screen, and don’t care about the images.”

In order for the characterizations of African Americans on television and film to change, he told his audience, blacks need to achieve positions of power in those industries, where they can have some control over the images that are produced.

Saying that he never watches the African-American-geared BET network, which he described as “terrible,” Lee noted that there are few television programs on any network where young black children can find positive influences. “I don’t know what you can tell [young children] to watch to see African American scientists at work,” he said. “The majority of African American males think they have to be a rapper, play ball or sell drugs. They have very limited options.”

Since the release of his critically acclaimed first film “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1986, Lee has confronted the issue of race in all of the 15 films he has done since then. His 1989 movie “Do the Right Thing,” about urban racial tensions, earned him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, and Lee was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his 1992 film “Malcolm X.” In 1998, his film “4 Little Girls,” about the racially motivated bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church in 1963, was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

This year, Lee noted, not one African-American person has been nominated for an Academy Award for a major role in a film or its making. Asked how blacks can improve the chances of such recognition, Lee said, “It’s a waste of time trying to strategize how to get on a list. Why validate them [the Academy Awards]?” He noted that in spite of the acclaim he received for “Do the Right Thing,” the film was not nominated for an Academy Award in 1989; that year, “Driving Miss Daisy,” about the relationship between an elderly white woman and her black chauffeur, won the award for best movie.

One of his own goals as a filmmaker, Lee told his audience, is “to portray different images of black people.” He has long hoped to make a film about baseball legend Jackie Robinson but has been unable to get financing for it. He said he is currently thinking about doing a movie about boxer Joe Louis.

Lee spent most of his hour-long visit answering questions from members of his audience, sometimes challenging students to defend their arguments in support of certain films and other times asking them about their own opinions on the subjects they raised. During his talk, he also staunchly denied that he was anti-Semitic, a charge made against him after the release of “Mo’ Better Blues,” in which Jewish businessmen exploit black musicians, and for the content of some of his other films.

“If you have any character that’s Jewish who’s not 100 percent angelic, you’re anti-Semitic,” Lee said sarcastically. “I refuse to be put in that straitjacket.” He went on to describe how Michael Jackson had to re-make a song with the word “kike” in it, but noted the white rap singer Eminem has never been stopped from using derogatory lyrics in his songs to describe women and homosexuals. Furthermore, he said, in the last episode of “Seinfeld,” the characters were seen burning a Puerto Rican flag, and no one was critical of their actions.

“We [African Americans and other minorities] still don’t have power,” Lee averred, adding, “You’re not going to see the Star of David in any television show or movie; it’s just not gonna happen. But we can burn the Puerto Rican flag on the last episode of ‘Seinfeld.'”

Will Smith’s character, Bagger Vance, clearly fits this trope.


If that is not enough, there is one scene I did cringe at, worth noting, as according to The Stanford Daily‘s article, “Redford drenches ‘Bagger’ in sentimentality Will Smith knows golf, Matt Damon is cute, and we will forgive the director for his sins” states the following:


The scene in which Adele Invergordon strips down to persuade Rannulph Junuh, I felt was just too much for me. I was thankful when it was over.

According to Roger Ebert:

Look how silky this movie is, and how completely in command of its tone. Robert Redford’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance” could be a movie about prayer, music or mathematics because it is really about finding yourself at peace with the thing you do best. Most of the movie is about an epic golf tournament, but it is not a sports movie in any conventional sense. It is the first zen movie about golf.

I watched it aware of what a delicate touch Redford brings to the material. It could have been punched up into cliches and easy thrills, but no: It handles a sports movie the way Billie Holiday handled a trashy song, by finding the love and pain beneath the story. Redford and his writer, Jeremy Leven, starting from a novel by Steven Pressfield, are very clear in their minds about what they want to do. They want to explain why it is possible to devote your life to the love of golf, and they want to hint that golf and life may have a lot in common.

I am not a golfer. It doesn’t matter. Golf or any game is not about the rules or tools, but about how you conduct yourself. Civilized games make civilized societies. You look at the movie and you see that if athletes are not gentlemen and gentlewomen, there is no reason to watch them. Michael Jordan is a gentleman. Roger Clemens is not. You see how it works.

“The Legend of Bagger Vance” takes place in Savannah, Ga., in the first years of the Depression. A man builds a great golf course, goes broke and shoots himself. His daughter Adele (Charlize Theron) faces ruin, but risks everything on a $10,000 tournament. She invites the two greatest golfers in the world: Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). And she also persuades Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), who was the greatest player in Savannah until he went off to World War I and something broke inside. He spent the 1920s drinking and playing poker.

Junuh doesn’t much want to return to golf, which for him also means returning to civilization and to his own better nature. Three people encourage him. One is Adele. Before the war they were in love. One is a boy named Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief) who dreams about golf. And one is Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a caddy who appears out of nowhere and assigns himself to the rehabilitation and education of Rannulph Junuh.

We have here the elements for a cruder movie. We can imagine how Jones and Hagen could be painted as hard-edged professionals, how the caddy could be sketched with broad strokes like some kind of an angel in a sitcom, how the little kid could be made insufferable and cute, how Adele and Junuh could fight and make up and fight, all according to the outlines they hand out in screenwriting class.

That’s not how this movie goes. Nothing in it is pushed too far; it is a masterpiece of tact. Not even the outcome of the tournament is pumped up for effect; quietly, the movie suggests that how the tournament is won is more important than who wins it. As for the romance, it’s in a minor key good for regret and tremulous hope; Charlize Theron’s wise, sweet Adele handles Junuh like a man she wants to teach about tenderness.

Every actor makes the point, and then pauses, content. Matt Damon’s Junuh is not a comeback hero but a man who seems surprised to be playing golf. Jones and Hagen are not the good cop and the bad cop. They’re both good–sportsmen who love the game but don’t talk a lot about it. Jones is handsome, a golden boy. Hagen is dark and has a gut and smokes all the time. Jones plays a beautiful game. Hagen is always getting into trouble and saving himself. Both of them are . . . having fun. Just fun.

Will Smith could make Bagger Vance insufferable, but the part is written and played to make it more of a bemused commentary. He has theories about golf, and ways of handling his player, and advice, but it is all oblique and understated. No violins. Is he a real person or a spirit? You tell me. Oh, and the kid: He’s necessary because he has to grow up and become an old man (Jack Lemmon) and tell the story, so that you can see that lessons were learned.

The photography by Michael Ballhaus makes the great course look green, limitless and sad–sad that every shot must fall and every game must end. There is a dusk here that is heartbreaking, like the end of every perfect summer day. The spectators do not make spectacles of themselves, but seem to identify with the aspirations of the players. Hagen and Jones know each other well, and during the marathon tournament they watch Junuh carefully, and decide that he will do. Redford found the same feeling in “A River Runs Through It,” where the standards a man forms through his pastime give value to his whole life. Golf, Bagger tells Junuh, is “a game that can’t be won, only played.”


3 thoughts on “On The Legend of Bagger Vance

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