Obama, Zombies, and Black Male Messiahs

Curator's Note


Insofar as they occupy the symbolic place of messiah in these zombie apocalypses, it interesting that from Ben in Night, to Peter in Dawn, and John in Day, to Robert Neville in I Am Legend, a central male hero is Black, two of whom are West Indian. All are solid, dependable, capable Black men who strategize and fight their way to survive the zombie outbreak. All Romero’s Black men make alliances with the one White woman in each group, who also makes it to the post-apocalypse.
What can we make of this interesting pattern that zombies seem to be the monsters it is the province of Black men to vanquish? We might wonder, in turn, what it is about whiteness in zombie films that the Black male secular messiah characters point to. Richard Dyer writes that “In all three [Romero] films, it is significant that the hero is a black man, and not just because this makes him ‘different,’ but because it makes it possible to see that whites are the living dead.” In these films, the Black male messiah must save humanity from the affliction of whiteness. Is this sub-trend of Black male hero protagonists a progressive one, as these roles feature positive and sympathetic men who fight to (contingent) victory at the end? Or should we compare the Black messiah to the postmodern stock character Spike Lee termed “the super-duper magical negro” in a spate of films (such as The Green Mile, 1999 and The Legend of Bagger Vance, 2000) in which a Black man appears out of nowhere with magical qualities to help a down-and-out White person reach their full humanity?
Obama has been said to possess an image in the American psyche that lends itself to being cast as a Magical Negro; he has also been referenced in a messianic idiom, and scores of commentators have noted the many times that people use exalted, prophetic vocabulary in describing Obama. Obama was elected in the teeth of an economic super-crisis, a hero who would slay the zombie-banks threatening to cannibalize the nation’s funds. Obama is also figured as a multi-racial person who will usher in America’s multiracial future (the implicit future of these zombie films). In this snapshot at the end of the last presidential debate, John McCain started to head the wrong way off the stage and for a brief moment, reacted to orient himself: his arms went out in front of him and he stuck out his tongue in a grimace. The image with its caption about zombies went up on PoliticalHumor.com and circulated for a while on the web. In quickly casting the stumbling, White, John McCain as a zombie, the maker of the “cool Obama/zombie McCain” image brought American zombie films into conversation with the dramatically unfolding presidential campaign. McCain was associated with the dead and corrupt cannibalistic policies of the Bush administration, which Obama possesses the natural “cool” to slay—or just ignore, until they go away. 


I recall someone once saying that the United States likes its Black heroes -- but dead, not alive.  The better to co-opt their voices and messages, as with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and perhaps, Jesus Christ?


Despite Romero’s protestations that he cast the role of Ben without regard to the actor’s race, I do agree that we can read significance into Romero’s Black heroes.  And I don’t think that Romero’s Black heroes’ Blackness stoops to quite the level of the “magical negro” characters of The Green Mile or The Legend of Bagger Vance.  But I do worry that audiences may prefer the Black heroes dead, rather than alive.


In Night of the Living Dead, Ben survives the night just long enough to be shot dead by a White mob, evoking a lynch mob.  I read it as a commentary on White violence, whether undead or alive.  But, to make the comment, Ben must die.  In Dawn of the Dead, Romero originally concluded by killing off both Peter and Francine, with Peter choosing to die by gun violence, rather than, as in the theatrical ending, to live by relinquishing his gun.  And in I Am Legend, Robert Neville’s life is redeemed when he enacts a suicide bombing against zombies he has wrongly characterized as no longer possessing any aspect of humanity (despite clear evidence to the contrary within the film itself).  I find the cinematic killing of this Black hero particularly significant, because audiences demanded his death. 


Test audiences revolted against the original theatrical ending of I Am Legend – an ending in which Neville realized that the zombies did possess compassion for their own, that he should not have been conducting Mengele-esque experiments on them, and that the zombies were even capable of forgiving him for his hideous violence.  At least one theatrical trailer for I Am Legend featured footage from the original ending, with Neville face-to-face with snarling zombies.  In the original ending, Neville realizes that the Alpha Male is trying to save the Alpha Female.  Neville looks around his lab at the pictures of all the creatures he’s killed in the name of finding a cure.  And he repents.  Neville wheels the Alpha Female out, revives her, and apologizes to the Alpha Male – who allows Neville to live.  Neville, alive, then uses his blood to develop a cure for the disease and goes North to be with other humans.  But to test audiences, Neville had to die. 


In the re-shot ending released in theaters, Neville does not ever recognize the error of his ways.  He never sees the humanity of the creatures.  Instead, he unnecessarily martyrs himself as a suicide-bomber, killing the Alpha Male, the Alpha Female, and their pack.  Anna and Ethan then escape to bring the martyrs blood and the cure it represents to humans surviving in the North.


The original ending was truer to the message of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend.  In the novel, Neville (then a White man), discovers that, in the future, it is not the racial Other encroaching on his suburban White world that is the villain.  Instead, he, in his violent attempts to “understand” and exterminate the creatures, is the villain.  In his final moments, Neville understands this.  Rather than face judgment and execution at the hands of his victims, Neville defiantly commits suicide.  He chooses to become a “legend” as the monster he now recognizes himself as, rather than face justice as a man.


The theatrically released ending emphasizes Neville’s power in violent, unrepentant, death.  The original movie ending emphasizes Neville’s repentance for his sins and the reconciliatory power of recognizing shared humanity.  In fact, it’s even more optimistic than the novel – the creatures grant Neville clemency for his crimes. Aspects of both endings are present in the original novel’s ending.  But test audiences, it seems, preferred the former over the latter.


But why did Robert Neville, as the Black hero, have to die?  In the theatrical ending, Neville is a hero – but a dead hero.  In the original ending, audiences might have extrapolated beyond the end of the film.  If Neville lived, AND brought salvation in the form of his blood, AND espoused his hard-won belief that humans COULD live in peace with the creatures, what would have happened then?  Neville would have been a living Christ.  The human world would have worshipped him as a living, Black Christ.  And, as we’re seeing with some of the negative White reactions to Obama, it seems that a great many White people might prefer their Black Saviors dead, rather than alive.

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