Of Massacres, Myths, and Morgan Freeman

I found myself stalled this morning, wondering “What can I write that’s worth writing about on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre?” It’s an event most of my friends and colleagues seem to have only just learned about from the 2020 Watchmen series, but I had known about for decades. I can’t remember where and when I first became aware of it, maybe from researching black music, which leads to asborbing black history (June is Black Music Month btw), or from an exhibition we did on lynching at the New-York Historical Society back in 2000 when I was p.r. director there. You might call this atrocity the American Kristallnacht if there weren’t so many other American Kristallnachts. Everyone else will be spouting off about the event itself today, as many did yesterday (it was a two day tragedy) so there’s no need for me to add my own tone deaf voice to the chorus, And this is a show biz blog. I can however observe that D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth a Nation led to the resurgence of the Klan that was part of the fabric of what happened a century ago. And I could point out that June 1 is also the birthday of Andy Griffith, whose sitcom was set in a North Carolina that somehow had no black people, and of Pat Boone, who had hits with Little Richard’s songs but didn’t pay him. And (talking of show biz) I might also point out that the musical Oklahoma! has no black people either, and, even though the state was known as “Indian Territory” at the time of the musical, it has no Indians. The reason why many have not heard of the Tulsa Massacre until recently might have something to do with that, don’t you think? It was omitted from the story. And isn’t it funny that when you try to correct the record about things like this, certain people will tell you that “You can’t rewrite history?” Yes, you can, When the narrative is both incomplete and deceptive to begin with, you most certainly can. In fact, you had better.

But to return to show biz, today is also Morgan Freeman’s birthday (b. 1937). Many of us first became aware of him from the movie Glory (1989), which told the little-known story of the all-black 54th Infantry Regiment, which distinguished itself in the Civil War. (It’s also how many of us first became aware of Denzel Washington). This was a laudable Hollywood attempt to fill in the gaps in our historical storytelling. Freeman was 52 that year, and had been acting for decades. When he finally assumed his place in the firmament of stars, his white whiskers, wise demeanor and pleasant, reassuring voice had locked him into the role of authority figure. I always think of him as Hollywood’s default Jehovah, but looking down his list of credits, he’s only LITERALLY played that in the Bruce Almighty comedies, and he did nararate the 2016 documentary The Story of God. We only get the impression that he’s always God because he works so constantly as a narrator, and who can that omniscient, unseen presence be than the Prime Mover, Maker of Heaven and Earth? Freeman was also one of the first African Americans to be cast as President of the United States in a (semi) serious film, 1998’s Deep Impact, a decade before Obama fulfilled that vision. He was also Prez in Angel Has Fallen (2019).

As Malcolm

Freeman had appeared on stage in Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and The Gospel at Colonus. The authority in his voice is not just genuine, but practiced. Those of us of a certain age knew him first as a regular on The Electric Company (1971-77, see photo above) althought it mightn’t have been ’til later that we began to connect him with the older contemporary actor we saw on movie screens. In 1980 he was in two prison pictures, Attica and Brubaker, foreshadowing for his more famous turn in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). A lot of people may not remember that Freeeman played Malcolm X a decade before Denzel, in the TV movie Death of a Prophet (1981). For most of the ’80s he had small supporting roles on film and tv. But in 1988 he won an Obie for his role in the original stage production of Driving Miss Daisy, reprising the part in the famous film version two years later. In that same incredible breakthrough year of 1989 he was in Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, Lean on Me (in the starring role of megaphone-wielding Principal Joe Clark), and, less fortuitously, Johnny Handsome, with Mickey Rourke. The following year, Freeman provided the voice of Frederick Douglas in Ken Burns’ epic Civil War documentary. Ordinarily this might be a minor credit, but in his case, I think it helped elevate him to the status he enjoys now, as a go-to guy for playing important historical figures, and for assuming the lofty perch of narrator in historical documentaries. For example , Spielberg cast him in Amistad (1997) and chose him for the portentuous voiceovers in War of the Worlds (2005). Clint Eastwood (2009) cast him as Nelson Mandela in Invictus. This was after he had directed him in his Oscar winning performance in Million Dollar Baby (2004), and cast him in a key role in Unforgiven (1992), an act which went a long way toward redressing Hollywood’s traditional omission of African Americans from westerns, despite the fact that an estimated 25% of 19th century cowboys were black.

And sometimes, short of being God or the President, Freeman is just a cop or an army general or a coach or whatever. Odds and ends include Texas (1981), Teachers (1984), The Atlanta Child Murders (1985), Street Smart (1987), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Outbreak (1995), Se7en (1995), Nurse Betty (2000), The Sum of All Fears (2002), several Batman/ Dark Knight movies, March of the Penguins (2005, narration), Gone Baby Gone (2007), Ben Hur (2016, in the role Hugh Griffith won an Oscar for), and the 2017 remake of Going in Style.

Much like Sidney Poitier before him, Freeman takes a certain amount of heat for being an apparent assimilationist (His role in Driving Miss Daisy in particular has been criticized as a Tom character; and several of his roles might be called “sidekicks” or “Magical Negroes” to use a phrase frequently employed by Spike Lee). His career does raise a perennial question about black representation. Is it more useful to become widely beloved and respected, which sends a signal that everything is okay? Or to take roles that challenge the status quo and might lead to progressive action? (Freeman has taken these kinds of roles, too, it must be pointed out.). Do we present ideal portraits? Or true ones? You have three weeks to think about it — I want your answer by Juneteenth! I believe my own answer is in the first paragraph.