It Began With Barney

Gregmorris In Sunday's NYT, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott offered up a seemingly comprehensive dissection of the ways in which Hollywood has, since the days of Sidney Poitier, given us archetypes of the black male hero: the Black Everyman, the Black Outlaw, the Black Provocateur, the Black Father, the Black Yoda, and the Black Messiah.

But they forgot one important recurring role: the Black Techie or, if you prefer, the Black Geek. These guys are everywhere in TV shows and movies, programming computers and setting explosives. (I'm not even counting the many doctors.)

Here's a small selection: Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park, LaVar Burton in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Joe Morton in Terminator 2, Don Cheadle in the Ocean's movies, and Ving Rhames in the Mission Impossible movies. Even the German bad guys in Die Hard used a black guy (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) as their tech expert (though the character's reviews aren't good). And Sidney Poitier made it into Sneakers.

With all due respect to Geordi, the greatest black techie was, in my estimation, Dr. Miles Hawkins, the Reed Richards-meets-Tom Sowell protagonist of the short-lived superhero series M.A.N.T.I. S., who played by Carl Lumbly.  (Now that the surprisingly glamorous white ubernerd Gil Grissom has left CSI, maybe Laurence Fishburne has a shot at at creating a new prototype of the black supergeek. Given his character's medical training, however, it will be hard to beat Omar Epps on House. And I did say I wasn't counting the doctors.)

Now black nerds are hardly a cultural stereotype. What gives?

One explanation is simply imitation. The Ur-black techie was, of course, the original Mission Impossible's immortal Barney Collier, played by Greg Morris, who reprised the role in three episodes of the remade 1988 series (which featured his son Phil Morris, who, like Lumbly has also played Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz). Maybe Barney was so memorable that he imprinted Hollywood with a new casting stereotype, à la Louis Gossett Jr.'s Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman.


But where did Barney come from? Why, in 1966, would a TV series feature a black man as its team's technical expert?

I suspect Barney came from the same impulse that in 1977 led my high school's senior class play to cast a black student as the boss in Meet Me in St. Louis. That selection wasn't an attempt at verisimilitude--not many white professionals had black bosses in 1903 St. Louis--nor was my South Carolina drama department devoted to color-blind casting (though the student in question did a fine job). No, the reason was that the boss had no visible family: no wife, no kids, no romantic entanglements. He was non-threatening because sexually neutral.
And who could be more non-threatening and sexually neutral than a techie?

That makes Joe Morton's Dr. Miles Bennett Dyson a breakthrough role. Not only does he create (and destroy) Skynet. He actually has a wife and son.

Now if only they hadn't made that horrible Terminator 3.

(In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the TV spinoff of the Terminator movies, Miles Dyson appears only in a photo, where he is portrayed by Phil Morris. So he, too, is a son of Barney.)

Lifetime Tries Science Glamour

Living_Proof_(2008_television_movie) Can "television for women" tell a story about science? Tonight, Lifetime tries with Living Proof, the story of my hero Dr. Dennis Slamon, the UCLA oncologist behind the biotech drug Herceptin. Based on the melodramatic trailer, I'm not optimistic. But since I may owe my life to the drug--it raised my chances of surviving breast cancer from 50% to 95%--I've got the Tivo set. (The movie repeats Sunday and Monday nights.)

The Hollywood Reporter is encouraging: "the kind of L.A. story you can't help but love," a good description of the true story.

But the LAT is not encouraging: "'Living Proof' is good only in a moral sense." I'm not even sure about the moral sense, since, if the LAT is to be believed, the movie gratuitously bashes Genentech, the company whose extremely risky bet on Herceptin turned research into reality (and a lot of profits--but that's with benefit of hindsight).

The Boston Globe is kinder: "Of course it's earnest. Of course it lacks subtlety. Of course you'll shed a tear at some point....[A]ll Lifetime movies about major illnesses are required to move the viewer at all costs. It's TV law.

Variety sums up my expectations: "'Living Proof' rises above most Lifetime movie fare." But it still "attacks its subject matter with unapologetic sentimentality."

The movie is based on NBC science correspondent Robert Bazell's Her-2: The Making of Herceptin, a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer.

From Glamour To Horror

The mystery that creates glamour can also stoke suspicion and inspire audiences to imagine hidden horrors. A face in shadows can be alluring or frightening, depending on expectations and mood (cue scary music). Poison, the traditional tool of the femme fatale, is a particularly horrifying weapon, silent and invisible until it kills. Conspiracy theories, which conceive of secret plots, play on the arch-villain glamour Jens observes. What mere mortals could conceive and coordinate such vast maneuverings?


The turn from glamour to horror runs through some of our most resonant and enduring myths, from the Fall to Frankenstein. We're culturally inculcated with the belief that behind glamour's illusion is not dull reality, with its mix of good and bad, but something terrible and threatening. Not surprisingly, then, the substitution of horror for glamour can be powerfully persuasive, particularly in areas where the general public lacks knowledge or direct experience.

To take a modern example, beginning at least as early as Silent Spring the environmental movement used horror to destroy the glamour that mid-century culture had attached to such products of modern science as pesticides, plastics, and, of course, atomic (a.k.a. nuclear) power. This tactic was effective because it tapped pre-existing fears, as you can see from the many monster movies of the period. After decades of glamorizing the natural as good and portraying the artificial as horrific and dangerous, it's not surprising to find that even the "miracle of modern medicine" has been replaced in many people's minds by fears of insidious poisons and hubristic scientists. So we find ourselves in the 21st century tracking measles outbreaks caused by the belief, impervious to evidence, that vaccines cause autism.

Just because horror may puncture some of glamour's illusions does not make horror realistic. As Jens notes, horror has a glamour of its own. It is far more exciting than realism and, by "encourag[ing] those convinced to choose sides," often heightens the audience's sense of importance, wisdom, and moral worth.

[Atom Age Vampire public domain image via Ogg-Stream, watch the movie here.]