The Myth of the Singular Voice

American actor Denzel Washington on the set of Glory, based on the book by Lincoln Kirstein, and directed by Edward Zwick. (Photo by TriStar Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

In an incisive essay for the Baffler, political scientist Adolph Reed considers how many pop culture creations made with Black audiences in mind — including films like Birth of a Nation, Selma, and Black Panther —  are narratives of singular, heroic, often male, achievement. “Tales of inspiration and uplift,” he calls them. Meanwhile, films like Glory, which hinged on its historical accuracy, were received by some with considerably less enthusiasm:

Occasionally on a boring flight, I’ll rewatch the Battle of James Island scene from the magnificent 1989 film, Glory. The scene depicts the first engagement of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first Northern regiment of black troops organized by the Army of the United States to fight against the Confederate insurrection. James Island was a fateful battle outside Charleston, SC, on July 16, 1863. I pulled up the clip on a recent flight and was moved yet again by the powerful imagery of black men finally able to strike a blow against the slaveocracy. Imagining what that felt like for the soldiers of the 54th is always intensely gratifying.

Watching it this time, I remembered how startled I had been when Glory was released to learn that many people, including blacks and people on the left, dismissed or even disparaged the film as a “white savior narrative”—a phrase that is now a routine derogation of certain cross-racial sagas of resistance to white supremacy. In Glory’s case, this complaint arose mainly in response to the (historically accurate) depiction of the regiment’s commanding officers as Northern whites.

This objection left me dumbfounded. After all, the 54th Massachusetts was a real historical entity. As a compromise to ensure political support, it was stipulated that its officers be white. Nonetheless, prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and the free black community of Boston, were enthusiastic about its formation and instrumental in recruiting its ranks.

Now I think I understand. I’ve long suspected that, to a certain strain of race-conscious or antiracist discourse, historical exploration in popular culture was less important than the propagation of tales of inspiration and uplift. These fables typically feature singular black heroes who have overcome crushing racist adversity against all odds. In recent years, a steady stream of films and other narratives have openly embraced that preference.

He suggests these escapist portrayals echo what is disturbingly superficial about our current drive to uplift diverse leadership and voices in media. “Winning anything politically — policies or changes in power relations — is not the point.,” Reed writes.

Decisions by blacks to support nonblack candidates or social policies not expressed in race-first terms are interpreted as evidence of flawed, limited, misguided, or otherwise co-opted black agency. The idea that blacks, like everyone else, make their history under conditions not of their own choosing becomes irrelevant, just another instance of insufficient symbolic representation.

The notion that black Americans are political agents just like other Americans, and can forge their own tactical alliances and coalitions to advance their interests in a pluralist political order is ruled out here on principle. Instead, blacks are imagined as so abject that only extraordinary intervention by committed black leaders has a prayer of producing real change. This pernicious assumption continually subordinates actually existing history to imaginary cultural narratives of individual black heroism and helps drive the intense—and myopic—opposition that many antiracist activists and commentators express to Bernie Sanders, social democracy, and a politics centered on economic inequality and working-class concerns.

Read the essay