The Black Hero: A Cultural Impossibility

In April of 1967, Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase, “Black Power”  (Ture, 1992). Later in the same year, one of the deadliest riots in United States history broke out in Detroit between white police and Black civilians.  Many people, especially African Americans, had previously requested the establishment of a civilian police review board there, because the department was well known for its racism.  But the citizens were declined by the mayor’s office, as white residents had already accused the town of being soft on crime.

In response to the Black Freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and other “mainstream media idioms made a self-conscious effort to address the dramatic racial shift in American society” and to allot Black actors more attention (Nama, 2009). There is an important film that opens in 1967 as its protagonist (a biracial half-human, half-vampire) is born from his human mother, who was just-bitten and near death.  The narrative of Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, toys with traditional American perceptions of race.  It is perhaps the case that the Civil Rights Movement is the reason why the film could exist in the first place.  The plot follows a hero as he kills villains, a Black hero as he kills white villains who possess mafia-like control over the police.  Even still, the two seemingly antithetical forces are interchangeable, and the death of the white monsters can perhaps be interpreted as the success story of their own white race.  If you only look bit closer, it’s evident that the whites who were murdered actually resemble the condition of Black lives in America.  The film propagates the racism that it appears to buck.  After all, a producer knows that her movie’s audience would like to continue to believe in what it already understands.

It is unconventional in Hollywood to cast a Black actor in a leading role, and it’s more or less outlandish to cast a Black actor who is not light-skinned in a leading role.  Wesley Snipes, as “Blade,” is one such rarity, and his performance in the 1990s would dent the 21st century’s #Oscarssowhite.  Snipes began his acting career under the direction of Spike Lee, an upbringing that imbues his professional identity on screen.  It is not possible to interpret Blade outside of the context of a racialized Hollywood.  In an essay on the relationship between vampires and race, Sarah Broderick writes that films carry the weight of the images of monsters they must portray, and she pays particular attention to cases where the monsters are actors of color.  Broderick notes, “the history of the bodies being placed within the film’s frame must be taken into consideration alongside the historical moment in which a monster arises, revisits, or is re-appropriated by a culture, in order to fully grasp the levels of meaning at stake in the images” (Broderick, 2011).  Blade’s unique image is contradictory and worthy of discourse in the context of American racial culture.

What’s peculiar, then, is how Blade’s character manages to be both culturally white-passing and a dark-skinned African American, and is able to infiltrate and destroy a white stronghold without making the audience think twice.  The movie pits white vampires, led by a devilish young monster whose name is “Frost” (about as white as you can get), against an African American, half-vampire, half-human named “Blade.”  If you compare their individual images on screen, whiteness is associated with evilness, and Blackness with goodness.  In order to infiltrate the white vampires, Blade utilizes his evil white vampire privileges — he can bear the sun, a “Daywalker,” he has inhuman strength, the ability to kill, etc.  Is this not related to how some part-Black, part-white people are occasionally ridiculed by the Black community for their ability to pass and reap the benefits of white people?

Despite Blade being ‘mixed-race,’ degraded because of his white impurity, he is still the hero of the story.  His goodness goes hand-in-hand with his Blackness.  However, in traditional (read: white supremacist) American culture, Blackness is grotesque, fleshy, wicked, uncivilized, violent, herd-like, and primordial.  It is associated with the body and sexual behavior (think of jazz and the blues).  Continental African practices, such as masquerading, scarifying, and assembling spiritual headdresses, were all debased by white colonists who discredited their sophistication and artistry.  Alternatively, whiteness is considered to be tame, self-critical, ethical, an abstraction of aristocracy, and translucent to the extent that whites are not faulted people but perfect vessels of a cerebral and spiritual ideal.  Elite white women in the 1800s went so far as to douse their skin in arsenic to appear more pasty and exude higher status.

Traditional whiteness does not characterize the white vampires.  They are violent, sexy, hickie-giving, animalistic monsters who throw blood festivals for their herd.  Their revelry is like 

the ancient Romans’ Bacchanal, which stood out from everyday life in Rome because of its orgies, drunkenness, and garish indulgence.  Just as the Bacchanal features gluttonous consumption of red wine, the vampire rave in Blade climaxes as fire sprinklers spout blood from the ceiling.  The film manages to demonize white beings by ascribing to them the qualities that American racists and European colonists have used to reduce Black people.  The white vampires are identifiable as evil because they possess Black traits.  So if the white vampires resemble Black people, then where does that leave the African American protagonist who heroically fights for humanity and goodness?

On the surface, the film appears to have accomplished a socially progressive feat: to entice a (white) audience to cheer on a Black man as he kills white people.  Imagine the potential of this effect on changing the narrative of racism that currently perpetuates the murder of innocent Black people by police in Detroit, or in Atlanta, St. Louis, Cleveland, or Baltimore.   Among the police departments in the U.S.’s 60 largest cities, 41 of them have disproportionately shot and killed Black members of the community, relative to the city’s actual population of Black people (Mapping Police Violence, 2015).

But does Blade actually feature a flipped world where a Black man commits mass murder against white people?  In the film, Blade is white in most aspects of the cultural term. Despite the fact that he is not light-skinned and got his start by learning from Spike Lee, Snipes plays a character who was produced and edited into a white hero in Black skin.

The characteristics that encode an evil antagonist are so tightly tied to cultural predispositions to being Black (solidified in the historical reality of the world) that a white vampire with a ghostly hue cannot be anything but Black — violent, animalistic, sexualized, and ‘all jazzed up.’  Because the American and European codes for good and evil are founded on perceptions of white and Black people, a Black hero can’t be made.   The way to represent a hero on screen is so white, and the manner of portraying a villain is so Black.  The racially progressive film and the Black hero cannot exist.




Broderick, Sarah. “Some Vampires Are Real: Racial Stereotypes and Dominant Fears (Re)presented in the Black Vampire of American Popular Film.” Gnovis Journal at Georgetown University, 21 Nov. 2011. Gnovis,

Nama, Adilifu. Brave Black Worlds: Black Superheroes as Science Fiction Ciphers. The Black Imagination, Science Fiction and the Speculative, by Sandra Jackson, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 10.

Ture, Kwame (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. New York, Random House, 1967.

“2015 Police Violence Report.” Mapping Police Violence, 2015,


This essay was read by Chloe.

This essay was written in the style of Mark Greif.

Negotiating Taste in the Pop Culture Stew

Popular culture certainly is the realm in which hierarchies are flattened by the rebellious works of entertainment mavericks, though it does not seem right that all such rebellions should be taken in bad taste when they have something more pure and complex at heart.  One such maverick is Walt Disney, and his Fantasia was one such rebellion.  Its reception was as varied as its composition — most film critics were awed, and most music critics were appalled.  It effectively moved the chains on taste, and left as its legacy the visual concert, eventually to be the music video.  Did Disney know that he was introducing a totally new wave to popular culture?  Was he knowingly usurping the kings and masters who had established clear lines between the high and the low, the tasteful and the distasteful?

When I was three years old, in 2001, I watched Fantasia every day.  I consumed a lot of other media too, but I distinctly remember ‘othering’ Fantasia, being overwhelmed by the grandness of its music while each scene bursted with color.  It was my first introduction to classical music (I probably wouldn’t have been listening to any Beethoven otherwise).  Though I wasn’t yet aware of any cultural hierarchy, I consciously set it apart from Dragon Tales and Barney.

It is the nature of popular culture that using terms like ‘bad taste’ is problematic, because what may have been labeled such in 1940 could now be seen as the opposite.  Fantasia gave a huge new momentum to classical music, which carried it all the way to the 21st century, to a new and youthful unexpecting audience.  In that time, cultural tastes have changed, and there are fewer gatekeepers now than ever.  This is in no small part due to the impact of Fantasia, a cultural monolith which Henry Allen of the Washington Post called “Walt Disney’s glorious monument to mid-century “middlebrowism” (Allen, 1990).  The idea of there being a “middlebrow” reinforces the hierarchy, though it creates a grey area into which innovative popular culture can rise and expand, no longer being relegated to the pit.  With Fantasia, Disney created this space for future generations of artists.

The project of blending low culture, in the form of cartoon animation, and high culture, in the form of the most sophisticated classical scores, was consciously devised in order to shake things up.  According to historian John Culhane, Walt Disney “had vowed, when he was snubbed as a mere ‘cartoon-maker’ 17 years before, that his animated productions would someday be treated to the same kind of gala premieres accorded live-action films” (Culhane, 1983).  Disney was obsessed from the outset with changing the culture, and breaking down the mechanisms which might saddle his work with such descriptors as lowbrow, bad taste, or “mere.”  To get to the gala premier, he had to draw on high culture in a manner of appropriation (he admitted to not caring for classical music himself) and as a true champion of popular culture, its lowly forms, and its spirit of innovation (what some might call “bad taste”) he became a rebel.

I never thought beautiful music with beautiful animations would be viewed by anyone as bad taste.  On the contrary, the impression left by Beethoven and Bach is one of exceedingly good taste, high class.  But when the movie was released, many in the audience — especially those Beethoven fans — were appalled. What sort of lowbrow cartoonist huckster would dare try to repackage the classics with circuses of naked centaurs and battling dinos?  One critic for the New York Times said, with some indignation, “Disney’s toddling cannot keep pace with the giant strides of Ludwig van Beethoven” (Crowther, 1940).

Fantasia’s release in 1940 triggered objections from cultural purists, who were not amused by Walt’s interest in making classical music the subject of his ‘experimental’ phase.  Before 1940, classical music was untouchable — the domain of kings, bosses and masters — and arguably the highest culture in the popular hierarchy.  A producer for Minnesota public radio reviewed the impact of Disney’s choice, stating that “to mess with Beethoven was to mess with Music Itself” (Gabler, 2015).  At the time of the film’s premiere, the New York Times wrote, “Disney’s toddling cannot keep pace with the giant strides of Ludwig van Beethoven.” And “what the music experts and the art critics will think of it we don’t know. … Probably there will be much controversy, and maybe some long hair will be pulled. Artistic innovations never breed content” (Crowther, 1940).

Disney did not intend rebellious bad taste at all; he wanted refinement, despite how it was received by some.  There will always be traditionalists in the crowd who feel scandalized, who see popular culture as low culture.  But Disney wasn’t trying to buck the kings and masters — he was no punk.  He said of the film, “we’re not going to be slapstick.  There’s a certain refinement in the whole thing: we’ll go for the beautiful rather than the slapstick” (Disney, 1939).  Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that Disney did not have a provocative streak in him when selecting the Rite of Spring for inclusion in his grand experiment.  The infamous 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s piece provoked riots in Paris precisely because of its startling juxtaposition of music and visuals, and one could not think of the Rite of Spring in 1940 outside of this cultural context.  In this vein, choosing to pair a few of the most sophisticated classical scores of all time with animations of Mickey Mouse and dancing mushrooms, directing the same artist who created Goofy to animate segments set to Beethoven’s elaborate Pastoral Symphony, Disney had to have known that some if not all of his audience would be scandalized.

Fantasia set a new bar — nothing was off limits.  Thereafter, any and all forms of pop culture existed to be remixed.  “Critics may deplore Disney’s lapses of taste, but he trips, Mickey-like, into an art form that immortals from Aeschylus to Richard Wagner have always dreamed of” (TIME, 1940).  The monolithic nature of Fantasia, as a pivotal artifact in cultural history, is well summarized by Michael Broyles:

“In giving expression to his own rich visual imagination, Disney created a piece both ripe with potential and threatening in implications.  In retrospect Fantasia is late-twentieth-century musical culture’s Pandora’s box, for with Fantasia the visual dimension could no longer be downplayed, or relegated to the listener’s own fantasy” (Broyles, 2004).

The novel concept of the “visual concert,” as Disney referred to this aspect of his legacy, lived on in popular culture through the psychedelic movement of the 60s (think Yellow Submarine) and eventually in the music videos of the MTV era, and even in the Visualizer algorithm that accompanies iTunes or Windows Media Player.  Through all of this, because of the quality of the music and that unique marriage to Disney animation, the 1940 film has a lasting appeal.  Today, drug users and kindergarteners find something in it to love.  The website “Shroomery” hosts a forum titled, “Was Fantasia invented for people on hallucinogens?” from 2011.  Twitter boasts a slew of wacky tweets on the film, such as “Fantasia & fantasia 2000 are on tv. Trippy stuff – imagine it on mushrooms!?!” and “My first year in LA, I had a buddy who decided he was going to drop acid and go see FANTASIA in the theater. Good plan, right?”  Disney itself came out with a psychedelic blacklight poster for the re-release of Fantasia in 1969.

The narrator of Fantasia prefaces the first and most abstract score with the sentiment: “What you’re going to see are the designs and pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds and imaginations of a group of artists.  In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians which I think is all to the good” (italics added).

The music that exists “simply for its own sake,” which has no explicit narrative, is perhaps the most important form to Walt, because it is the raw material that can inspire multiple lines of imagination.  The word “fantasia” itself is a musical term that translates to “beyond language,” which is inherently liberatory and unrestrictive.   The narrator states that occasionally it is “all to the good” we have the guys who made Mickey Mouse interpreting this music for us.  We’ve been liberated from those constraints that tell us how and when to appreciate classical music.  This seems to be the film’s only self-conscious concession that it might be venturing into ‘bad taste,’ and it comes with no shame.  In fact, it asks the audience to agree and admit that this new, more stimulating form of entertainment is superior to what trained musicians alone could muster.


Works Cited

Allen, Henry. “Fantasia.” Washington Post, 30 Sept. 1990.

“Beethoven in ‘Fantasia’: Awesome, or awkward?” Review of Fantasia, by Jay Gabler, 1940. Classical MPR, 29 Oct. 2015,

Broyles, Michael. “Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music.” Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 299-305. JSTOR,

Crowther, Bosley. “Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia,’ an Exciting New Departure in Film Entertainment, Opened Last Night at the Broadway.” The New York Times [New York], 14 Nov. 1940.

Culhane, John. Walt Disney’s Fantasia. 1983.

Disney, Walt. “Walt’s Words: Fantasia Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6.” Interview by Leopold Stokowski. Disney History Institute, 8 Aug. 1939,

“Disney’s Cinesymphony.” TIME, no. 21, 18 Nov. 1940.


This essay was read by Juna Khang.