I am a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles, but I’ll blame Tears of the Sun on my son, Colin. (Ok, I admit it was my money that rented it). Tears of the Sun falls in to the general time honored genre of films and novels that are set in the context of racial difference but really serve to obsess over the continuing moral drama of whiteness and its discontents. Think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, or Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, or Leonardo Dicarpio in Blood Diamond, or for that matter Conrad, Kipling, and Fenimore Cooper. What gets me about these films, and Tears of the Sun seems especially egregious, is that all the moral wrestling with the curse of whiteness becomes, SURPRISE, yet another occasion for championing the moral ascendancy of white people. As if we say to ourselves “Look how hard I’m trying to be good, and humble, and true, and right, and how hard I am trying to atone for past racial sins; I must really be better than everyone else after all.”
Ok, I will admit that I liked the shoot-em-up scenes as much as any good war movie, and overall I can’t complain about the entertainment. But basically this movie was The Searchers (or maybe The Last of the Mohicans) dressed up in anti-racist drag. Bruce Willis and his band of commandos go to save the white missionaries and doctors caught in a Nigerian war zone. Predictably the doctor is gorgeously beautiful (and apparently French, perhaps a gesture toward globalization but more likely a gesture toward cross-national white solidarity), and we know that she and Bruce Willis will sleep together when they get back to base (which they don’t, actually, but we see them fly off together into the sunset on a helicopter. Let your imagination go to work). The film tries to develop a moral drama in which Bruce Willis “does the right thing” by risking himself and his men to disobey orders and try to rescue the Nigerian refugees in the doctor’s charge, one of whom, SURPRISE!, just happens to be a Nigerian prince who is being sought by rebel leaders of the coup d’etat. (The coup d’etat, generally, is a trope for Africanity in the American cinematic imagination). American individualism and rejection of authority becomes the source for global redemption.
I can live with all this since I like a good hokey story as much as the next guy (witness my oft-stated delight in Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film’s moral center becomes not really despair that attends a decade long civil war in Africa, or even a meditation on the variously subtle ways in which Western powers have contributed to the violence and instability of African nations. It becomes instead a meditation on the gloriously self-sacrifical superiority of white people. When, at the end of the film, the lead African female actor weepily looks into Bruce Willis’s bloodied face and repeatedly tells him how much God loves him and will bless him, I half expected the Nigerian nationals to pull out their American flags and start singing God Bless America. The film seemed to suggest that moral and ethical choices are occasions for narcissistic self-display. It also struck me as a propaganda piece for American interventionism. Released in 2003, perhaps we were still on the edge of believing that our guns and our good intentions could make the world a better place. Cf Iraq.
These things aside, I still like a good shoot-em-up, and I’m still a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles. Against all my better instincts.
For more of this summer’s guilty pleasures see: