Anyone who claims there’s no vision behind the Disney studio’s current product has got it all wrong. In several recent releases, Disney has made a bold attempt to revive one of the seminal images in American film history: the Happy Negro. First, there was Cool Runnings, with its Happy Negro bobsledders from Jamaica (you know they never stop smilin’ down there, mon!). Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit gave us Happy Negro inner-city singers. Now, The Air Up There (Hollywood, PG) offers Happy Negro basketball players from Africa—a whole tribe of ’em!
What’s behind Disney’s B-movie patronization of blacks? The same thing that was behind the Hollywood racism of 50 years ago: an attempt to emasculate black experience by turning it into a genial mass-market hook. What’s most insidious about Disney’s new minstrel shows is that they wear the veneer of ”hip,” jazzy entertainment.
In The Air Up There, Kevin Bacon, as an assistant college basketball coach, journeys to the wilderness of Kenya to recruit a 6’8” Winabi warrior named Saleh. In outline, the movie is a lightweight sports comedy, one of those cross-cultural fairy tales in which the cocky American loosens up the by-the-book foreigners, who in turn teach him to respect himself. There’s just one caveat: Up until the big game (which is so chaotically edited it looks like something shown on fast-forward), The Air Up There contains virtually no basketball. Instead, Bacon gradually becomes part of the Winabi nation (Dances With Point Guards?). He eats the food, herds the cows, and is indoctrinated into the tribe by having his abdomen slashed with a knife.
As Saleh, Kenyan newcomer Charles Gitona Maina, his radiant smile and lanky physique set off by brightly colored beads and face paint, has a winning presence, but the movie treats him less as a character than as a beautiful found object. It’s only Bacon (and, tellingly, the ”civilized” Kenyans in the nearby town) who gets to show some smart-aleck personality. Of course, The Air Up There would be hokum even if it didn’t treat the Winabi as primitive innocents. As it stands, it’s hokum that sticks in the craw. D