Sometimes we spend so much time looking at the trees instead of the forest, we never make our way back into the fairway.
I recently watched one of my favorite movies, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and decided I’d go check out what people though of the movie when it came out 11 years ago. Specifically I was curious as to what people thought of the issue of race in the movie itself. Thankfully with a quick wiki search, I found Spike Lee’s commentaries on the film. What struck me most was Spike Lee’s criticism of the Bagger Vance character being a “magical negro” who comes out to help a troubled white man, and leaves right before the troubles end.
As a white male, I realize that Spike Lee and I see race from different perspectives. And Lee’s point is valid. But I don’t believe that his the only possible reading of the film. For me, Bagger Vance (Will Smith) is a manifestation of God at a time when Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) most needed him. To me, there are 3 scenes towards the end of the movie that clarify Bagger Vance as something truly beyond human or mortal to begin with.
The first of these occurs when Junuh has a flashback in the middle of the woods, reminding him of his time in the trenches and forests of France during World War 1. I won’t get into the full details of the scene itself, but it alludes to Vance knowing more about Junuh’s back ground and personality than had been represented in the film or through Junuh’s character. It existed to lead Junuh back into life and help him put down the burden’s he had been carrying since the end of the War.
The second occurs not long afterwards, when Junuh calls a penalty on himself, against the wishes of everyone around him, including the people he is competing with. Vance nods in assent with Junuh’s decision and leaves right afterwards, deciding that Junuh had been shown the way once more. This was set up earlier in the film when the young boy Hardy Greaves mentions that golf is the only game where you can call a penalty on yourself. But in particular it seems to me as if Vance has set Junuh on the right path again.
Perhaps the clearest one for me though in every viewing occurs at the very end of the movie before the closing credits when Vance reappears. There is no change from how Greaves remembered him as a young boy, even though many decades have passed. I always view it as Vance calling Greaves back ‘home.’
I mentioned earlier that I’m a white male and thus race normally doesn’t factor into how I view things. As a historian, this is something I need to be aware of. I believe that race is becoming less of an issue among my generation. But I recognize that, in the film, Vance seems to exist only to serve Junuh’s needs. That carries implications, because Vance is black and Junuh is white. I also think that we can focus so much on that racial element that we miss other perspectives in the movie.
While not the worlds most spiritual person by a long shot, I focus on the spiritual journey that Junah takes throughout the film. Furthermore, he gets help from someone most Southern white males of that era would not have turned to for guidance. Junuh comes to recognize wisdom, even when it doesn’t come from someone like himself. For me, that is a message of hope.