Get a good job with more pay and you’re O.K… Rewatching ‘Holy Man’ (1998)

The 1998 film Holy Man tells the tale of a wealthy white male who works in the media industry meeting a mysterious African American who appears to have divine powers and spiritual insight.  The wealthy white male who works in the media industry realises that his life is empty and he needs the wisdom of the mysterious African American who then helpfully leaves the wealthy white man alone at the end of the film.

In many respects, Holy Man is a lot like the 2003 film Bruce Almighty.  The similarities between the films might make us wonder what’s going on in the media industry: are the white guys who write these scripts and direct these movies actually calling out for help?  Should we check to see if they’re okay?

After I watched this film, I started to think about the religious element of the film.  The pop-culture presentation of the ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ influences our public debate significantly.  It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’, reinforcing the idea that the individual is the only true authority when it comes to the non-material world.  It’s also not uncommon to see ‘spirituality’ as a rejection of the material world (in both the ‘things made out of particles’ and ‘things that are sold to us’ senses).  You can tell that Eddie Murphy’s character is spiritual because he has no possessions, is joyous and forgiving, and is the only African American in the building.

The film also emphasises the extraverted nature of pop-spirituality.  Murphy’s character wants us to connect with others, to find love and meaning in being loved.  The Holy Man world does not entertain the idea of the mystic who abandons society altogether to meditate in a cave for three years.

Instead, the film made me think of Adam Goodes.

Adam Goodes is a footballer in a country that cares way too much about sport, and made the strategic error of being a successful Indigenous person in a country that still struggles with racism.  If only he had the foresight to be less successful or less Indigenous, Australia would never have noticed him.

Racist attacks on Goodes appear to be a recurring part of Australian life, along with spiders in the dunny and dropbears.  A thirteen-year old girl called him an ape, causing a national debate.  He noted that Indigenous Australia has a difficult relationship with Australia Day, causing a national debate.  He performed a war dance on a very Caucasian football field, causing a national debate… and this:

In the first instance, we have to wonder why the racists keep getting stirred up.  It is difficult to think of any other explanation than a particular group of media personalities profit from this recurring debate.  Andrew Bolt, for example, increases his national profile whenever he says anything racist.  Despite losing a court case where he was found to have racially discriminated against a group of Indigenous Australians, ABC’s 7.30 thought that he was an appropriate talking head to discuss racism in Australia:

This is a man, we will remember, who was so upset about being called a racist that he requested the ABC and an Indigenous academic apologise to him.  The Attorney-General, George Brandis, even said that to call Andrew Bolt a racist was ‘itself a form of vile abuse of the man‘.

But is Andrew Bolt and his ilk a necessary evil?  Would we be having this discussion about racism in Australia if it weren’t for having extremely loud racists to pillory?  The answer, of course, is no.  Australia would be much better off if its media weren’t legitimising social defects.

And this gets me back to Holy Man.  Eddie Murphy appears on the scene and behaves authentically.  He is bored by the notion of having to sell trinkets, so he wanders around the set and destroys things.  In the process, he inexplicably causes people to purchase goods.  The media industry — a vastly inauthentic capitalist venture — can do nothing but strategise on how to market this spontaneity.  If Murphy’s character had just appeared and been insightful, accurate, and subversive, the media machine within the film’s world would never have taken an interest.  It’s only because these traits perversely cause people to consume more products that the media makes him a cause celebre, emblazoning his image and message on cheaply made t-shirts.

Both the spontaneous reaction of the racist football fans and the authentic declaration of identity by Adam Goodes would have been a blip on the radar if it weren’t extremely profitable for our media industry to keep reheating the souffle.  We now see company after company come out ‘in strong support’ of Goodes because it’s free advertising.  If you support Adam Goodes, you should buy our products.  If you support Adam Goodes, you should donate to our causes.  If you think Adam Goodes was wrong to be Indigenous, read my column.  If you think Adam Goodes should behave in a way makes you feel more comfortable about systemic racism, attend my rally.

Racist barbarians at the footy shouldn’t be national news.  Cutting funding to Indigenous legal services, the Indigenous incarceration rate, and the Indigenous health gap should be causing this level of national outrage, and yet we don’t have a media engine that’s sophisticated enough to link the pieces together.  The racist reaction towards Goodes is itself a symptom of the larger problem, but until we have an sympathisable individual at the centre of systemic racism, it doesn’t exist.  The fact that the people booing in the crowd were all proles also helps to distance the sense of participation in racism: ‘I’m not racist, I just happen not to employ any Indigenous people or know any Indigenous people; I’m certainly not like the people in the football crowd.  I don’t even like football.’

None of this is to say that Indigenous Australians shouldn’t see something worthy of discussion in the treatment of Goodes, but why is it that we only have this volume of Indigenous voices participating in the media when there’s a ‘White people treating an Indigenous person badly’ story?  Why couldn’t we hear from Stan Grant, Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson, &c., &c., &c., when we were discussing the Greek debt crisis?  It’s not like the panels full of know-nothing Caucasians produced anything worth hearing.  And for all the (somewhat justifiable) derision for Q&A, why don’t we have anything like its counterpart on NITV?  Also, why isn’t there more promotion of NITV shows on SBS and ABC?

For all of its flaws, Holy Man unintentionally drew attention to this dynamic.  Our craving for novelty, authenticity, and self-affirmation creates an incentive for companies to manufacture it when it doesn’t arise spontaneously and to hijack it when it does.

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