The latter, though, is in dispute. Duncan's character was described by Spike Lee and others as a mere "magical negro," the kind of figure who exists only to enlighten white people, to set them on the road to self-improvement, with no interior life of his own.
To be a true movie messiah, you have to do more than die for the sins of others. You have to be proactive. You have to kick a little ass, like Neo in "the Matrix" or Jake in "Avatar."
So, when will we get to see a bona-fide African-American movie messiah?
How long must we wait?
Well, if you're reading this review Friday morning, you'll have to wait, like, four hours.
That's when "The Book of Eli" opens, starring Denzel Washington as a saintly and occasionally violent pilgrim whose purpose in the narrative (based on a popular graphic novel) is decidedly messianic.
Washington plays Eli, on a holy mission in a post-apocalyptic world to take the world's last copy of the King James Bible to a promised land somewhere West. To get there, he must pass through a Thunderdome-ish community where rulers rise to power based on their willingness to be extremely hammy actors, and so this one is run by Gary Oldman.
He plays Carnegie, a cruel leader (he studies Mussolini) and would-be religious charlatan - above all, he covets a copy of the Bible, which he plans to use as a text to both terrorize and organize his chaotic frontier town.
"The Book of Eli" shapes up as a battle of wits and will between Eli and Carnegie - Eli has been called to deliver the book to a righteous man, and Carnegie, he senses, just ain't the dude.
He plans to quietly move on, but is dimed out by a hissing cat (the movie has a decidedly anti-feline bias, and cat-lovers should avoid it). A massive barfight and many severed limbs later (Eli is a whiz with a futuristic Bowie knife), Eli and Carnegie commence the, um, cat and mouse chase that drives the story.
"The Book of Eli" is a very sober and derivative movie. You've seen this post-apocalypse before - people with rotten teeth and fingerless gloves, rapists on motorcycles, all in a monochrome gray. Movie holocausts tend to destroy plant life, animal life and all primary colors. Often, one famous musician (here, it's Tom Waits) survives to give a supporting performance.
On the other hand, there are inspired moments. Oldman brings demented charm to the role (echoes of Dennis Hopper in "Waterworld") as the madman who thrives in a mad, mad world. He crows and preens, but is suddenly gentle - as when he bestows the world's last bottle of shampoo to his blind concubine (Jennifer Beals). Ah, clean, fragrant hair. What a feelin'!
And who better than Denzel to play a saint in a sinful world, a man who retains this saintliness even after he's sliced up several dozen rapists and cannibals.
Still, the Hughes brothers, directing their first movie in eight years, don't seem to know how seriously to take the religious angle.
They are irreverent and sardonic ("From Hell," "Dead Presidents") by nature, a tone that surfaces most effectively in a potshot at Dan Brown. Carnegie sends ruffians out to scrounge the scorched earth for a copy of the Bible, but they keep bringing back lesser books, dropping them in a heap. In one pile, Oldman sees "The Da Vinci Code" and tells his henchmen to burn it along with the rest of the trash.
The scene has a point. Without a religion to subvert, of what use is "The Da Vinci Code?"