The Seditious Iconography of Shaquille O'Neal
If the 90's produced one figure that sets himself apart by his actions begging the difficult questions for society, it was Shaq.
The 90’s had many iconic athletes become successes in other fields, but Shaquille O’Neal was singular in his ambitious, but also singular was the derision he would receive, and given the nature of his crossover work—into education, law enforcement, local businesses, not just the typical fare for athletes crossing over into film and music, as Shaq did less than successfully- it was natural that his commitment to public service is what would be downplayed by a public willing to deride anything but his athletic prowess. The culture decided what his function was, and he, correctly, has not let it stop him, but that does not change the fundamental issue that belies this assumption that, for example, Shaq in Kazaam is considered singularly bad.
Consider the onslaught of movies, almost none of which are watchable, starring Hulk Hogan? Remember his country album? Yet, because he remained non-threatening to the culture, he was allowed to persist, but a film like Kazaam, something you could see someone like Hulk Hogan, or the notoriously apolitical Michael Jordan, being in, had a radical message common among children’s films of the era (Blank Check, The Mighty Ducks, Jingle all the Way) with strong anti-capitalist messages. Kazaam, however, was less subtle in its critiques; only this one time would you see the influence of capitalism as reliably corrupting in the Clinton 90’s.
Whereas the Ducks franchise was about class struggle and community organizing to reform an unjust system, Blank Check about how selective the rights to the American Dream can be, Jingle all the Way about the dehumanizing and destructive element of consumerism on a holiday otherwise about togetherness and mutual aid, Kazaam is the ultimate attempt at making ideology accessible.
By placing Shaq as Kazaam, a 5000-year-old genie, as a relic of an ancient past, the implication is clear: everything about the 1990’s is unnatural, our economy and harsh culture of exclusion is mere construction, and would be unrecognizable just philosophically to someone from whom we’re descended.
As Kazaam’s young charge, Max, navigates a world of bullies, neglectful parents, Kazaam finds a passion for himself in the music industry after proving that he’s an inate talent— why shouldn’t he take an opportunity to produce this art for the public?
The problem is that the industry honchos, Max’s father in particular, are intent upon commoditizing his labor for their profit— in the context of the music industry in the 90’s this could not have been a more loaded sentiment- Kazaam immediately forgets his obligation to the boy, and becomes a functionary of the record label.
Kazaam is, initially, an avatar for the much-needed social justice ideals of the era, and with the promise of self-actualization, something one could trust in theory, but when offered by predators is suspect, he is made vulnerable.
With this loss of ideals comes a mask-off moment for the entire society we’re being shown; there’s no community, there are no assurances, not even the ability to exercise his rights as the rights of others infringe upon his own, there’s no one to reach out to for Max.
Kazaam eventually understands his function in the labor cycle, and as the ability to control his genie powers (what makes him an exceptional rapper, in this case, and later once others realize he is a genie) transfers hands, the demonstration of this total lack of agency at the hands of the elite becomes clear in this, he is powerless to decide what harm he can be weaponized to do.
Ultimately, to increase the agency of everyone— without going into the plot too deeply, for those who have not seen it- he does forsake his powers to save Max, his father, and become free himself. Ultimately, rather than continue the upward motion of his influence that he has no agency over that can be used to do harm, he leans into a utopian ideal.
If this movie is not remembered fondly, I am not going to die on the hill that it was a socialist masterpiece that upset Hollywood, but I will say that Shaq has remained a figure who has represented the interests of the public, and directed the output of his success in basketball into these other efforts, rather than simply enriching the franchise owners, and this movie is a pattern of social responsibility, or at least a socially responsible as any person of that type of wealth can be (relying too entirely on his philanthropy, rather than using his resources to expand this effort just beyond himself— this is a common trope, but one he’s not alone in, however, unlike most, as I’ll speak to in a moment, he becomes a domain expert before making such a contribution).
If you take all of this on balance, you can come away thinking that it makes sense that the media (i.e. the round maligning of Kazaam, his rap career, but no mentions of this other work) it was important to someone that he come across as fundamentally ridiculous, for example, from his Wikipedia page:
O'Neal called himself "The Big Aristotle" and "Hobo Master" for his composure and insights during interviews. Journalists and others gave O'Neal several nicknames including "Shaq", "The Diesel", "Shaq Fu", "The Big Daddy", "Superman", "The Big Agave", "The Big Cactus", "The Big Shaqtus", "The Big Galactus", "Wilt Chamberneezy", "The Big Baryshnikov", "The Real Deal", "The Big Shamrock", "The Big Leprechaun", "Shaqovic", and "The Big Conductor".
Shaquille pursued a doctorate in Education, became a law enforcement officer himself (take that however you want, but it still demonstrates a similar commitment to understanding a system before commenting on it, particularly one intended to serve the public)— this is an incongruity between the press and the subject of that press, and it speaks to their motivations.
The media, in this case, seeking to frame him as other-worldly (i.e. not human, this kind of backhanded complimentary way, lest he forget the role he was sanctioned to play in the psychodrama of our media culture) in his feats of objectively masterful human feats, to brand him as this being a function of his size, rather than his ability, while Shaq saw himself as more than that, a philosopher, a traveler, a satirist of the media’s own myth-making. This comes through in his decision to, like Kazaam, seek balance between artistic pursuit and the obligations of living in a mutually beneficial society (that he viewed education and public safety as priorities, I think, speak to this).
I grew up in Miami in the early 90’s— the Orlando Magic were the team at the time, they had Shaq, Penny Hardaway, a consistent record, while, at the time, the Heat hadn’t yet become a powerhouse; Pat Riley was a relatively recent arrival as coach, Alonzo Mourning was still in Charlotte and not yet on the scene, to say nothing of Tim Hardaway, let alone the rest of the iconic players that would go on to define this franchise over the next decade and a half, so Shaq Mania hit us hard. I’d shop for shoes at a place called Just For Feet that would specialize in basketball culture, and their centerpiece had always been a game-worn shoe of Shaq’s— you knew the man had presence, even amongst what was an ostensible rival for the mindshare for Florida’s young sports fans.
I think about this period in Shaq’s career a lot. I witnessed this industry consesus form in real time. I was something of a phony when it came to following sports; my father had been an athlete of some repute locally, and I was always so thoroughly impressed by this that I would be intimidate myself into being a mediocre one while my interest, intellectually, I hoped, would carry enough legitimacy that he’d never notice and still consider me a peer in this regard. I mention this because Shaquille O’Neal was an athlete I could relate to; someone who looked beyond the court, beyond the scope of his assigned role, always.
Coupled with the messaging of his children’s movie work at the time, his absolute hegemony over the media, even if it was negative through 2001, at the very least, the conclusion is, perhaps, not so clear; you either respect tradition and reject modernity, or your embrace modernity and take control.
For people my age, it comes down to a question of willingness/necessity of becoming radicalized— the point of Kazaam was to give a generation permission to be themselves, and that self-actualization was, it seem, a progressive actualization, any way you slice it.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
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