Let’s get one thing straight: Ghost is mostly hot garbage. It’s a quasi-theist sci-fi/thriller wannabe, with stalking and seances and a subplot about stealing codes to steal money, that’s been dipped in so much treacly romance it’s like a caramel apple with no apple under the caramel, only more caramel. Oh, and it’s also a comedy when Whoopi Goldberg is onscreen. So, Ghost is many things, most of them messy, but damn if it isn’t successful. Everyone and your mother was singing “Unchained Melody” and signing up for pottery classes, and I don’t say that as an insult—I literally mean that your mother was as into this movie as you were if you’re in my age bracket.
Nothing about it holds even a teaspoon of water, but when at-her-peak Demi Moore lets that one teardrop fall as the glass rolls down the world’s most unsafe staircase ever and shatters, I’m done. When at-his-peak Patrick Swayze fist-pumps at finally being able to control some of his ghost motion, I’m rooting for him and not really looking into the wonky physics of it all. And whenever Whoopi is onscreen, I live!
What Whoopi was asked to do in Ghost is unfair. It’s the thing that has been happening to women of color since someone decided they could record moving images on film and call it a “movie.” It happens so often that Whoopi herself has done it more than once. To be the “comic relief,” play a major part in the action from the sidelines, and do the heavy lifting of carrying unwieldy punchlines throughout serious territory is a huge job, and though I have my personal resentment that that’s so often our lane, I salute Whoopi for nailing it.
I have no idea what the set was like, but the script alone for Ghost could be considered a hostile work environment. (It won an Oscar, but more on what that may or may not mean later.) As Oda Mae Wallace, a fake psychic medium who turns out to be real, Whoopi is literally playing the Magical Negro. She is called upon to be angry and sassy and scheme with attitude. And all in an oversized wig (to cover her locs) and wardrobe choices that were meant to convey “kooky psychic” but look more like Halloween leftovers.
Early in the film, Oda Mae is giving one of her phony baloney psychic readings, which gives Whoopi the actress and comedic genius the opportunity to remind us just how the fuck she can get down. Doing the different voices of the ghosts she’s allegedly communicating with, and then suddenly actually hearing, she sails through hints of the kind of voice work she used to do in stand-up that first put her on the world’s radar. Having seen her live multiple times, I marvel as she seamlessly transforms into different characters onstage in rapid succession. Lots of people can “do voices,” lots of people can bust out multiple comedic characters, but she embodies them, and however funky the context of Ghost was, it gave her the chance to do it fantastically on film.
When Swayze’s character Sam inhabits her, or whatever we should call it when she truly does channel his spirit, Whoopi brings the fire when Oda Mae refuses to believe what’s happening to her. Whether intentional or not, Oda Mae not believing any of this shit is actually the thing I believe most about the whole movie. And then, in a climactic scene, Whoopi has to do the unthinkable; she has to play the role of a woman about to make sweet love to another woman* so that the spirit of her dead boyfriend can get it on paranormally. Say WHAT?
I know it’s no fun to point out flaws like this, but in the movie, that’s what happens. What we see is Swayze as Sam, but since Molly doesn’t see him when Oda Mae channels him, she’s still seeing Oda Mae the whole time. As we would be, if not for movie magic. What’s tricky about the whole conceit, besides everything about it being preposterous, is that it hinges on Oda Mae’s balancing act of reluctant helpfulness. She’s not just a joker, but she still shows us that this is kind of a joke. Until it isn’t. And that turn, that moment when Oda Mae decides to go all in, is when the audience does too. That’s huge, and the filmmakers were lucky to have Whoopi to help them sell their fantasy.
A few years ago, when Ghost was being adapted for the stage as a musical, I was approached as a possibility to play Oda Mae. The casting director is one of my favorites and with my Broadway credits, I understood my name being in the conversation, but … no. On paper, I really don’t care for this role. The movie was dodgy enough, but Whoopi’s brilliance kept it this side of cooning. Not that someone, perhaps even me, couldn’t be just as brilliant in a stage version, but when you add music to the mix, that’s an additional element of racially charged material that I felt would be too much to overcome. Broadway musicals already rely too heavily on a Big Black Mama to belt out an eleven o’clock number and wake up the people who fell asleep at the top of the second act in time to watch the white leads fall in love before the finale. Add elements of mysticism and speaking in tongues into the mix and, well, you can miss me with that. No shade to the women who did the role, by the way. I never even auditioned, so there are no sour grapes. That’s not my lane, but I want all of us to work!
When that situation happened, I was reminded how wonderful Whoopi was in the movie. I’m also reminded whenever I see the popular “Molly, you in danger, girl!” meme pop up online. That’s just the kind of moment that could have read a whole other way, and perhaps it does to some. But to me, she’s just so all the way there with it that we laugh with her and also feel the danger that the rest of the movie expends unnecessary energy and gore trying to tell us is there.
Whoopi won an Oscar for this role, which she deserves, but which also tells us all we need to know about what the Academy thinks is acceptable to reward black women for. Especially considering that Whoopi’s role in The Color Purple came first, but I’ll save that conversation for another day.
*It’s important to me to note that there is nothing inherently “unthinkable” about a woman making sweet love to another woman. It’s the context of the scene and the whole ghost thingie I was referring to. Just sayin’