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20 Dec 2009

Race on the big screen

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December 20, 2009 Category: Entertainment Posted by:

Despite the often imperfect ways in which filmmakers stumble around and struggle with the racial divide between blacks and whites, I look at this December, and the decade that got us here, and find myself encouraged. Four of the most talked about films now are “Precious,” “Invictus,” “The Blind Side” and “The Princess and the Frog.” As different as night and day, yet each has race and the inherently sticky issues that come with it running through them. That they are all in theaters now, in the one month when studios fight bitterly for space to put their best films forward, is Hollywood’s version of a Christmas miracle. All will certainly make their way into the Oscar conversation, and whatever flaws you might find in how they deal with race — and you can find them easily enough — the films are doing quite well financially. Their box office has been powered by audiences who are as diverse in opinion as background and eager to debate the films’ relative merits.

The blend of money, conversation and acclaim is significant in this town, with the ripple effect sure to result in a few more greenlights for films like these. Just as heartening is the fact that mainstream audiences are choosing these stories, some difficult and demanding, along with escapist fare. Racial themes have infused film from the beginning, for good and ill, and this current crop has benefited from those who have gone before. While the strong contemporary black sensibilities of Spike Lee, John Singleton, the brothers Hudlin and Hughes, and Melvin and Mario Van Peebles, and, most recently, the rising crescendo of Tyler Perry would seem to provide the obvious precursors to a film like “Precious,” I would suggest “The Princess and the Frog” wouldn’t be here without them either. Those filmmakers framed black life, families, social dynamics and humor in ways you see reflected in many touches found in the animated hit.

Though more than a few have complained that Disney’s first African American princess spends too many of the film’s 97 minutes as a green frog, it is nevertheless significant that the biggest purveyor of children’s entertainment thought it a safe bet that a black princess would win as many hearts as Snow White, with a $100-millionplus budget on the line. The multiracial films “Crash” in 2004 and “Babel” two years later underscored how any experience is colored by the stereotypes you bring into it. We all know it, but film is sometimes what steps in to put things in sharper perspective for us, challenging our preconceptions, reshaping our conclusions. Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” reverberates with the “in the eye of the beholder” racial experience our country and president grapple with now. After seeing the steady hand, brilliant mind and steely grace of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman, I found my spirits lifted in a larger way.

Director Lee Daniels’ provocative “Precious,” based on the even more searing novel “Push” by Sapphire, lives in the darkest corner of Harlem circa 1982 behind an apartment door where horrific things happen. And there are many who wish Daniels had kept that particular door closed, arguing that the film plays to the worst stereotypes whites have of black poverty, as something too difficult to see, as far too melodramatic. But opening a window into a world we might otherwise pass by is one of the key requirements of any art. If anything, I would suggest “Precious” is a social advocacy film in sheep’s clothing: a treatise on the power of literacy, and a teacher who cares, to change a child’s life. It has things to say on the notion of “it takes a village,” with Precious gathered up and cared for in ways she should have been from the beginning. Similar themes turn up in “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock in the real-life story of an affluent Memphis mom and conservative Christian who takes in homeless black teenager Michael Oher, played by Quinton Aaron. Comfortable with its sentiment, popular with audiences from the coasts to the heartland, dismissed by more than a few critics, some of the film’s important themes have been overlooked in the process.

“The Blind Side” is unashamedly American, proud of its charity-begins-at-home story, and it presses its audience to reconsider stereotypes, not just of the black teen with so much potential, but of someone trying to live her religious beliefs, a topic as dicey as race in movieland. The film preaches racial acceptance (and the power of football) in the language of the mainstream rather than the cinematic elite. The importance then is not so much the specific stories as their presence on the same stage, at the same time, getting standing ovations from audiences. Whether this presages a larger trend in Hollywood, with race writ large and by many hands, or represents nothing more than an aberrant blip no one yet knows. But to my mind, it is a great way for film to head into a new year, hopefully with a few new resolutions.

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