Face of an Angel ; Hollywood Is Frequently Casting African-Americans in Spiritual Roles. Is This Positive or Patronizing?

Article excerpt

What do the films "Bruce Almighty" and "The Green Mile" have in common with "The Family Man," the "Matrix" movies, and "Ghost"?

All feature black characters whose main function is to help a white hero through magical or supernatural means. These are Hollywood's "black angels," whose popularity has surged in recent years - so much so that in an episode last year of "The Simpsons," Homer mistook a black man in a white suit for an angelic visitor, all because (according to his embarrassed wife) he'd been seeing too many movies lately.

Of course, there are many films aimed at African-Americans that star blacks in a variety of parts, from villainous to heroic. But casting blacks as angelic characters has become an increasingly common trend in mainstream movies.

For their part, many African-Americans see this heavenly designation as less than beatific. Filmmakers like Spike Lee have spoken out against such roles, calling them patronizing and unrealistic.

"Black-angel movies appeal to a genuine desire for reconciliation among whites and blacks. But they also exploit a distorted fascination with blacks that many whites have," says film historian Krin Gabbard, who will explore this subject in his book "Black Magic: White Hollywood and African-American Culture," due out next year. "In vast amounts of entertainment and culture, whites have trouble regarding blacks as real people. That's depressing, but true."

The traditional choice: thug or maid

The record supports Dr. Gabbard's charge. In one tradition of American filmmaking, dating to D.W. Griffith's epic "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, black people are portrayed as villains and monsters - like the lust-crazed Gus who forces Mae Marsh's character to choose death before dishonor.

This practice lives on in many films that still cast black performers as criminals or thugs. Recently, Denzel Washington played a crooked cop in "Training Day" - and won an Oscar for it last year. (Halle Berry also won in 2002, causing many to hope that African- Americans had finally written themselves a bigger part in Hollywood.)

In another tradition, exemplified by "Gone With the Wind" in 1939, blacks are often lovable, but also ignorant and subservient, like the characters played by Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel. In the most common tradition of all, African-Americans are excluded altogether or allowed a few seconds of screen time to lend local color or comic relief. They may also be depicted as anonymous hordes, as in war pictures such as "Zulu" and "Black Hawk Down."

For decades, most film historians agreed that these traditions served to reinforce the racial prejudices of their times, and that little or nothing can be said in their favor. More recently, revisionist critics have noted that at least such roles allowed black performers to hold careers in the entertainment industry and to display their talents for large audiences.

"Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid?" asked Ms. McDaniel, referring to the character type that dominated her career. "If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."

Viewed in this context, black-angel movies can be seen as an attempt at compromise, giving on-screen blacks more dignity - without taking much of the action away from the white hero. Key examples include "The Green Mile," where black death-row inmate John Coffey heals a white prison guard and his wife before marching obediently to his execution, and the "Matrix" series, where a black "oracle" (the late Gloria Foster) dispenses prophecy and wisdom to the white "chosen one" (Keanu Reeves). The "Matrix" films, however, can't be accused of tokenism, since they also feature African- American actors, such as Laurence Fishburne and Jada Pinkett-Smith, in prominent roles.

And overall, African-American stars, from Queen Latifah to Will Smith, are commanding higher salaries and headlining more movies than in the past. …