The Last Taboo? Does Wave of Interracial Movies Signal a Real Change?

Ebony, September 1991 | Go to article overview

The Last Taboo? Does Wave of Interracial Movies Signal a Real Change?


SINCE the birth of movies and the debut of the race-baiting film, Birth of a Nation, the men who run major Hollywood film studios have frowned on open and honest portrayals of interracial love.

For many years, in fact, it was considered commercially and socially taboo to portray interracial lovers, particularly Black men and White women, in movies. And television, from its infancy, enforced an unwritten code forbidding Black men and White women to touch. So powerful and persuasive was this unwritten law that even the exceptions, such as the blind woman who fell in love with Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue, proved the rule.

And now, after years of caution and controversy, the rule seems to be changing. Once viewed as a social no-no, interracial romance is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Hollywood and the major networks have discovered Black and White love.

Now a Black architect and his White secretary make love on a drawing table in Spike Lee's hit film, Jungle Fever. A Black dentist and his White school-teacher can be shown fooling around in bed as husband and wife in Fox Broadcasting's TV sitcom, True Colors. A young White woman can become the proud mother of a child fathered by her Black boyfriend on Lifetime Cable Channel's The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. Even NBC TV's A Different World is exploring interracial love as two students--a Black female and a White male coed--date between classes at fictitious Hilman College.

And Hollywood apparently isn't finished with the subject. There are other projects, scheduled to be released as early as November, as film studios rush to turn a social taboo into a box-office bonanza.

Some of these movies feature major White stars. Mistress, for example, features Sheryl Lee Ralph and Robert De Niro in a comedy about three rich men who compete to find film roles for their mistresses. Another film, Love i Field, stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert in a story about a White woman who falls in love with a Black man. Another major marquee name, Kevin Costner, recently teamed up with super-recording artist Whitney Houston to begin filming Bodyguard, a suspense thriller that focuses on a fiery romance between Costner and Houston.

Persons familiar with the film and television industry and the social trends of interracial relationships give a variety of reasons for the current wave of Black-White love on screen.

Some insist that the wave of movies on interracial romance is a part of Hollywood's current interest in Black films. "It's whatever's hot at the moment," says Dolores Robinson, a veteran Hollywood agent whose client list includes Wesley Snipes. "Right now, it's interracial movies. Next year, who can tell? If Jungle Fever and Love Field make money, then the studios will assume that people are interested and make more films [showing Black-White love]. Then they'll wear that trend out and move on to something else."

Others believe that the increasing number of interracial couples has helped ease the film and television industry's fears of portraying Black and White love.

"You have people, like Robert De Niro, who are very visibly involved in these kinds of relationships," says Dr. Belinda Tucker, a social psychologist who is affiliated with the Center for Afro-American Studies at the University of California Los Angeles. "That becomes fodder for the media."

Does this mean that White society has finally shattered its last and greatest taboo? Most observers aren't ready to concede that--yet.

"The last taboo," Spike Lee says flatly, "is still taboo."

Examples of the industry's lingering uneasiness about portraying interracial love are easy to find.

Some stars are reluctant, observers say, to take on movie roles that involve a Black-White romance for fear of unfavorable reactions from their White fans.

Take the case of Sheryl Lee Ralph and the troubles Walt Disney studio is having signing a prominent White actor to co-star with her in an upcoming movie project, Randall and Juliet. …

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