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

By David Sterritt Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

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


David Sterritt Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.