Engaging adventure stumbles over racism

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``It may not be conscious racism, but it's still racism,'' says a black character in the new Christopher Reeve movie, ``Street Smart.'' I was surprised to hear that line, because it echoed what I was thinking about the movie itself.

The story is involving. Reeve plays Jonathan Fisher, a reporter for a New York magazine that looks a lot like New York Magazine. To revive his sliding career, he promises to do an in-depth profile of a Times Square pimp. When he can't find a pimp to interview, Fisher fabricates the story from his own imagination - and, ironically, it's so popular that it makes him an instant media star.

Among those who take an interest in him is a genuine pimp who thinks he can use the fake story to beat a murder rap he's facing. Fisher soon finds himself in a strange and scary situation, with both the law and the underworld dogging his trail.

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Jerry Schatzberg has directed the David Freeman screenplay tightly and cleverly. Reeve gives a smart performance as Fisher, and Morgan Freeman is brilliant as the slimy pimp known as Fast Black.

What bothers me about ``Street Smart'' is its gross insensitivity toward blacks and women. Just about every black character is a pimp, a prostitute, a hanger-on, or a weak and faceless nobody. Just about every female character is terrorized or brutalized at least once during the story.

The line about racism is spoken by a black reporter asking Fisher why he exploited black violence and criminality in his article about the pimp. His defense is that society can't close its eyes and pretend that such people don't exist.

That's true, but it doesn't erase the exploitation that goes on within ``Street Smart'' itself. The movie is peopled not only by black villains and weaklings, but also by white (and male) lawyers and judges and publishers. White males do dominate those professions in the real world.

In casting their picture, though, the filmmakers have shown little critical awareness of this and its implications. Instead they have observed a color line (and a gender line) that carries on a sad Hollywood tradition of keeping minority characters in what can only be called ``their place.''

Too bad the ``Street Smart'' filmmakers didn't see a sneak preview of ``Hollywood Shuffle,'' the new Robert Townsend comedy that bitterly skewers the movie establishment for exactly the attitudes embodied here. ``Street Smart'' doesn't represent conscious racism, I'm sure. But it's still racism. Sexism, too.

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