Hollywood Founders Where Issues of Race Are Concerned

Anyone who thinks Americans have reached ''the end of racism,'' as a widely discussed new book puts it, should see the movies at their local multiplex.

''Strange Days'' builds its story around a murdered rap singer and an incipient race riot, then defuses the social issues by pinning all the trouble on a couple of rogue cops. ''Dangerous Minds'' presents glamorous Michelle Pfeiffer taming a schoolroom full of inner-city troublemakers. ''Mighty Aphrodite'' again finds Woody Allen portraying New York as the world's whitest city.

And now we have ''The Journey of August King,'' a well-meaning movie that sets out to fight racial insensitivity, but ends up reinforcing it by adhering to old movie formulas that should have been discarded long ago.

The title character is a 19th-century mountain man who meets a runaway slave by chance, and reluctantly decides to help her escape the cruel master who's been tormenting her. Stowing her in the bottom of his wagon, he transports her through a North Carolina landscape that's as deadly as it is picturesque. The countryside is full of hiding places, but it's populated by slavery-supporting citizens who wouldn't hesitate to pounce if they knew the purpose of his journey. Along the way he develops a complex relationship with his secret passenger.

Although some of today's intellectuals claim the legacy of slavery has faded from American life, only a few generations have passed since slaveholding was ended, and some elderly people now alive actually knew former slaves when they were children. Since the social and psychological effects of slavery still linger, I'm predisposed to applaud any film that reminds us how destructively evil the practice was.

The trouble with ''The Journey of August King'' is that it's less about the persecuted female slave than the sturdy male adventurer who rescues her. This might make sense in box-office terms, since most moviegoers are middle-class white people. But it works against the film's apparent desire to attack racism by depicting the plight of a beleaguered and sympathetic victim.

I call this the ''Glory'' syndrome, after the slickly produced hit that purported to celebrate a black Civil War brigade, yet managed to fill the screen with Matthew Broderick's handsome face at every opportunity.

Memo to Hollywood: Deciding to produce a film about historical racism is only the first step in making a constructive contribution. The second step - and evidently the hardest - is letting African-Americans actually have the leading roles, even if this means reversing decades of habit.

The same admonition goes for movies about sexism. Why isn't this called ''The Journey of Annalees,'' in honor of its brave heroine? After all, the whole narrative is set in motion by her courageous decision to flee the tyrant - her father as well as owner, it turns out - who's been ruthlessly oppressing her.

As a conventional film story, ''The Journey of August King'' is affecting if not exciting, punctuating its leisurely plot with bursts of action and occasionally savage violence. Jason Patric makes the hero believably stolid, and Thandie Newton - playing her first major role since ''Jefferson in Paris'' introduced her to moviegoers - makes the heroine as three-dimensional as the limits of the screenplay allow.

The supporting cast includes Sam Waterston as August's friend and Larry Drake as the slave-owning farmer who's determined to hunt down his runaway property.

Filmed with much atmospheric beauty, the picture is of a piece with earlier work by John Duigan, the Australian-born director who counts great-looking productions such as ''Sirens,'' ''Flirting,'' and ''Wide Sargasso Sea'' among his credits. John Ehle wrote the screenplay, based on his novel.

* ''The Journey of August King'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains some horrifying violence.

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