CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The scene is Harvard Square, a few days after the opening of "Amistad," the Steven Spielberg movie about an 1839 slave-ship rebellion and the US court battle that ultimately set the Africans free.
Two young women, one black and one white, pass by the theater where the film is playing - and a conversation is ignited. It was only "so-so," remarks the black woman. She is especially bothered by the fact that Spielberg portrayed white Americans so heroically, "while somehow managing to overlook the fact that slavery was all over America at that time."
The women walk off, engaged in a lively exchange about slavery and American history. This one-on-one encounter with a topic that keeps pressing on the American consciousness may become increasingly common in the months ahead. Where President Clinton's panel on race relations has so far failed to spark a national discussion, popular culture might. Slavery looks set to become something of a cultural topic du jour.
"We could no doubt imagine better ways of creating national conversation, but popular culture is what we've got," says Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Harvard University professor of philosophy and African-American studies. "And we should use what we've got and build from what we've got."
In addition to the film "Amistad," and recent books about the rebellion, Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved," about a freed slave, is being made into a movie for release next year; a film about John Brown, the American abolitionist, is also due out next year; an opera based on the Amistad story has just opened in Chicago, created by George Wolf, director of Broadway's award-winning "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk;" and African-American choreographer Ralph Lemon has just debuted a new work called "Geography," with an all-black cast that explores American slavery and African dance and culture.
Although many people have criticized Spielberg for creating a film in which "white people save black people," Professor Appiah applauds the director for approaching his subject with "moral seriousness." And, he says, "Amistad" may help trigger the kind of everyday conversations between black and white people - about their responses to the film and the differences in their responses - that at least mark the beginning of improved communication and understanding between the races.
"Conversations have to happen locally," he says. "You can't literally have a national conversation, because 250 million people can't talk to each other. But it would be easy to share things in informal gatherings."
Many people across the country, in fact, have turned to small-group discussions, dinners, and meetings as a way for blacks and whites to better understand the cultural divide of color. Some groups are organized by community leaders, while others happen much more informally. Conversations are based not so much on political beliefs or on who's to blame for what, but on everyday experiences that help people find a common ground to discuss their different worlds.
Newspaper columnist Richard Louv, a self-described "white liberal" who writes for the San Diego Union Tribune, was surprised by what he discovered when he sat down with other whites and middle-class blacks from his area.
Black and white fears
"I couldn't believe that my upscale, well-educated, successful counterparts, who were black, were followed in department stores by house detectives because they were black," he says. "Or that they were pulled over by cops and frisked just because they were black. It showed me that I didn't know all the answers."
In one conversation, he was struck by the remarks of a black woman who recounted her specific fear that a policeman would hurt her son. "My fear about my sons is a much more general concern that something will happen to them at random," says Mr. Louv.
"I came away thinking that one way to talk about race is not to talk about how we can get along better, but rather about how we perceive the world," he says. "What we fear, is one area. If you really compare experiences between people, go into it as an exercise in how we perceive reality, that can be very interesting, and the end product is that we get along better because we've walked in each other's shoes. What we're talking about is perception, and perception is the reality."
Pop culture too diluted?
Frank Gilliam, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is among those who are not convinced that "Amistad" will spark serious dialogue. He says popular culture can be an aid, "but the problem with it is that for something to reach mass audiences, it has to be so watered down it doesn't get to critical questions."
Although some people praise Spielberg's film as a moving account of black misery and heroism, Mr. Gilliam notes that it "is as much about a white man, John Quincy Adams, as it is about slaves. It has all the elements of white salvation - if it weren't for Adams, these poor slaves wouldn't have succeeded. If you're going to make a story about the Middle Passage [of blacks from Africa to slavery in America], then why not just make a story about that?"
Gilliam has been conducting a series of studies to be published in book form next year that explore "perceived reality" and negative racial stereotyping. One study on crime involves showing participants a 12-minute newscast with a segment on violent crime, in which the suspect is sometimes portrayed as black, and sometimes white. The results show that exposure to a black perpetrator leads the audience to ascribe more negative stereotypes to black people - qualities like "lazy," and "unintelligent." Surprisingly, Gilliam says, the study found that the effect is more pronounced among people who call themselves liberals.
Gilliam has taken his work to a variety of forums, including juvenile-justice groups and academic conferences. The study prompts vigorous discussion, he says, because blacks must first accept the statistically true information that blacks proportionally commit more violent crimes than whites do, and liberal whites must accept that they may be part of the problem by being more prone to negative racial stereotypes than they believe.
"Changing culture is so critical, but the problem is that both sides are so encamped in a kind of rhetoric," he says. "Our work raises questions in an almost agnostic way, it's not accusatory ... because once you start an accusatory discourse, there's no hope of ever finding a common talking point."