Face of an angel

Hollywood is frequently casting African-Americans in spiritual roles. Is this positive or patronizing?

By , Film critic of 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.

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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. (Certainly, no one is going to claim that Bill Pullman and Randy Quaid were the main heroes of "Independence Day.")

But the list of heavenly visitations could stretch all the way down the Walk of Fame. In 1998's "What Dreams May Come," Cuba Gooding Jr. plays an angel who leads Robin Williams, who is in heaven, on a quest to rescue his wife from hell. That same year, Andre Braugher provided comfort to fallen angel Nicolas Cage in "City of Angels." A seminal film was "Ghost," where a psychic played by Whoopi Goldberg helps a murder victim (Patrick Swayze) communicate with his widow, Demi Moore. Ms. Goldberg won an Oscar for her role.

"Hollywood has to tread a very fine line," Gabbard says. "It can't keep putting blacks into subservient positions ... because that would turn off the huge black audience. So in these [black-angel] movies, at some moments [a black character] gets to have total control over the white people. That way blacks don't feel demeaned, and whites don't feel ... threatened, because the blacks aren't really from their world, they're from heaven.

"And heaven appears to be administered by white people," he adds, "because the black people [in these films] only give their help to whites. John Coffey only helps one character who isn't a white person in 'The Green Mile,' and that's a mouse!"

The racial dimensions of films like "The Green Mile" have deep roots in US culture, says Linda Williams, author of "Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson."

"They come from the tradition of melodrama," Dr. Williams explains, "where to suffer is to acquire virtue. The person who suffers is Christlike and has the moral authority to forgive and offer absolution. The black man's initials in ['The Green Mile'] are J.C., and he seems to exist for the purpose of serving and redeeming white people. You see similar things in 'Bruce Almighty,' where a black person redeems a white person, even though the white person's problems are of the most trivial kind."

Williams says the "black angel" movies can be traced back 200 years to "Uncle Tom's Cabin." "That novel came out of a moment when a certain kind of strict Calvinism was in crisis, and the solution was a more loving kind of approach," she says. "Today ... there is a feeling that we need some kind of spiritual redemption, and we turn to black people because they're the ones who have suffered."

A key quality of the black-angel movies is that they're not realistic stories but overt, often flamboyant fantasies.

This summer, Hollywood's ideal black angel is embodied by Morgan Freeman, whose many authoritative roles - the president in "Deep Impact," a judge in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" - culminate in "Bruce Almighty," where he plays God as a white-suited gentleman bent on making the life of a self-indulgent journalist (Jim Carrey) more fulfilling.

"There's an unspoken agreement in American culture that blacks are more spiritual, more in touch with the Divine than whites," Gabbard says. "Freeman manages to project that, along with an authenticity, a folksiness, a lack of pretension. He's a man of wisdom, but not an intellectual - a guy who feels the pain of the world. There's compassion in his face, his speech, his manner.... This suits our fantasies of how God would act."

Too patronizing?

But Gabbard points out that it also gives Freeman's character an above-the-fray quality that other black angels share. Such figures are isolated from the black community, and also from the complicated world of politics, dissension, and difficult moral questions.

Hollywood's recent pattern of casting blacks in idealistic roles and evading "the real world," is exasperating, say many race-conscious critics and filmmakers.

"These movies don't really deal with race," says Armond White, an African-American cultural critic for the New York Press, a weekly newspaper. "They deal with the desire of white filmmakers to patronize black people ... by portraying them as kindly, beneficent helpmates.

"These aren't progressive ideas," he adds. "They're a fantasy sold mainly to people over 40, whose thinking is a vestige of the civil rights era. Younger people are less interested in this, because the commercial media encourage them to think racism doesn't exist anymore. 'Eminem showed anyone can be black!' But he's really Elvis redux - another white performer appropriating black styles to get fame and money." (As the rapper himself boasted in last year's hit song "Without Me.")

Another black observer with a critical view of black-angel movies is filmmaker Spike Lee, who expressed his outrage in a March 2001 interview with Cineaste magazine. He called Coffey of the "Green Mile" a reworking of the "old grateful slave," and showed even more anger at 2000's "The Legend of Bagger Vance," with Matt Damon as a (white) golfer who's supernaturally aided by his (black) caddy, played by Mr. Smith. Observing that the story takes place in the Deep South during the 1930s, when violence against blacks was common, Lee posed a pointed question: "If this magical black caddy has all these powers, why isn't he using them to try and stop some of the brothers from being lynched and [mutilated]?... I don't understand this!"

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