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Face of an angel

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

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"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.

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"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!"