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How Hollywood Depicts Race

Disney’s new animated film, The Princess and the Frog, has proved a modest success at the box office and a lightning rod in the blogosphere. The film, which portrays Disney’s first African-American heroine in the company’s eighty five-year history, has received heavy criticism for what many perceive as denigrating ethnic stereotypes. The Disney film is not alone in raising issues of race. Several of 2009’s top films deal with the topic directly or indirectly.

It is telling that when discussions of race or ethnicity surface, they always do so in the context of non-white stories. Narratives featuring Anglos are so ubiquitous as to be seen as having no real bearing on race issues. But the fact that white is the default ethnicity in Hollywood is a huge racial issue—the issue that I want to address.

In addition to stories of white people being the normative narratives, when stories of ethnic minorities are portrayed in film, it is predominantly white, middle-aged men who tell the stories. Consider several 2009 films that deal with portrayals of ethnic minorities:

Invictus portrays the true story of post-apartheid South Africa immediately following Nelson Mandela’s rise to power. Animosity between South African blacks and whites threatens the country’s fragile national unity. Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) has the unenviable task of working to bring the countries factions together. The vehicle for unity turns out to be rugby, a sport of the white man. Matt Damon plays the captain of the Springboks, South Africa’s rugby team, which vies for World Cup glory when South Africa hosts the games. Clint Eastwood directed the film; screenplay by Anthony Peckham.

The Blind Side also tells a true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a troubled black boy who moved from foster home to foster home in rural Tennessee. Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) sees him walking in freezing rain and is persuaded to take him home. Michael is gone the next day, but Leigh Ann finds him again, and invites him for Thanksgiving. Michael comes to live under the Tuohy roof, and begins to show improvements in school. He joins the high school football team and excels. Michael goes on to play football at Ole Miss, and finally gets picked by the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL draft. Ostensibly, none of it would have been possible without the intervention of the Tuohy family. John Lee Hancock wrote and directed the film.

In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is an aspiring chef in Jim Crow-era New Orleans. At a party, she meets Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) who has been turned into a frog by evil voodoo daddy Dr. Facilier (Kieth David). Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him, thinking she is a princess, in order to break the spell. Tiana is not, in fact, a princess, so she turns into a frog instead. The two spend the majority of the film as frogs in a jazzy, bayou-based adventure, trying to become human again. Ron Clements and John Musker wrote and directed the film.

Finally, Avatar, 2009’s technological and artistic masterpiece, tells the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wounded marine who travels to distant Pandora as part of an experimental program to interact with the alien Na’vi people who inhabit the planet. The United States government is interested in Pandora’s unobtanium, a mineral highly prized as an energy source. Sully interacts with the Na’vi through a half-human, half-Na’vi avatar body that he controls remotely from a pod that sends his brainwaves and impulses directly to his avatar self. Sully meets and falls in love with the Na’vi chief’s daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Though Sully is supposed to be acting on behalf of the U.S., he finds himself increasingly drawn to the Na’vi way of life. The blue-skinned Na’vi offer a thinly veiled depiction of the “Red Man,” the Native Americans whom European settlers displaced and whose land the Europeans exploited and destroyed. The Na’vi are very close to nature; they whoop and wear war paint, and they use bows and arrows. James Cameron wrote and directed the film.

In each film, the depictions of ethnic minority groups, veiled or overt, come via the minds and pens of white males.

The one who decides which stories will be told—the one who determines how the story is told—is the one in power.

One wonders how each film might have looked different through the eyes of minority directors. Might Invictus have spent more time on Mandela’s family, from whom he was separated? Might The Blind Side have explored Leigh Anne Tuohy’s racist parents and her own struggle with questions of ethnicity and race? Would Princess and the Frog have been set in the Jim Crow South? In New Orleans? Would the Prince have been a fair-skinned man with a Hindustani name? Would the bad guy have been into voodoo? Would the Na’vi people in Avatar have taken as their leader and “savior” a white American-turned Na’vi? We can only speculate, as bloggers and critics have done at great length.

For me, the point is this: For the same reasons that feminist, womanist, mujerista, liberation and black theologies (among others) were necessary responses to “traditional” (read: white and male) theologies, Hollywood needs films that depict ethnic or racial minorities through the eyes of those groups. A woman’s story is best told by a woman. A Latino’s story is best told by a Latino. Hollywood needs more first-person storytelling.

Precious Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire is a perfect example. Precious tells the story of a sixteen-year-old black girl from Harlem. She is obese, illiterate, and pregnant for the second time by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Precious’ father. The mostly female cast includes Mariah Carey playing a social worker, Mo’nique as Precious’ abusive and manipulative mother, and Gabourey Sidibe as Precious. It is a powerful, at times nearly crippling, story of abuse and tragedy, but a story that moves the direction of hope. Precious receives an opportunity to restart her education at Each One Teach One, an adult literacy program. When Precious finally becomes independent and moves forward in her education, her mother returns with an announcement: Precious’ father died of AIDS. Precious tests HIV positive, but her newborn son is not. Lee Daniels directed and produced the film, and Geoffrey Fletcher wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Sapphire. The film received numerous accolades at Sundance and Cannes, and has been nominated for several Oscars.

Perhaps the most compelling feature of Precious is that it speaks in first person. It depicts the life of a black girl in a story written by a black woman, adapted for screen by a black writer, and directed and produced by a black man. It’s a story whose time has come. Hollywood needs more of this; (S)he (the ethnic minority storyteller) must become greater. I (a white male) must become less.

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