A Year at the Movies: Screening Race

Did the country wake up on the morning of Nov. 5, 2008, to a post-racial America? The ascendence of the first black U.S. president, Barack Obama, had pundits talking up a supposedly color-blind electorate. Of course, that might have been optimistic, but Obama’s role as the country’s leader may have changed the tenor and topic of the conversation. Witness:

It would be naive to say the Obama factor eased or improved portrayals, narratives and news coverage concerning African American figures. A review of heated aisle discussions about blackness and stereotypical representation on the big screen proved the topic of race was still quite alive in 2009.

Here now, we take a look at three ’09 films that dared take on the story of race. Of course, these movies were a long time in the making. Then again, so were the 2008 election results.

When the novel “Push” came out in 1996, it won attention, awards, and critical mixed feelings. The story took 13 years to get to the cinematic front, and there too “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” drew love, and fire, for its depiction of the title’s underprivileged, illiterate, weighty incest victim and her wicked “welfare mom,” a character straight out of a post-Reagan-era sermon against the evils of federal assistance.

The independent movie was given the executive producer stamp of approval by entertainment powerhouse pillars Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, while the New York Times pondered where the film fit into the Obama landscape. As director Lee Daniels told the paper, “”Precious” is so not Obama. “Precious” is so not P.C. What I learned from doing the film is that even though I am black, I’m prejudiced. I’m prejudiced against people who are darker than me. When I was young, I went to a church where the lighter-skinned you were, the closer you sat to the altar. Anybody that’s heavy like Precious—I thought they were dirty and not very smart.”

The film did indeed draw the ire of cultural critics who labelled the movie “poverty porn” and pointed to the fact that the dark-skinned Precious is “rescued” by lighter-hued, mixed race champions played by Paula Patton and Mariah Carey. Author Sapphire, in a USA Today interview, spoke of the cricitisms: “If you’re upset, then ask, ‘Why does this happen? What can I do?’ Not say, ‘Bring back the Cosby family.'”

Across the globe the Johannesburg, South Africa-based “District 9” both examined and complicated the injustice of apartheid, an issue revisited later in the year by Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus.” The word “apartheid” is never spoken, but “District 9″‘s misunderstood aliens—derided with the racial slur “prawns,” ghettoized in shantytowns, are despised by whites and blacks alike—are a blatant allegory of segregation. Using aliens to talk about racism was dialogue-changing, a method to look at a scarred, traumatized culture anew.

“I’m not trying to make something about apartheid that beats people over the head,” Blomkamp told “Entertainment Weekly.” Instead, in the storied science fiction tradition of examining social issues via metaphor, the filmmaker concentrated on making a visceral sci-fi narrative that was relevant to specifically South Africa (which will be in the international eye in 2010 when it hosts Africa’s first World Cup)—and implicitly the rest of the world, one intent on righting Africa’s wrongs and grappling with its own racial histories.

In the process, the Guardian UK wrote, “the traumas suffered as a result of South Africa’s white-minority rule have now become one of cinema’s most fertile territories.” Nevertheless, the film itself got accusations of being racist? “District 9” depiction of Nigerian gangsters was dubbed xenophobic by some of that country’s supporters.

“Invictus”—which tells the story of the first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and his play to unite a fractured nation by way of the rugby world cup—demonstrates the power of sports to bring together two sides of the political, and racial, spectrum. This was the second movie looking at the race in sports: “The Blind Side,” based on a strand from the book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” about  football star Michael Oher, saw Sandra Bullock picking up the thread that she started with “Crash” concerning race and bridging racial and class divides.

Black audiences came out for this sports film centered on Bullock’s Leigh Anne Tuohy, who fosters a homeless black youth, played by Quinton Aaron, with a talent for sports. By its very title, “The Blind Side” seems to imply that a color-blind future is impatiently on the sidelines, just waiting for a helping hand. Some, like Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, described the film’s feel-good approach “racially patronizing,” a way for the white, well-heeled audiences to feel good about their altruistic privilege and black audiences to feel historic inequities perhaps temporarily redressed in the darkness of the cineplex.

The focus of all this, Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Oher, looked at the broader message that transcended race. “I guess people are looking for hope,” Oher himself told “The Baltimore Sun,” regarding the movie’s success. “They want something to build on.”

After turning in a respectable showing against the vampiric sucking force of “New Moon,” “Blind Spot” was leapfrogged in the box office by “The Princess and the Frog,” which showcased Disney’s first black princess.

It was about time: the first traditionally animated, hand-drawn Disney feature since 2004, “The Princess and the Frog” also delivers its most empowered female heroine to date: Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), an African American girl who yearns to open her own restaurant until fate deals her a blow and she’s turned into a croaker after kissing the frog Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos). Tempted by voodoo magician Dr. Facilier and tangling with an alligator who wants to be a human jazz musician and a firefly pining for the evening star—all critters yearning for the seemingly impossible—Tiana must realize the difference between love (for Naveen) and desire (for entrepreneurial success).

Despite commercial appeal, the film didn’t quite escape the ire of observers who criticized the initial name and career choice of Tiana (Maddy was a mite too close to Mammy, and her work as a “servant” seemed demeaning). The stereotypical allusions to voodoo magic, a too-close-to-home-too-soon setting of New Orleans, and the finale (spoiler alert!) that doesn’t include a black prince (Naveen sounds Indian, though Campos is Brazilian) added fuel to the criticism… although the New Orleans backdrop and the biracial couple lent a certain cultural currency.

Even in the Magic Kingdom, race—blackness, biracial, or otherwise—is an issue people can’t stop talking about.