Jewish World Review June 16, 2003 / 16 Sivan, 5763

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Hollywood finally moves beyond racial obsession | In the midst of well-justified complaints about Hollywood's lack of originality and flair, the movie business deserves some credit for a revolutionary, colorblind approach to selecting actors and directors for a string of recent films.

On the most obvious level, the releases of the spring and summer of 2003 look tired and timid — an endless series of sequels, remakes and comic-book adaptations. Just below the surface, however, these films offer tantalizing hints of an increasingly integrated pop culture ready to move beyond longstanding racial obsessions.

June's first blockbuster, 2 Fast 2 Furious, provides a powerful case in point. It's a slick sequel to 2001's surprise hit, The Fast and the Furious, that once again offers an adrenaline-drenched glamorization of the subculture of street racing. This time, it teams blond pretty boy Paul Walker and R&B singer Tyrese. Even more than the first film, this follow-up emphasizes the diversity of its speed-addicted fanatics. Its first big race features a rainbow coalition of four competitors: the blue-eyed hero, a black guy, a Latino and a sultry Asian chick.

More importantly, the movie's director is John Singleton, the African-American filmmaker who is best known for his stunning debut project, Boyz N the Hood, and a series of less-impressive films (Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and Baby Boy) that focused solemnly — and often clumsily — on issues of race and identity.

This time, however, the attractive, multiracial cast works together as if differences in skin color amount to no big deal. This easy-going approach helps Singleton score a singular success as one of the first black directors entrusted with a big-studio franchise picture (Rob Cohen directed the first film) without a predominantly black cast.

Coincidentally, F. Gary Gray, another up-and-coming African-American director, also scored a big hit with The Italian Job, a sophisticated caper movie released four days before 2 Fast 2 Furious. This skillful remake of a 30-year-old Michael Caine thriller featured major white stars such as Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland and Mark Wahlberg. But there's only one black actor in a significant role: hip-hop artist Mos Def, playing a member of a gang of high-tech thieves in which ethnicity never becomes an issue.

Even Spike Lee, the most racially conscious of all Hollywood directors, most recently released 25th Hour with a nearly all-white cast (Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman). The mixed-race background of the protagonist's glamorous girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) draws scant attention in the script.

Hollywood, in other words, has liberated talented black directors from their race-based movie ghetto, assigning them important commercial projects unconnected with African-American identity.

Simultaneously, the movie business now experiments with a colorblind approach to casting. Eddie Murphy most recently starred in the surprise smash, Daddy Day Care, playing an unemployed advertising man who teams with his best friend, an overweight white guy (Jeff Garlin), to start a child care business in his posh neighborhood. The movie treats the fact that Murphy and his photogenic family live in this pleasant suburb as a facet of everyday life rather than something that provokes discomfort from his white neighbors.

Meanwhile, yet another seasonal sizzler, X2: X Men United featured Halle Berry as one of the heroic mutants who are too busy saving the world to worry about race. In the latest James Bond film, Die Another Day, Berry played an international operative helping 007 defeat an icy blonde betrayer, but the movie never emphasizes (or even references) her own racial background. After her Oscar-winning role in Monster's Ball, which focused with frankness on issues of bigotry, Berry has moved on to post-racial superstardom. Moviegoers now are appropriately obsessing over the fact that Berry is beautiful — but not over the fact that she's black.

Such colorblind casting in recent blockbusters, along with the casual diversity of the TV ratings champ, American Idol, proves that American entertainment now can transcend guilt and stereotypes.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that these developments unfold as two of the biggest Hollywood hits feature outstanding black actors quite literally playing G-d. In The Matrix Reloaded, Laurence Fishburne plays Morpheus, an authority figure and mentor to the movie's messiah (Keanu Reeves). Theological theories of The Matrix films variously identify Fishburne's character as John the Baptist or G-d the Father, but leave no doubt that this fiercely formidable African-American star speaks in the movie with otherworldly wisdom and power — as does another black actor, the late Gloria Foster, who played the all-knowing Oracle.

Meanwhile, the Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty unequivocally casts its beloved black co-star, Morgan Freeman, as G-d himself. The film script allows Freeman to project such warmth and dignity that his role — or Role — could only encourage moviegoers' affection for the off-screen Almighty.

The prominent casting of black stars reflects the disproportionate representation of African-Americans in the audience; market studies report that black people buy movie tickets at higher rates than other ethnic groups. Last year, high-quality, low-budget projects with mostly black casts (Barbershop, Drumline) earned huge profits. But the relaxed new diversity in high-profile projects sends an even more important message. Liberals and conservatives may argue over affirmative action, but Americans of every orientation profess a profound weariness with the sad tendency to focus on racial identity over individuality.

Hollywood will no doubt continue to exploit violence, crude language and irresponsible sex. When it comes to racial issues, however, recent films deserve praise for their implicit endorsement of the welcome message that black people and white people can work together, laugh together, even love together, without making a huge fuss over their differences.

These movies finally embrace the idea that integration isn't just a dream or a destination — it's a current reality. They also help popularize the notion that society can survive with African-Americans in positions of power — playing G-d on screen or acting with G-dlike authority behind the camera, as directors of the summer's most important entertainments.

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JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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