Black and white and taboo all over

Hollywood is more phobic than ever about interracial love, but now it's blacks who are putting on the brakes.

Published February 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"Archie said he never thought he'd see the day when white and colored would be kissin' from coast to coast."

-- Edith Bunker, on "All in the Family," on seeing Sammy Davis Jr. greet Raquel Welch on "The Tonight Show," 1971

"If the only time you show a balanced relationship is in an interracial relationship, whether it's conscious or subconscious, it sends a message I'm not comfortable with."

-- "ER" star Eriq LaSalle on asking the series writers to terminate his character's on-screen romance with a white female doctor played by Alex Kingston, 1999

One of the perennials that always shows up on history-of-TV compilations is the clip from a 1968 musical special in which Petula Clark lightly rested her hand on Harry Belafonte's arm as they sang a duet. That brief touch freaked out Chrysler so badly that it threatened to pull its sponsorship. The clip is always offered in a self-congratulatory "look how far we've come" spirit.

But the secret imperative behind most of Hollywood's black and white star pairings remains: Look but don't touch. We've all been trained by years of moviegoing to know that at some point in thrillers or romantic comedies -- after the growing rapport, the looks that linger just a second longer than necessary -- the male and female leads will get together. Except, that is, when the leading couple is interracial. You can wait until the last credit has rolled in "The Pelican Brief" or "Men in Black" or "Murder at 1600," all movies in which there's a definite chemistry between the black and white leads, and the only physical contact you'll see is -- perhaps -- an affectionate but decidedly nonsexual embrace.

There are no complex sociological reasons for the taboo still attached to interracial romance in movies. It's racism, pure and simple. Perhaps these attitudes are sometimes connected to an executive's fear that audiences will be turned off by the sight of black and white together, but a decision that bows to racism must bear the mark of racism itself.

The difference today is that black actors and audiences may be just as turned off by miscegenation as white ones. We have come from ridiculing Chrysler's horror over a white woman briefly touching a black man to seeing nothing wrong with "ER" star LaSalle's implicit claim that his character's affair with a white woman was an insult to black women. LaSalle, whose character had had unsuccessful relationships with black women in the past, "requested" that the show's writers end the affair because "it sends a message I'm not comfortable with," a message that this relationship could be a happy one. Presumably, LaSalle wouldn't have had any troubles if his character's relationship with Kingston's had been rocky. In other words, it would have been acceptable if it had been depicted as being as doomed as bigots -- the kind who deny being bigots, the "I'm just thinking of the children" variety -- have always said interracial relationships must be.

When it comes to movies, the two films that best highlight the differences between the two eras are Stanley Kramer's 1967 "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and Spike Lee's 1991 "Jungle Fever." Both terrible movies by terrible filmmakers willing to subordinate everything to their "message," the films are nonetheless fairly accurate barometers of each era's acceptable liberal sympathies. In Kramer's film, the good, affluent parents played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy have to confront their own prejudices when their daughter turns up married to Sidney Poitier. In Lee's film, Wesley Snipes is a married black architect who has an affair with his white assistant, played by Annabella Sciorra.

Lee pays lip service to the way each character is rejected by family and friends as a result of the affair, but he can't hide his disgust with the relationship. (Sciorra has spoken in interviews of how she had to fight to give her character dimension.) The first time Snipes and Sciorra have sex is after hours at their office, on top of a drafting table. It's a device that first popped up in '80s movies like "Fatal Attraction": When the filmmakers want to show disapproval of extramarital sex, they shoot it so that it looks physically uncomfortable. (Think of Michael Douglas screwing Glenn Close while she's perched on the kitchen sink.) Lee's message is a blatant version of the thought that hovers in Hepburn's and Tracy's minds in the Kramer film: "Wouldn't you be happier with your own kind?"

We've reached a point where segregation has become an acceptable liberal position. (It isn't conservative critics who praise Spike Lee movies.) But separatism is not the same thing as either self-determination or racial pride. I'd argue that pride finds its strongest expression in the midst of difference.

Not that every movie has to be scrupulously integrated. It would be great to see more movies with all-black casts, and the crossover success of the romantic comedy "The Best Man" last year or "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" in 1998 means we may get them. There's a thrill in seeing black actors starring in the classic Hollywood genres blacks have traditionally been excluded from (and a thrill in seeing just how viable those forms can still be). The hugely entertaining "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is, except for its welcome sexual forthrightness, like those dishy women's pictures of the '40s, full of gossip and luxe surroundings. But it's a drag to see one character's white husband used as an example of her snobbishness. "The Hurricane" has no qualms about exaggerating the role of three white Canadians in freeing Rubin Carter from prison, but it doesn't even mention that in real life Carter had an affair with and eventually married one of them.

Presumably it's OK to show Washington going to bed with a white woman (Milla Jovovich) in Lee's "He Got Game" because her character is a whore. (That's how all the white women, and many of the black women, are portrayed in this viciously misogynist film.) But even that was apparently enough, as was reported when the film was released, to cause some black female viewers to claim that Washington had betrayed them. (There were no objections to Washington's bedding down with an Indian actress, Sarita Choudhury, for some truly sexy love scenes in Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala.")

The only criterion that should be applied to movie pairings is: Do they work? Actors and directors are hamstrung if their exploration of human relationships is made to pass some test of sociological acceptability. Real-life relationships rarely conform to such standards; sexual attraction is chaos. Why should it seem otherwise in the movies?

Of course we should be able to see comedies and love stories and thrillers with two black stars. It's insulting (to both races) to assume that a movie with black actors will be successful only if there's also a white person in it. But whatever the justification, there are no good reasons to prevent moviemakers from pairing, say, Angela Bassett and Daniel Day-Lewis, Vanessa L. Williams and George Clooney, Snipes and Julia Roberts, Taye Diggs and Chloe Sevigny, Courtney B. Vance (one of the most underused good actors around) and Sigourney Weaver. Think of where racial separatism has gotten us in our movie past. There are no musicals that paired Lena Horne and Gene Kelly, no comedies in which Belafonte might have dallied with Marilyn Monroe, nothing to suggest what two fastidious actors like the young Poitier and the young Jane Fonda might have brought out in each other.

Black male stars have had an easier time of it, but -- with the exception of Washington -- mostly in action movie roles or playing sidekick roles. That's not to slight the pleasure I've had watching Snipes or Ving Rhames in movies like "Blade" or "Mission: Impossible," but I'd love to see them do other things. I can't be the only moviegoer who loved the teddy-bear slyness Rhames brought to his role in "Out of Sight" and envisioned what he might do in comedy. Perhaps the best male performance of last year was Charles S. Dutton in "Cookie's Fortune," and yet he didn't register in any of the year-end awards. Often, the pleasure of watching black actors is tinged with the realization that it may be a long time before you see that actor in another role as good.

Black and white pairings don't seem to be a big deal in foreign movies, as David Thewlis and Thandie Newton showed in Bernardo Bertolucci's great "Besieged," one of the most potent recent movie love stories, and one of the most potent recent movies, period. Likewise with Beatrice Dalle and Alex Descas in "I Can't Sleep," directed by Claire Denis, whose films have frequently dealt with interracial issues. Perhaps those aren't good examples because the issues of interracial love are part of those films' subtext. The same tends to be true of American movies that feature interracial couples. The most intelligent were both made by Carl Franklin -- "One False Move" and "Devil in a Blue Dress," the latter featuring Washington's best performance.

The fact that a taboo still exists has led some directors to act as provocateurs. At the beginning of "Freeway," a deliciously twisted B-thriller that constantly challenges the assumptions we make based on appearance, Reese Witherspoon shares a big, wet, lazily hungry kiss with her black boyfriend (Bokeem Woodbine), and as director Matthew Bright focuses on the young lovers, you can feel his glee at potentially making some people uncomfortable. And there's overt provocation in Mike Figgis' presentation of a white Eve dallying with a black Adam in "The Loss of Sexual Innocence." (That provocation temporarily scuttled the movie at one point, when a white South African producer pulled out.)

In an industry in which black-white love is still taboo, we need that sort of effrontery. But even more subversive may be the times when love between blacks and whites is treated as no big deal. Race isn't an issue in Figgis' adultery drama "One Night Stand," in which Snipes has an affair with Nastassja Kinski. Several pictures that were geared more toward the mainstream also take a nonchalant attitude toward race: William H. Macy has a black wife in last year's "Mystery Men," and in "Jurassic Park: The Lost World" Jeff Goldblum (whose character is divorced) has a black daughter (the talented young actress Vanessa Lee Chester).

There's a sort of ball's-in-your-court challenge to the refusal of these movies to treat black-white love as anything out of the ordinary. And inevitably the people who return the serve only prove the point. After "The Lost World" came out, I guested on a radio talk show where the conservative host (also a movie critic) kept harping on the movie as a typical example of Hollywood liberalism. Most people, he insisted, would find it strange that there is no explanation of how a white man has a black daughter (the usual methods, I wanted to say). This man's condescending certainty that the great unwashed would certainly find the idea of black-white marriage strange beyond belief wasn't the only thing he had wrong. A typical piece of Hollywood liberalism would feel obliged to address Goldblum's marriage and the reasons (presumably racial) that it broke up. Steven Spielberg's treatment of it as just the way life is (marriages break up sometimes) is much more sophisticated.

Perhaps no movie has done more to erase the taboo simply by ignoring it than "The Bodyguard." This big, kitschy 1992 star fantasy plays as if someone had gotten the idea of combining Barbra Streisand's remake of "A Star Is Born" with a Steve McQueen movie. (Kevin Costner even adopts McQueen's haircut.) But it's the most glamorous, and therefore the most unapologetic, depiction of interracial romance in the movies. For all the reasons that drive apart Whitney Houston's diva and Costner's hunky human shield, race isn't one of them. It's never even mentioned. They part for the most melodramatic of movie reasons -- he can't protect her if he's distracted by falling in love with her.

"The Bodyguard" is a bad good time, but it's also startling because it places black-white love within the context of the movie traditions that have excluded it. The message is that movie glamour transcends all other concerns, that race should be no obstacle to pleasure. I've heard all sorts of objections raised to the movie, from the ludicrous suggestion that a white man having sex with a black woman recalls master-slave relations (forget that Houston is the aggressor here as well as the one in the position of power) to the outright racist suggestion that Houston is so successful she's an honorary white person. (Success nullifies your race?) But the fact is that movies with big stars tend to be very conservative. Yet Costner, then at the peak of his popularity, and Houston, making her movie debut, risked alienating some of their fans. And the movie was a huge hit.

Since movie executives listen to three things in determining what movies get made -- money, money and money -- the success of "The Bodyguard" should have told them that black and white pairings are no impediment at the box office. If they thought they could make money by showing Noam Chomsky reading Hegel for three hours, they would. That makes the cowardice that has characterized other recent movies all the more frustrating.

Reportedly, a love scene between Snipes and Diane Lane (a well-matched pairing of instinctive, quick-witted actors) was filmed and then cut from "Murder at 1600." The plot device that keeps wiping out Linda Fiorentino's memory in "Men in Black" also conveniently keeps the playful flirtation between her and Will Smith from ever reaching fruition. In "The Pelican Brief," Roberts and Washington are thrown together in a danger-fraught fight against an evil conspiracy (a great movie excuse for sex if ever there was one). But when they wind up in a secluded cabin in the middle of the night, you get the sinking feeling that what's coming next is a vigorous game of Scrabble. (The only movie in which the failure of the black and white stars to clinch doesn't seem like a copout is Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," where the movie's melancholy comes from the fact that Pam Grier and Robert Forster can't make their attraction to each other work.)

No other interracial pairing remains as taboo as black-white. The wife Snipes cheats on in "One Night Stand" is an Asian woman (Ming-Na Wen), and in "Rising Sun" he carries on a charming flirtation with Tia Carrere, who plays the daughter of a Japanese woman and a black American. (The flirtation remains unconsummated because she is otherwise involved.) And white-Asian pairings have been a longtime movie favorite for stories of lovers with the odds stacked against them, like Lauren Holly and Jason Scott Lee in the Bruce Lee bio "Dragon" or, currently, Ethan Hawke and Youki Kudoh in "Snow Falling on Cedars." (Considering how Asians were portrayed in American movies during World War II, that has to be counted as some kind of progress.)

Strangely, this separatism seems to me to run against the grain of nearly every other branch of pop culture. Hip-hop and the new-style R&B of artists like D'Angelo and Macy Gray now dominate American pop music. I'd venture that as many white reading groups as black ones choose books by Terry McMillan or Walter Mosley or even a tougher read like Toni Morrison. And despite the divisions that keep black sitcoms like "Moesha" hits among black viewers and virtually unknown among white ones, despite NBC's recent admission that it doesn't feature many black faces, black actors are a strong presence on TV.

Forget the black actors who are regular cast members of hit shows. A few months back on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Giles greeted (and immediately went to bed with) a black girlfriend who came to visit. A recent New York Times piece on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" noted that the practice of showing the contestant's partner in the audience hasn't shied away from either interracial couples or gay ones. A couple of weeks ago in an offhand moment on "The Practice," Michael Badalucco's character admitted that growing up watching "Mannix" he had a crush on Mannix's secretary, Peggy. He didn't mention that she was played by a black actress (Gail Fisher), nor did he need to. You're attracted to whom you're attracted to.

I'm not so naive as to suggest that the popularity of black singers or writers or actors signals the end of racism. The great big-band leader Artie Shaw told a terrible story about touring the Deep South in the '30s with Billie Holiday as the band's featured singer. At one gig, after her scheduled number, the audience went wild, not wanting to let Holiday get away. One guy down front yelled, "Have the nigger wench sing another one!" and simply didn't understand it when Holiday talked back to him.

But the no-longer-token presence of blacks in mainstream pop culture has to count for some progress, though it hasn't yet quelled movie squeamishness at showing black and white people falling in love or into bed. That reluctance refuses to recognize a basic reality of a world where the sight of black and white couples is more prevalent than ever. And it's also blind to the fact that most of us go to the movies for pleasure and don't much care where it comes from. When the pleasure principle is shortchanged, either by not giving good actors the roles they deserve or by keeping apart the ones whose star power draws them together, it doesn't matter how good our seats are. We've all been relegated to the balcony.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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