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Is there 'hope' in Hollywood?

Three controversial (and sure to be Oscar-nominated) films tackle race in the age of Obama
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 29, 2010

CARTOON REALITY, PART I: Precious (above) and The Blind Side have garnered award hype and box-office success, but have been criticized for their depictions of racial stereotypes.

Buoyed by President Barack Obama's campaign slogan, many had hopes for change after his election. And not just a change in the policies from those of the previous administration, but a change in the country's attitude about race. An inkling into the latter might be glimpsed in that mirror of the country's unspoken fears and desires: the movie screen.

On the bright side, in the year since Obama's inauguration, Hollywood has released three major films that feature a black president. In two of the films, however, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (in which the president is Obama himself) and 2012, the African-American chief executive presides over a worldwide catastrophe. In the third, Invictus, the president is considerably more successful, but he is President Nelson Mandela of South Africa. So far, it doesn't seem that Obama is inspiring much confidence, at least in the movie world.

Similarly, the screen image of ordinary black people, in three films that turn the focus from the big picture of national leadership to the intimate microcosm of the family, don't seem to be faring much better — even though, at first glance, this looks like a landmark year for films about race. The Blind Sidehas made more than $200 million at the box office, was nominated for an NAACP award, and its star Sandra Bullock, who won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, is most likely en route to the same honor on Oscar night. Precious hasn't made as much money, but it has earned critical kudos, and its stars Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique and itsdirector Lee Daniels also appear to be on track for Oscar nominations. And The Princess and the Frog is the first Disney animated film to feature a black heroine. But each of these films has aroused controversy. The films and the responses to them suggest that, far from entering a post-racial era, we are just starting to confront the racism that still abides.

In fact, watching some of these films, you might wonder how, in a nation where some are more equal than others, Obama ever even got elected. Could it be that he triumphed because he is himself an embodiment of one of these stereotypes — what some film scholars refer to as the "black saint," or in Spike Lee's blunter term, the "magical negro"? The actor Sidney Poitier typified this figure, playing characters who, as described by Donald Bogle, one of America's leading black cultural critics and author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, is "the perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a colored man in for lunch or dinner."

Bogle's description of Sidney Poitier echoes what then-presidential candidate Joe Biden said about Obama when he opposed him for the Democratic nomination in 2008, that he was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Or what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (another fellow Democrat), as quoted in the new book Game Change, said about Obama: that he was electable because he was "light-skinned," "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

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