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Is there 'hope' in Hollywood?

By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 29, 2010

But not everybody is buying it.

Melissa Anderson, reviewing the film in the Village Voice, wrote, "the movie peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of African-Americans who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them." Thaddeus Russell in The Daily Beast sardonically notes, "The African-American teen character in the hit movie The Blind Side is loyal, polite, sexless, and surrounded by white people who love him — it's a miracle of the Obama age."

Actually, it's more a throwback to the Jim Crow age. Bullock's Leigh Anne is insufferably condescending to Oher, who is depicted as a big, dumb, gentle animal. Other black characters come off even worse, and Leigh Anne deals with them appropriately. She visits and consoles Michael's crack-whore mom, who tearfully calls her a real Christian. She threatens the dope-dealing head gangbanger in Michael's old hood with her connections to the DA's office and the gun in her handbag, and he shrinks before her white power, hiding behind his 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor.

Flashing a self-righteous smirk with a crucifix around her neck, Leigh Anne is a Southern-fried Sarah Palin. And even more outrageous is her younger son, S.J. (Jae Head), who takes over training Michael. A smarmy homunculus, he rides the mute Michael like a jockey, putting him through his paces like a pint-sized plantation overseer. The coup de grace occurs at the end of the movie on the Ole Miss campus, when Leigh Anne spots Michael casting a sidelong glance at a co-ed. "If you get a girl pregnant," she says sweetly, "I'll cut off your penis."

Put that in your sermons, you megachurches.

So are there any positive images of black people on screen this year? Maybe one sign that Disney's animated fantasy The Princess and the Frog is on the right track is that the Christian groups have been condemning it. Christianity Today criticizes the film for its "hollow, thoughtless core." The christiananswers.net Web site has also denounced it as "offensive" and "demonic."Unlike, I guess, making a joke about castrating a black man.

Despite, or maybe because of that, the film might be the only one released in the first year of the Obama administration that depicts an African-American family as loving, supportive, happy, and capable of producing a daughter who is smart, self-reliant, and ambitious. Inspired by her late daddy, Tiana dreams of opening her own restaurant. She goes about trying to make this dream come true by working hard and saving money. But she's tempted to take a shortcut, and kisses a magical frog who claims to be Prince Charming. Many transformations and several musical numbers follow (the latter of which are all better than any in Nine).

For those who feared that the film might resort to racial stereotypes, let's just say that Disney has come a long way from Song of the South. And not only does it draw kids into identifying with a black heroine, but it also, literally, teaches them to put themselves in another person's (or amphibian's) skin. In short, the message is empathy, tolerance of difference, and self-respect.

True, the fact that it takes place in a Jazz Age New Orleanswhere restaurants are integrated and a black prince can woo a rich white girl and not get a call from the Klan might strain one's willing suspension of disbelief — that's even more of a fairy tale than the story itself. But whether it remains just a fairy tale depends, as always, on the audiences watching the show.

To read the Outside the Frame blog, go to thePhoenix.com/outsidetheframe. Peter Keough can be reached at pkeough@phx.com.

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