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Race Matters: Is Hollywood Truly Color Blind When It Comes To On-Screen Romance?

Shannon Peace Shannon Peace
September 29th, 2008 9:49am EDT
Die Another DayIn John Grisham's bestselling novel "The Pelican Brief," investigative journalist Gray Grantham and law student Darby Shaw uncover a political conspiracy and in the process, end up between the sheets. In the 1993 film version, Darby Shaw (played by Julia Roberts) and Grantham merely share a chaste hug in the film's conclusion. What happened between page and screen? One theory: In the novel Grantham is white; in the film, he's portrayed by Academy-Award winning - and black - actor Denzel Washington.

The stigma of interracial relationships in cinema can be traced back to the 1934 Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code), which forbade portrayals of "miscegenation" (sexual relationships between whites and blacks) on screen. Though the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton) broke new ground, interracial relationships were still a rarity by the time Spike Lee released Jungle Fever (Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra) 24 years later.

Jungle FeverIt would be disingenuous to claim that no progress has been made since that time; actors of color and relationships of all varieties are being shown on film in ways that weren't possible half a century ago. Still, in a town that prides itself for its liberalism and tolerance; in an industry that claims the only color it sees is green; when it comes to interracial relationships - especially those where the male actor is black - has Hollywood come far enough?

There is an old joke that lonely bartender Isaac (Ted Lange) on television's "The Love Boat" (1977) never got any action until a black actress came on board. Take Denzel today: When not romantically paired with black women, Washington is usually without a romantic lead (Courage Under Fire, Fallen, Virtuosity, Man on Fire, Remember the Titans, etc.) or trapped into roles that require him to play asexual opposite white leading ladies (The Pelican Brief, The Bone Collector). The same is true of Will Smith, who somehow didn't connect with the comely Bridget Moynahan in 2004's I Robot (ironically set in the future) and Wesley Snipes, who got no love from Yancy Butler in Drop Zone (1994).

I Robot


No love between Will Smith & Bridget Moynahan in I, Robot.



With a handful of exceptions, most examples of black actors paired romantically with white actresses take place in films where the subject matter directly concerns race. Dennis Haysbert played the taboo object of affection for 50/60's era middle-class white women in Love Field (Michelle Pfeiffer, 1992) and 2002's Far From Heaven (Julianne Moore).

Julia Stiles was paired with both Sean Patrick Thomas and Mekhi Phifer in 2001, but those films - Save the Last Dance and "O" respectively - also focused on race-relations. From Blazing Saddles to Purple Rain to Hairspray - the list goes on. Even Monster's Ball, in which Halle Berry won the 2001 Best Actress Academy Award opposite on-screen love interest Billy Bob Thornton, touches on issues of racism and emphasizes the duo's "unlikely" romance.

Save the Last Dance


Julia Stiles & Sean Patrick Thomas in Save The Last Dance.



So, is it impossible in 2008 to have characters falling in love without their respective racial backgrounds being written into the script? It was for one film in 1962: "No Strings" was a musical that featured black actress Diahann Carroll opposite Richard Kiley, who was white. No issue is made of race and their relationship dissolves due to other reasons. The same is true of 1992's box-office hit The Bodyguard, which wasn't memorable cinematically but is noteworthy for the fact that the racial difference between lovers Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner is never even mentioned.

Of course, it's widely acknowledged that in terms of color casting, there is a double standard: Historically, Hollywood has been less squeamish about portraying interracial relationships between black women and men of other races. Halle Berry romanced Pierce Brosnan's Bond, Benjamin Bratt in Catwoman, and white costars in Swordfish, Flintstones and The Rich Man's Wife. Yet, for every Die Another Day, there's a Bulworth (which makes issue of race) or an Eraser (in which the chemistry between Vanessa Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger is never acted upon).

Die Another Day


Pierce Brosnan & Halle Berry in Die Another Day.



Black actresses aren't the only women affected by color casting. One can't ignore the Eva Mendes factor: It seems when Denzel isn't married to a black woman, single or "just friends" with his white counterparts, he is cast opposite Cuban-American actress Eva Mendes, who portrayed Washington's wife in both Training Day and Out of Time. "In Hollywood logic," Mendes told the L.A. Times, "To pair a black woman and a black male makes a black movie. A white woman and a black male becomes a little controversial. It's much more acceptable to have a Latin woman with a black male."

As confirmation, see Jennifer Lopez opposite Wesley Snipes in 1995's Money Train, Rosie Perez with Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989) or Will Smith with - you guessed it - Eva Mendes (Hitch, 2005). While it's refreshing to see more Latinas on screen and in varied relationships, the pathology behind this particular casting trend bears closer examination.

In terms of being romantically pigeon-holed on film, Latina actresses are not alone: Their male counterparts, historically portrayed as criminally delinquent or sexually threatening, have had to endure negative portrayals opposite white women, seen as far back in the silent picture "The Girl and the Greaser" (1913) or as witnessed in the rape of Ally Sheedy by Esai Morales in Bad Boys (1983).

Not immune, Asian actors have also been marginalized when it comes to romance in Western film. While not demonized, they are consistently emasculated by being relegated to non-sexual roles: Jet Li gets to protect but not serve Bridget Fonda in Kiss of the Dragon (2001) and after Chow Yun Fat was cast in a role originally written for a "Bruce Willis type" in 1998's The Replacement Killers, all traces of the intended romance between him and Mira Sorvino were wiped from the script.

There are those who might argue that race is not the only factor. Many films cited here are action films and there have long been complaints that love scenes in this genre can seem out of place. Further, some might claim it's refreshing not to endure a sometimes-forced romantic subplot. Valid, but still: In The Bourne Identity, audiences didn't blink an eye when Matt Damon ducked bullets in one scene, then bedded Franka Potente in the next. Sexual attraction/encounters - even in the midst of a fight for ones life - is de rigueur on screen. American audiences have come to expect romantic entanglements as natural; therefore, it's glaring when single, attractive, adrenalin-fueled characters (regardless of race) don't give in to their basic human instincts. Typical Hollywood plot conventions shouldn't apply only to white actors.

It's 2008; with a historic presidential election looming and barriers for all people being broken on stage and screen, perhaps the real question is what leads big-budget Hollywood to continue its stubborn insistence that contemporary audiences will somehow find certain on-screen relationships unpalatable or offensive? In an era where color-blind casting is more possible than ever before, what is truly offensive is underestimating your audience.


Think things aren't this black and white? Give us your take in comments!



Story by Shannon Peace
Starpulse contributing writer