Race is still an issue in Hollywood, says Donald Clarke
IN THIS week’s Meet Dave, Eddie Murphy plays the tiny captain of an alien vessel that has been constructed in his image. While big, animatronic Eddie prowls Manhattan, his minuscule lookalike tries to maintain order within the robot’s hollow skull. In the course of the film, both Eddies appear close to romance, but only one will manage to secure a cuddle.
When Captain Murphy casts an eye towards Gabriel Union, the African-American star of Bad Boys II, we suspect (rightly, as it transpires) that the two will end up holding hands. When, however, Spaceship Ed rubs up against Elizabeth Banks, the white star of nothing very much, cynical movie fans know that their juices will remain unmingled.
It is more than 40 years since Sydney Poitier dared to plant a smacker on Katharine Houghton in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but Hollywood remains bizarrely cautious about allowing people of different races to pair off. The above example, of course, proves no such conspiracy, but trawl through this year’s releases and you will look in vain for a mainstream US film that allows a black person and a white person to love one another without the interracial nature of the relationship influencing the narrative.
To get some sense of the lengths film-makers will go to in their efforts to keep apace with race, think back – if you can bear it – to a dire 2001 film entitled Black Knight. This grim comedy saw Martin Lawrence being beamed to 14th-century England for a series of characteristically unamusing pratfalls.
Here, surely, Hollywood would be forced to allow an interracial romance? There were not, after all, too many black people in the England of Edward III. But, gadzooks! Who comes hither? It is a “Moorish” princess played by Marsha Thomason, a Mancunian actor of Jamaican descent. British television routinely depicts romances between black and white characters in its soap operas and thrillers, but some nervy condition still compels American film-makers to observe an antique series of dicta defining who is allowed to kiss whom.
Lest you imagine there is some neo-fascist conspiracy afoot to maintain a culturally pure America, consider all those gay best friends who hang around the female leads in contemporary romantic comedies. Come to think of it, there is a gay alien in Meet Dave. Mainstream film-makers, it seems, are more comfortable depicting romances between folk of the same sex than those of different race.
Directors and actors, when quizzed on this topic, guiltily whisper that research suggests that cinema goers – both black and white – remain uneasy about mixed-race romances. Well, if things go to plan for the junior senator from Illinois, the product of just such an interracial coupling may soon be sauntering into the White House. Then, perhaps, Hollywood may finally allow black alien robots to find romance with white ladies. It’s a little thing, but it matters.