by: Dr. Clarence Spigner | Back to Blog index...
President Barak Obama and Michelle have re-ignited a vision of marital concordance that is seldom seen in popular cinema. This assessment does not come from a rigorous, scientific analysis of a random sample of Hollywood films, but is more an impression from a critical viewer. Gender problems exist between couples of color in real-life and on the screen, but Hollywood has not by and large given us anywhere near the romantic realities of couples such as Will and Jada Pinkett Smith or Denzel and Paulette Washington. No wonder then that a predominant image left in the public psych might be the dysfunctional Bobbie Brown and Whitney Huston and the domestic violence of Chris Brown toward Rihanna.
It is true enough that Michael Douglas taught all married men a lesson about the consequences of one-night stands in Fatal Attraction (1987). Similarly did Diane Lane for married women not to encourage an affair in Unfaithful (2002). In the real world moreover, self-righteous politicians, from former President Bill Clinton and Senator John Edwards to Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford are the equal opportunity embarrassments to what can surely be the bliss of married life.
Hollywood has long flooded the public with the cinematic brutality of Celie (Whoopie Goldberg) and Albert (Danny Glover) in The Color Purple (1985). There is also Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne) battering a surprisingly saintly Tina (Angela Bassett) in the biographical drama, What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993). Angela Bassett, in spite of her exemplary and real-life marriage to fellow actor Courtney Vance, became a poster child as the brutalized black female. Bassett turned in a stunning performance as Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X (1992) but is probably be remembered as the avenging surrogate for the tortured author Terry McMillan in Waiting to Exhale (1995) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998). Granted, McMillan has certainly had her share of real-life problems with (black) men.
The motion picture industry has presented white couples in romantic turmoil as well. Recall Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) and Jennifer Lopez who played it white in Enough (2002). But if Bassett can carry the flag for abused African American women (if not for all women), then actor Harrison Ford, to name only one, has come to represents the ideal husband.
Ford emerged as the dashing lead in the earlier Star Wars saga and in all of the Indiana Jones films and in-between, appeared as the desperate husband searching for his missing wife in Frantic (1988). He was the duped spouse in Presumed Innocent (1990); the reliable government agent and devoted family man in Patriot Games (1992); the unjustly accused husband in The Fugitive (1993) and the agent/family man again in Clear and Present Danger (1994). The improbability of Ford doing hand-to-hand combat to protect his family as the U.S. President in Air Force One (1997) was laughable though he was scary enough as the frightening as the philandering husband/murderer in What Lies Beneath (2000). Ford redeemed himself as the security specialist and again the fighting family man in Firewall (2006).
The point is that comparatively there are fewer big screen men-of-color in similar roles of ideal domesticity as has been provided for the white mainstream. Only Denzel Washington comes to mind as the under-employed father and husband in John Q (2002) and as the dedicated civil servant in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (2009). But also recall Washington’s riveting performance as the incredibly nasty father, Alonzo, in Training Day. Will Smith was over-the top in Independence Day (1996), traumatized in I, Robot, and dysfunctional in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). Great performances; but dramas about responsible domesticity seem comparatively lacking for couples of color.
Is the family friendly message being delivered from the hegemonic mass media one that propagandizes how white men and women are more reliable as partners and spouses? Or is Hollywood providing the image of couples of color as dysfunctional?
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