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Face of an angel

Hollywood is frequently casting African-Americans in spiritual roles. Is this positive or patronizing?

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What do the films "Bruce Almighty" and "The Green Mile" have in common with "The Family Man," the "Matrix" movies, and "Ghost"?

All feature black characters whose main function is to help a white hero through magical or supernatural means. These are Hollywood's "black angels," whose popularity has surged in recent years - so much so that in an episode last year of "The Simpsons," Homer mistook a black man in a white suit for an angelic visitor, all because (according to his embarrassed wife) he'd been seeing too many movies lately.

Of course, there are many films aimed at African-Americans that star blacks in a variety of parts, from villainous to heroic. But casting blacks as angelic characters has become an increasingly common trend in mainstream movies.

For their part, many African-Americans see this heavenly designation as less than beatific. Filmmakers like Spike Lee have spoken out against such roles, calling them patronizing and unrealistic.

"Black-angel movies appeal to a genuine desire for reconciliation among whites and blacks. But they also exploit a distorted fascination with blacks that many whites have," says film historian Krin Gabbard, who will explore this subject in his book "Black Magic: White Hollywood and African-American Culture," due out next year. "In vast amounts of entertainment and culture, whites have trouble regarding blacks as real people. That's depressing, but true."

The traditional choice: thug or maid

The record supports Dr. Gabbard's charge. In one tradition of American filmmaking, dating to D.W. Griffith's epic "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, black people are portrayed as villains and monsters - like the lust-crazed Gus who forces Mae Marsh's character to choose death before dishonor.

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