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Face of an angel

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This practice lives on in many films that still cast black performers as criminals or thugs. Recently, Denzel Washington played a crooked cop in "Training Day" - and won an Oscar for it last year. (Halle Berry also won in 2002, causing many to hope that African-Americans had finally written themselves a bigger part in Hollywood.)

In another tradition, exemplified by "Gone With the Wind" in 1939, blacks are often lovable, but also ignorant and subservient, like the characters played by Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel. In the most common tradition of all, African-Americans are excluded altogether or allowed a few seconds of screen time to lend local color or comic relief. They may also be depicted as anonymous hordes, as in war pictures such as "Zulu" and "Black Hawk Down."

For decades, most film historians agreed that these traditions served to reinforce the racial prejudices of their times, and that little or nothing can be said in their favor. More recently, revisionist critics have noted that at least such roles allowed black performers to hold careers in the entertainment industry and to display their talents for large audiences.

"Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid?" asked Ms. McDaniel, referring to the character type that dominated her career. "If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."

Viewed in this context, black-angel movies can be seen as an attempt at compromise, giving on-screen blacks more dignity - without taking much of the action away from the white hero. Key examples include "The Green Mile," where black death-row inmate John Coffey heals a white prison guard and his wife before marching obediently to his execution, and the "Matrix" series, where a black "oracle" (the late Gloria Foster) dispenses prophecy and wisdom to the white "chosen one" (Keanu Reeves). The "Matrix" films, however, can't be accused of tokenism, since they also feature African-American actors, such as Laurence Fishburne and Jada Pinkett-Smith, in prominent roles.

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