And overall, African-American stars, from Queen Latifah to Will Smith, are commanding higher salaries and headlining more movies than in the past. (Certainly, no one is going to claim that Bill Pullman and Randy Quaid were the main heroes of "Independence Day.")
But the list of heavenly visitations could stretch all the way down the Walk of Fame. In 1998's "What Dreams May Come," Cuba Gooding Jr. plays an angel who leads Robin Williams, who is in heaven, on a quest to rescue his wife from hell. That same year, Andre Braugher provided comfort to fallen angel Nicolas Cage in "City of Angels." A seminal film was "Ghost," where a psychic played by Whoopi Goldberg helps a murder victim (Patrick Swayze) communicate with his widow, Demi Moore. Ms. Goldberg won an Oscar for her role.
"Hollywood has to tread a very fine line," Gabbard says. "It can't keep putting blacks into subservient positions ... because that would turn off the huge black audience. So in these [black-angel] movies, at some moments [a black character] gets to have total control over the white people. That way blacks don't feel demeaned, and whites don't feel ... threatened, because the blacks aren't really from their world, they're from heaven.
"And heaven appears to be administered by white people," he adds, "because the black people [in these films] only give their help to whites. John Coffey only helps one character who isn't a white person in 'The Green Mile,' and that's a mouse!"
The racial dimensions of films like "The Green Mile" have deep roots in US culture, says Linda Williams, author of "Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson."