In film, progress is obvious but not enough and affects only certain groups
It is neither the best of times nor the worst of times for minority groups in the movies. Some are receiving better treatment than in the past, while others are still subject to stereotyping and bias.
* Blacks are being largely ignored. Black performers played starring roles in only eight films last year, and there are few signs of improvement so far in 1983. While dozen-year-old ''blaxploitation'' movies remain popular on the drive-in circuit, new pictures dealing with black problems and protagonists are rare.
* Women are receiving tentative treatment from Hollywood, with mixed results at the box office. Although female stars and feminine subject matter do figure in some recent releases, women are still seen mainly as foils or sidekicks for male performers, unless female sexuality or suffering is a prime concern of the film.
* Jews are being portrayed more forthrightly than in the past, as whole characters who are not necessarily dominated - or even influenced - by their ethnicity. Jewish subjects, including the Holocaust, are also receiving limited but serious attention.
* Other minority groups, including Asians and Hispanics, are generally overlooked or treated as faceless groups with standard ethnic and racial traits. Attempts are made from time to time to depict these minorities whole and in a positive way by both independent and studio filmmakers. But box office response has generally been weak, reinforcing the tendency of Hollywood - often governed by old habits based on commercial formulas - to steer a course between neglect and cliche.
After decades of treating black heroes and subjects with attitudes ranging from wary to racist, Hollywood began a flirtation with black audiences in the late 1960s, spurred by the discovery that blacks accounted for nearly one-third of American moviegoers. In 1973, almost 50 pictures featured blacks in starring roles, and black employment behind the cameras increased.
Yet problems remained. Though some black-oriented films were aimed at diverse audiences, others were cheaply made thrillers trading in sex and violence, designed for quick playoff in urban theaters. The term ''blaxploitation'' was coined to describe such pictures, although the term itself offended some observers. Black actress Vonetta McGee told Roberta Plutzik in the New York Daily News some years ago, ''I still object to the 'blaxploitation' label, used like 'racism,' so you don't have to think of the individual elements, just the whole. If you study propaganda, you understand how this works.''
In any case, so powerful did the ''blaxploitation'' tag prove that even the more ambitious examples rarely received the widespread distribution accorded white productions. Also, white directors began to co-opt black themes, while white executives dominated the black-film financial structure. ''I don't feel 'persecuted' by the movie system,'' star Richard Roundtree told the Daily News interviewer, ''but it is controlled by white producers.''
The resulting pictures featured black performers and subject matter, but gave only a dim reflection of black sensibilities and a meager insight regarding black problems and aspirations. Black movies steadily faded from view, leaving only marginal gains for the black film community - primarily a modest increase (over the 1950s and before) in the number of blacks hired for supporting roles and technical jobs.
For black women, the situation has become even bleaker. In 1981, only one appeared in a starring role, leading the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to suspend its Image award for best actress. Last year the number declined to zero.
Even when blacks have figured prominently in recent films, their treatment has often been questionable. ''The Toy,'' a popular comedy, raises important issues of black subjugation and white bigotry, but defuses them with fatuous clowning. The highly successful ''An Officer and a Gentleman'' features Louis Gossett Jr. as a black military officer training a white enlistee (in a role that won this year's Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Yet, as pointed out by Dan Yakir, an Israeli-born film critic based in New York, the black man's dominance is only temporary - since his white charge will outrank him as soon as the training session ends.
Still more dubious is ''The Lords of Discipline,'' about intrigue in a military academy, in which a white cadet is assigned to protect a black from harassment. Although the black youth is courageous, the whites around him - including his protectors - make clear their distaste for him, acknowledging his rights without apologizing for their own racism. The movie also puts the black character in scenes of torment that stress lurid details rather than compassion.
Linked with Hollywood's treatment of blacks has been its depiction of Hispanic themes. The latest major controversy surrounding Spanish-speaking characters erupted in 1981 over ''Fort Apache, the Bronx,'' starring Paul Newman , which touched off demonstrations and boycotts in several major cities. The outrage against the movie, wrote a history professor, Allen Woll, in the New York Times, reflected ''not only an anger with the film itself but also a frustration with Hollywood's cavalier attitude toward Hispanics during the entire 20th century.''
This illustrates the cumulative effect that decades of bad and desultory films can have. Even considered alone, though, ''Fort Apache'' - about white policemen stationed in a ''bad'' neighborhood - exemplifies questionable Hollywood approaches toward underclass subject matter. Alluding to the ugly realities of ghetto life depicted in such movies, Village Voice critic Carrie Rickey asked, ''How can a filmmaker tell the truth about the racism he's supposedly against, if he doesn't want to say anything about the white supremacy which produced it?''
When dealing with women and feminine themes, Hollywood at least seems to be trying nowadays. ''Women are getting more careful treatment,'' says filmmaker Jenny Bowen, director of ''Street Music,'' a recent independent production. But, she adds, ''That means more cautious; it doesn't mean more enlightened.''
Statistically, women - especially older women - have not done well in Hollywood since the decline of the ''star system'' that boosted the careers of major actresses in past decades. According to a study by the Screen Actors Guild , reported in early 1980, women virtually disappear from the screen when they reach 40 years old, getting only a third of the work that men of the same age get. Similarly, 40-year-old actors were found to earn 59 percent more, per workday, than their female peers - with a still wider disparity at later ages.
As for the evidence on the screen, it indicates an ambiguous attitude toward women. As filmmaker Bowen pointed out in an interview for this article, some of the biggest recent hits celebrate feminine qualities - but in masculine terms. Two examples are Dustin Hoffman's latest pictures: ''Kramer vs. Kramer,'' in which a man is seen as heroic for rearing a child; and ''Tootsie,'' in which the hero dresses as a woman and finds more success than the real women around him.
''The closer women come to claiming their rights and achieving independence in real life,'' wrote Molly Haskell in ''From Reverence to Rape,'' a 1973 study of women in cinema, ''the more loudly and stridently films tell us it's a man's world.'' It's still true, although Hoffman's posing may be seen as preferable to the violent machismo of ''Dirty Harry'' or ''The Godfather.''
Also pernicious is the continuing use of women as objects for decoration and display. And more subtle forms of sexual exploitation are also common, as in films that trade on weak or even masochistic images of women. In 1979, New York Magazine critic David Denby magazine wrote that ''the spectacle of female collapse is being used as an inspiration for male tenderness; incapacity has become romantic.'' He was referring to such pictures as ''Love Story'' and ''The Other Side of the Mountain,'' but the same condition persists in 1983 with such releases as ''Frances'' and ''Videodrome,'' or the European production ''Tales of Ordinary Madness.'' Only limited progress has been made since Joan Mellon's 1973 observation (in her book ''Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film'') that ''the contemporary cinema persists in spitefully portraying the sexuality of its women as infantile and dependent.'' Jews
The treatment of Jews in current films is more progressive. Dan Yakir sees ''a stepping away from stereotypes'' in Jewish matters.
''During the '60s and '70s,'' he told me recently, ''most Jewish characters fell into categories - the 'lovable schnook,' for example. Now there's a willingness to have characters who are Jewish without being affected by it, like the hero of 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' who seems Jewish only by his name. Or some Jewish trait may be seen as very positive, as in 'Ordinary People,' where the Jewish doctor is the only warm character.''
''It's still important to explore problems and prejudices,'' Yakir concludes. ''But doing that, you can fall into yet another stereotype: the victim. It's good to have Jewish characters who exist as real people apart from their ethnicity.''
The recent release of ''Sophie's Choice,'' about a mentally troubled Jew and a concentration-camp survivor, also points to concern regarding Jewish matters. Yet it still operates very much on Hollywood terms. ''Good films about the Holocaust have been made,'' says Yakir, ''but mostly in Europe, and especially in Italy, where 'The Garden of the Finzi-Continis' came from. Americans don't want to hear about this subject unless you make it American in some way, usually through the back door. Nobody would go to 'Sophie's Choice' if it didn't take place in Brooklyn.''
Annette Insdorf, a film professor at Yale University and author of the forthcoming ''Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,'' says that positive Jewish portrayals, as in ''Ordinary People,'' may be offset by such hackneyed treatments as ''Just Tell Me What You Want.'' But in one respect, she finds American films more evenhanded than their European counterparts.
''Even when European films try to give a sympathetic depiction of wartime Jews,'' Dr. Insdorf told me recently, ''they are generally played by slick-looking, fashion-magazine types who could appeal to audiences with anti-Semitic feelings. The best American movies on the Holocaust - like 'The Pawnbroker' and 'The Great Dictator' - are much more genuine in their casting.''
Dr. Insdorf also feels ''Sophie's Choice'' is a positive contribution, with its carefully distanced treatment of Holocaust scenes, and she hopes Hollywood will turn its attention to the Holocaust again. ''We need films with integrity on any tumultuous event in human history,'' she says. ''They become ammunition against people who want to ignore such events. Well-made movies can sensitize audiences to subjects they know nothing about, building awareness and concern.''
Although the Jewish community has been comparatively well served by recent films, Hollywood's overall treatment of minority groups continues to be inadequate. Moreover, the problem is compounded by a long history of movies treating minorities ignorantly, unfairly, or both - as well as a lack of agreement as to what constitutes ''progress'' in such portrayals. Progress is slow A watershed example of the ''progress'' debate is the 1967 film ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,'' directed by white filmmaker Stanley Kramer, whose liberal credentials were already familiar from such pictures as ''Home of the Brave'' and ''The Defiant Ones.'' The plot concerns a wealthy white woman and highly educated black man whose parents (of both races) object to their marriage.
Assessing it in his book ''The Devil Finds Work,'' author James Baldwin finds its plot and characters too exaggerated for belief, and charges that ''the immense quantity of polish . . . is meant to blind one to its essential inertia and despair.'' By contrast, Sidney Poitier - the star of the film - has vigorously defended it, calling it ''a totally revolutionary movie.'' The key point, Poitier says in Donald Spoto's book ''Stanley Kramer: Film Maker,'' is that ''Hollywood was incapable of anything more drastic in 1967. It just couldn't have been made, it couldn't have been distributed.''
In sum, says Poitier, the film must be judged in relative terms. But other observers have called for a stricter accounting of ''progressive'' movies. Assessing the burst of black-oriented film after 1960, white critic Andrew Sarris wrote in ''Politics and Cinema'' that ''until very late in the sixties, black performers appeared almost exclusively in films designed by white liberal filmmakers for white liberal audiences. For the most part, these films stank of sanctimonious self-righteousness.''
Looking at such recent products as ''The Lords of Discipline'' and ''Videodrome,'' it is hard to feel much improvement has been made, in minority treatment, if indeed the movie business hasn't actually regressed. The reasons are elusive, but rooted in the hybrid art-industry nature of cinema. Speaking of the racism and hatred endemic to some films, actor Paul Winfield told me five years ago, ''A lot has to do with money. It's amazing how much of making a film - financing it, putting it together, getting it out - is involved with the male ego. Their sexuality and their idea of manhood is tied up in that part of their work.''
''A lot of it is very disturbing and has little to do with the so-called art of film,'' he concluded, putting his finger on an essential problem that will have to be solved if meaningful progress is to be made in minority representation on film. Tomorrow: Minorities on TV