Liane Bonin
January 01, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

”Family Man” and other movies rely on a tired racial stereotype

For all of you seeking spiritual guidance from your local cineplex, listen up: Hollywood has an abundance of nifty ideas about the Big Spirit in the Sky. The good news is that God seems to be an equal opportunity employer. Last year, Chris Rock played Rufus, the little known 13th apostle, in ”Dogma,” and Michael Clarke Duncan nabbed an Oscar nod for his portrayal of a holy healer in ”The Green Mile.” More recently, Will Smith strolled the green as an otherworldly golf caddy in ”The Legend of Bagger Vance” and Don Cheadle — playing a sort of magical mystery tour guide — reformed Nicolas Cage’s selfish business exec in ”Family Man.”

And now, the bad news. With the exception of Rock’s sharp tongued apostle, these mystical sidekicks prove that, even though Hollywood has embraced political correctness, it’s still churning out stereotypes — with a New Age twist. Instead of creating nuanced and complex African American characters, ”Family Man,” ”Bagger Vance,” and ”The Green Mile” all follow the same disturbing formula: Black men with mystical powers (Time magazine recently dubbed them ”Magical African American Friends,” or ”MAAFs”) use their talents to help clueless white people.

Spike Lee didn’t call ”Bagger Vance” ”Driving Mr. Damon” for nothing. It’s hard to watch Will Smith, who chased aliens side by side with Tommy Lee Jones in ”Men in Black,” lugging around Matt Damon’s golf clubs and sputtering pseudo Zen, be one with the ball pointers when in real life Tiger Woods is taking home trophies. And sure, audiences got all weepy over Duncan’s gentle giant in ”The Green Mile,” but didn’t anyone find it disturbing that John Coffey’s amazing healing powers were frittered away on a rich white woman’s brain tumor and Tom Hanks’ urinary tract infection at a time (the South of the 1930s) when black men were still being lynched left and right for crimes they didn’t commit?

I know, I know, then we’d be stuck watching a big, depressing movie about oppression instead of a feel good fairy tale about a lovable, expendable oaf and his nice white friends — but still.

Undoubtedly some will argue that casting African Americans in these warm and fuzzy roles is a step in the right direction, given the even more offensive black stereotypes Hollywood is known for: drug dealers, gang members, and slaves. And it’s hard to blame the actors involved for accepting these roles. Smith (like costars Matt Damon and Charlize Theron) couldn’t have predicted that Oscar winning director Robert Redford could churn out such a stinker; Duncan’s career took off thanks to ”The Green Mile”; and Cheadle’s character in ”Family Man” boasts some funny dialogue and intriguing quirks. (And it’s great to see the actor playing a complex role in another current movie, ”Traffic.”)

If there weren’t so few interesting dramatic roles for black actors, it would be easy to shrug off ”Family Man” and ”Bagger Vance” and their ilk as entertaining fluff. But until we see Matt Damon hauling Will Smith’s golf clubs, Hollywood is still shooting a double bogey.

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