Rupert Cornwell: Hollywood puts a festive gloss on racial harmony

Out of America: Disney's first black cartoon heroine is a small, but significant, milestone on a long and bumpy road
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The Independent Online

If the magic dust scattered by Hollywood were for real, this would be the Christmas when humanity's oldest problem was solved. Maybe it's because for the first time a black man occupies America's highest office; maybe it's mere coincidence. Whatever the reason, every other new movie seems to be about love or reconciliation between the races.

This weekend a couple more opened in the US. The more powerful of the pair, beyond a doubt, is Invictus, the inspiring story of how Nelson Mandela, barely a year out of prison and entitled to feel bitter if ever a man was, instead chose reconciliation over revenge and used an international rugby match to draw South Africa's whites and blacks closer together. By contrast, The Princess and the Frog is a cartoon (or "animated film" as we must now call them) based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Frog Prince. But it's a significant landmark, nonetheless. Disney heroines used to be blue eyed, white skinned and utterly Caucasian. In recent years there have been some changes. We've had an animated American Indian princess in Pocahontas, as well as a Chinese one (Mulan). But never, until now, was there a black heroine in a Disney cartoon.

Tiana, who wants to set up her own restaurant, is young, clever, hardworking and beautiful. She and her prince have amazing adventures set against the exotic backdrop of New Orleans in the jazz age. The cast of characters features, among others, a wise old voodoo priestess in the bayou and a trumpet-playing alligator. So far, however, so Disney. The real difference is that Tiana is African-American and her frog prince is white.

Then there's The Blind Side. Like Invictus, it is also a true story, about a rich white couple in the American South who take an illiterate teenager off the street into their home, and ultimately adopt him. With their support and devotion, the black kid without a future becomes a budding star of the National Football League. Like Invictus, the film uses sport to make wider points; in this case, that people should not to be judged by the colour of their skin, and that even the most unpromising individuals have potential that can be unlocked.

Right now, of course, life is not imitating art. While these uplifting tales play out on the silver screen, much of the real world is besotted by the saga of Tiger Woods, a black man whose superiority at the very white sport of golf cast him as a bridge across America's racial divide, only to have his qualifications as universal role model swept away in a flood of lurid sexual allegations.

By all accounts, The Princess and the Frog has hugely gratified the black community, not least because it's been so long in coming. But the Woods affair has aroused far more hostile feelings. For most of the media, it hardly matters that Woods is generally regarded as a black man (even though he refuses to identify himself as such, preferring the term "Calbinasian", reflecting his mixed Chinese, black, American Indian and Dutch ancestry). For the tabloids, this is just another celebrity sex scandal, albeit a blockbuster.

But a very different reaction is to be seen on African-American blogs and websites. These course with resentment at a successful black who apparently consorts exclusively with white women, both inside and outside the matrimonial bed. The habit is not new; the boxer Jack Johnson and the football star O J Simpson are two others with a similar track record. As Denene Millner, author of The Angry Black Woman's Guide to Life, puts it, "Why is it when they get to this level, they tend to go directly for the nearest blonde?"

And even our trio of feel-good movies about race have their detractors. The Blind Side has been dismissed as condescending and simplistic, a self-congratulatory tale of white charity that ignores the grinding, enduring misery of life in the tenements of Memphis, Tennessee. Its hero is less beacon of hope than the exception that proves the rule.

As for The Princess and the Frog, some see a subtle racial put-down in the fact that Tiana spends most of the movie as a green frog, not as a black human being. And, in an echo, perhaps, of views of Tiger's alleged real-life escapades, another black critic complained that an African-American princess was fine, but Disney should have had an African-American prince as well. That way, Hollywood would be demonstrating that happy and lasting marriages are not a solely white preserve.

Even Mandela's story does not have an entirely happy ending. Yes, his reputation, unlike that of Woods, has grown yet further during the decade since he left power. The golfer has lost his aura, but that around the statesman is now almost divine, and the wonderful portrayal of him by Morgan Freeman may only complete the process. Yet that marvellous moment in 1995, when Mandela persuaded a suspicious, aggrieved black majority to swing behind the national rugby team that had been an emblem of white South Africa, did not break down the country's racial barriers. A new survey has found that on a typical day, a quarter of all South Africans never speak to a person of a different race, while almost half never socialise with people of other races. Maybe the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa will finish the job the 1995 rugby World Cup began.

One day, maybe, someone will make a movie about Tiger Woods. Its box-office selling points, however, are unlikely to include the furtherance of racial harmony. This Christmas, Hollywood has come up with three movies that are rattling good entertainment. They should be accepted as such, and no more. If they happen to be remembered by future generations as small milestones along the way to a post-racial world, then that's just a bonus.

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