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Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue features Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe on the inside, and not among the nine lily-white ingenues on the cover. Whatever progress American society may be making, too few black films are released to provide the diversity that would make a more inclusive gallery of starlets a matter of course.
With the notable exception of Sidibe's "Precious," which is contending for best picture and also got a nomination for director Lee Daniels -- only the second black director so honored -- the roster of 2009 movies reflecting African-American life was thin and unimpressive, a number of observers agreed.
"There isn't really anything that made me say, 'Wow,'" remarked Natalie Morrow, vice president of marketing for the Twin Cities Black Film Festival. "I don't see a strong theme," other than a clutch of fact-based films such as the Sandra Bullock up-from-poverty saga "The Blind Side," Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela tribute "Invictus," and the Michael Jackson and LeBron James documentaries "This Is It" and "More Than a Game."
"This was a year of mediocrity," said Bashir Salhuddin, a writer for "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and Web-based media critic. "There was 'Precious' and there was ... gosh ... what? There are black people in 'Avatar,' there's a black dude in 'The Hurt Locker' and I think that covers it."
As Salhuddin sees it, 2009 was a good year to be a black actress if you didn't mind turning blue like Zoe Saldana in "Avatar" or green like Anika Noni Rose in Disney's "The Princess and the Frog."
"We've already had a situation where all the black people were lions, in 'The Lion King,'" he said. "So I'm used to them digging deep and finding our essence, which is not who we look like on the outside but who we can be transformed into -- either lions, frogs or big blue Smurfs."
Still, Catherine Squires, a University of Minnesota professor of journalism and mass communications, and the mother of 7-year-old twins, praised the Disney animated film as a strong but subtle history lesson. Its dream sequence, for instance, features graphics based on Harlem Renaissance-style art.
"I don't expect a 6-year-old to pick up on that," Squires said, "but just to have that in their visual landscape and for [Disney] to have done that kind of background research I think was really important. I was disappointed with the voodoo story line because it draws on some of the worst caricatures of Afro-Christian Creole religions. But I was very surprised and heartened by some of the more subtle touches they took to include African-American artistic or musical culture."
A dubious eye on 'Blind Side'
Walter Jacobs, chair of the university's African-American Studies department, said he was actually less inclined to go to the movies last year.
"I think that's because the biggest movie everybody was abuzz about was 'The Blind Side,' and I'm very nervous about seeing that," he said. "It strikes me as in the same line as 'Dangerous Minds' and 'Freedom Writers,' where the nice white lady saves the poor black kid. I'm getting tired of those types of movies."
Salhuddin also has little patience with pre-packaged uplift. He could only stay in his seat for part of "Invictus," which he called "boring time. To be told again and again that when we all come together we can make good things happen, yeah, I get that. I've been to McDonald's. I do know we can come together and make things happen, like French fries."
Salhuddin found the Mandela film less powerful than the science fiction movie "District 9," which touched on racial issues through the metaphor of aliens confined in an apartheid-like ghetto.
"It humanized South Africa more for me than any other movie I've ever seen," he said.
Jacobs, whose favorite film about the African-American experience is Spike Lee's 1989 "Do the Right Thing," laments the fact that cross-dressing comedian Tyler Perry has become the premier black filmmaker of this decade.
"It's sad in that Tyler Perry movies are all kind of light, they don't make me think. They're more driven by entertainment and the bottom line. But it's good that there's increasing diversity of folks that can get their movies out there."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186