Movie News & Reviews

Few 2009 films focus on black life

Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue features Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe on the inside, but not among the nine 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,' " said 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."

Walter Jacobs, chairman of the University of Minnesota'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.