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Hollywood's Latest Take on Interracial Romance

Movies * 'M:I-2' takes a crack at breaking the color barrier, but overall studios are slow to change.

June 17, 2000|SOREN BAKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Mission: Impossible 2" may have pulled off one stunt that's even more daring than anything John Woo concocted with motorcycles or cars--the on-screen interracial romance between Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton.

In society at large the idea of someone like Cruise having an intimate relationship with Newton may not seem so remarkable, but when he appears as Ethan Hunt with Newton at his side in "M:I-2," it's somewhat revolutionary. After all, the relationship stands as one of the few times a major motion picture has romantically matched a white male lead with a black woman.

In the 1960s, Ian Fleming's James Bond series introduced interracial interaction in its most accepted cinematic form. Of course, Sean Connery and the subsequent Bond incarnations have been so cosmopolitan that their entanglements with exotic women were not only accepted but expected. Although the racial barrier has taken several substantial hits in the last 40 years (think James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in 1970's "The Great White Hope," among others), Hollywood seems unable to make the big leap that society has. Even with 1991's "Jungle Fever" and recent interracial relationships, however shallow, in such films as "High Fidelity" and "Boiler Room," on-screen romances between blacks and whites seem taboo.

But, in at least two recent films, Warner Bros.' "Romeo Must Die" and Iron Hill's "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce," men of Asian heritage are romantically involved with African American women and incorporate hip-hop sensibilities into their characters.

In "Romeo Must Die," Hong Kong fugitive Han Sing (Jet Li) arrives in America on an assassination mission and eventually falls in love with Trish O'Day (Aaliyah), even though their families are in the midst of a turf war. With "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce," an African American couple adopt Vietnamese children Dwayne (Chi Muoi Lo) and his sister Mai (Lauren Tom) from a refugee camp.

While people of these backgrounds interact every day in the U.S., their relationships have never been presented realistically on screen, industry insiders contend.

"I think the only reason we pay attention to it is because it's two minorities that we haven't seen on screen before, without any stereotypes involved," says Glenn Thomas Ford, a casting director and film producer who has worked on such films as "The Velocity of Gary" and the upcoming "Used Books" and "Bricks." "It's normal everyday folks allowing themselves to be African American and Asian American. I think the world is just allowing itself to reflect itself."

Often treated as second-class citizens in America, African Americans and Asian Americans have had to battle oppression and persecution from not only whites and the federal government, but from each other. Still, studio executives more often seem comfortable backing a film that has a minority involved with another minority than one that has a white linked with a minority.

"Anything is less difficult for the powers-that-be to deal with than relationships between whites and blacks," says Mary Alice, who portrays the woman who adopts Lo's character in "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce." "This is something that stems from us [African Americans] being here. It's nothing new. It's something that's ongoing and has to do with the underlying racism. It seems to be more permissible for a white actor to kiss a black woman than for a black man to kiss a white woman."

For example, those interviewed for this article found it highly unlikely that Julia Roberts' and Denzel Washington's characters in "The Pelican Brief" would work together, spend time in a hotel room alone and not have a romantic exchange. But in "The Bodyguard," which starred Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, the couple kissed.

In "Romeo Must Die," however, the Sing and O'Day families replace the Montagues and Capulets, respectively, as Han and Trish defy their families by supplying each other with information vital to the other's family and eventually becoming romantically involved.

Dwayne is engaged to Nina (Sanaa Lathan) in "Catfish in Black Bean Sauce," which doesn't sit well with his sister, who would rather her brother be involved with a woman of Asian heritage.

Studios Ruled by an Older Generation

However, the younger generation overall seems more open to interracial dating and interaction.

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