White Teacher, Black Stereotype : In Hollywood’s view, we could get along much better if we all listen to the white mentor.

David Ehrenstein is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

About halfway through “Sunset Park,” the new comedy-drama in which Rhea Perlman plays the coach of a high school basketball team, a player suddenly asks her, “Hey coach, what’s it like to be white?” Startled and embarrassed, she tries to smooth the moment over by telling a personal anecdote unrelated to race. He doesn’t buy it and walks off in a huff. But not to worry. In time-honored Hollywood fashion, the coach and the player become best buddies by fade-out time. Still, “What’s it like to be white?” is a curious question for a film such as this to ask when its answer is so plainly in sight: When you’re white, you get to be the coach.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: Here comes that old knee-jerk, “oversensitive Negro” reaction again, right? Wrong. It would be grotesque to accuse a piece of well-meaning piffle like “Sunset Park” of anything so consequential as Racism with a capital R. But it wouldn’t do to pass over it in silence, either. For “Sunset Park” is one of a series of recently minted teacher dramas, including “The Substitute” and “Dangerous Minds,” in which race plays a pivotal dramatic role. Inasmuch as Hollywood reinforces status quo attitudes rather than question them, none of these films has the slightest intention of stirring racial strife. In fact, each one of them bends over backward to promote black-white harmony. And according to social critic Benjamin DeMott, that’s exactly what’s wrong with them.

In his latest book, “The Trouble With Friendship” (Atlantic Monthly Press), DeMott takes Hollywood to task for the likes of “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Lethal Weapon”--otherwise varied films featuring black and white characters extending the hand of friendship to one another, and thereby neutralizing America’s long history of racial animosity. Through such gestures, DeMott claims, these films “shift the problem away from politics--from black experience and the history of slavery--and [lead audiences] to perceive it as a matter of the suspicion and fear found within the white heart; solving the problem asks no more of us than we work on ourselves, scrubbing off the dirt of ill will.”


While DeMott’s point is well taken, there’s nothing especially new about such symbolic cinematic gestures. What makes such sunny scenarios grating today is that they’re being played out in the era of Rodney King, Reginald Denny, Louis Farrakhan, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Clarence Thomas, Ward Connerly and that bottomless pit of interracial insanity known by the letters O and J.

In a way, DeMott’s emphasis on slavery’s impact, while valid, is beside the point. For current racial strife springs less from the Civil War than from Reconstruction, in which segregation was not only established legally but indoctrinated throughout every other aspect of American life. Thus while the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling may have removed “Jim Crow” from the law books, segregation’s effects continue to haunt a culture that sees black and white not merely as different, but intrinsically separate from one another.

There are two all-pervasive images of African Americans in Hollywood dramas today: criminal sociopaths on the fast track for self-destruction (“Clockers,” “Dead Presidents”) and wound-nursing Negroes whose lives can be brightened only by the intervention of a kindly, understanding and financially stable white mentor (“Grand Canyon,” “Smoke”). The teacher films combine these modes. There’s plenty of dysfunctionality on display, invariably accompanied by scatological nursery rhymes set to an anapestic beat (i.e., rap music). But there’s also a white savior on board to set things right. And don’t think for a moment that the social, cultural and economic disparity between these two groups will count for much. All the whites have to do is demonstrate how “down” they are, and all the black characters have to do is smile back at them.

As a result, African Americans in these films are less a people than a quality capable of being acquired by whites. You might liken it to a perfume--Eau de Negro--sprinkled liberally on liberal and conservative characters alike. And both black and white movie-makers are involved in the manufacture of this scent.

In “Dangerous Minds,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s karate demonstration gets her class’s attention. Proof of her ultimate worth comes in the last reel when she’s boogieing to a rap beat along with her charges. She may be an English teacher, but correcting kids’ pronunciation wouldn’t be cool. Instead she encourages them to read Bob Dylan’s “poetry” and their speaking skills magically improve.

In “The Substitute” the action is far more frenetic, with Tom Berenger cast as a Vietnam veteran and freelance mercenary who goes undercover as a high school history teacher to uncover a narcotics ring run by the school’s black principal. Predictably, a black teacher unaware of the truth comes to the principal’s defense with a typical line: Every time a black man gets power the white man has to slap him down. But as always in Hollywood films of this kind, white makes right.


In “Sunset Park,” the only problem is getting bad grades and being ousted from the team. The white coach keeps insisting that all her black charges need to do to get into college--”and not for basketball”--is study. But such remarks are patently absurd, in that everyone in America knows the sport is the only mass-approved means African Americans have for gaining access to the money and status fast track. And it’s the only arena in which whites feel free to declare admiration for blacks. Make no mistake, the true “Hoop Dreams” dreamers are white.

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about Tim Reid’s “Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored.” The story of a young black man’s growing up in a small Southern town, it has all the earmarks of a simple “uplift” film. There are no gangbangers or rap “artists” in this tale of kindly, honest people and the youth who learned life’s lessons from them. But there’s something far from ordinary at work in one scene of this well-crafted, well-acted, low-budget production, where a wealthy white woman (played by Polly Bergen) takes an interest in the teenage hero and lends him some books from her own shelves--as “coloreds” aren’t allowed to use the public library. Reid refuses to present this woman’s gesture as a means of granting absolution to whites. Moreover, the film makes it clear that Bergen’s character has no understanding whatsoever of the hero or the world in which he lives.

Honest films about interracial relations start here.