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The Skin Game

Why can’t Denzel Washington score with white women on screen?

By Stephen Cole
March 28, 2006

Unlucky in love: Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster in Inside Man. Courtesy Universal Pictures.
Unlucky in love: Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster in Inside Man. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

In Spike Lee’s unconvincing heist movie Inside Man, Denzel Washington plays Keith Frazier, a detective forced to negotiate with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), a criminal mastermind attempting an elaborate robbery of a New York bank. While determining the full extent of Russell’s plan, Frazier comes up against Jodie Foster as a corporate fixer named Madeline White, who discourages Frazier from exploring the bank records of her nefarious employer, bank president Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). After White suggests the detective is prying into matters “above his pay grade,” Washington summons his very best public-relations smile. “Don’t take this personally, Miss White,” Frazier purrs, “but kiss my black ass.”

The invitation is the most romantic moment in Inside Man, a film that like so many Hollywood blockbusters features a superstar black actor and co-stars an untouchable white female. Think of it: when has Washington or Will Smith ever romanced a white actress on screen?

In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, his seminal history of blacks in American movies, film historian Donald Bogle argues that African American actors have been relegated to five offensive stereotypes. Perhaps he might add a new category: “Kens,” emasculated black superstars who are never more than escorts for white females in formula action pictures.

The prototypical black male-white female action picture, The Bone Collector, featured Washington as a paraplegic detective working with an alluring, troubled — and untouchable — patrolwoman portrayed by Angelina Jolie. Then there’s Washington’s disinterest in Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan in The Pelican Brief and Courage Under Fire. And why didn’t Smith give Bridget Moynahan a second look in I, Robot?

Forty years after Katharine Houghton brought Sidney Poitier home to meet the folks in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, major Hollywood studios are happy to pair black superstars opposite white female stars. The arrangement makes for good marketing, as long as everyone adheres to what seems to be an unspoken rule of interracial casting in Hollywood: no romance, not even handholding, unless the couple is running from an exploding bomb.

Dinner guest: Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Photo by Columbia Tristar/Getty Images.
Dinner guest: Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Photo by Columbia Tristar/Getty Images.

Washington, the most potent (and bankable) black screen actor of his generation, has always been sensitive to the racial dynamics of the American marketplace. While filming the 1995 film Virtuosity, Washington — the son of a Pentecostal minister — refused to kiss white co-star Kelly Lynch. During an interview in Jet magazine, Lynch later suggested she had no trouble with the scene, “but Denzel felt strongly that white males, who were the target audience of this movie, would not want him to kiss a white woman.”

There appears to be no taboo against black superstars romancing Hispanic starlets. Actress Eva Mendes was allowed to play with Washington’s heart in Training Day and Out of Time, then date Smith in Hitch. Rosario Dawson, meanwhile, won the hearts of Smith and Eddie Murphy back to back in the 2002 films Men in Black II and The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

TV isn’t nearly so timid about interracial romance. On Sex and the City, both Samantha and Miranda dated African Americans, for example, and doctors Peter Benton (black) and Elizabeth Corday (white) had a scalding affair on ER in the late ’90s. Back in 1968, TV broke new ground when Captain Kirk nailed Uhuru with a kiss on Star Trek without the sky or the USS Enterprise falling.

The emergence of black superstars like Washington, Murphy and Smith has put Hollywood’s major studios in a new position — one they clearly haven’t come to terms with yet. Bankable white female stars often up the box-office take. Smith’s ambitious attempt to portray Ali merely broke even, whereas I, Robot, with Ms. Moynahan, earned $347 million (US). Washington’s collaboration with African-American filmmaker Carl Franklin on Devil in a Blue Dress (based on Walter Mosley’s book about 1940s black Los Angeles) was a box-office failure. Whereas with Foster aboard, Inside Man was responsible for Washington’s best-ever opening weekend, racking up $29 million. But why must black-and-white pairings be so loveless?

Regardless of Inside Man’s commercial success, Lee and Washington’s discomfort with the interracial action blockbuster is evident throughout. Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz mocks the Caucasian female lead with her very name, Madeline White; cast members hiss the name of Foster’s character as if it were a curse. Lee and Gewirtz attempt to get around the ritual neutering of the male black lead by having Washington talk dirty to his wife on the phone; he tells her to expect “Big Willie and the twins” just as soon he deals with the bank robbery.

The ploy doesn’t work. Washington, a gleeful, noble performer when motivated, only comes alive here when interviewing the crusty character actors who play the bank hostages. Working opposite Foster, he is occasionally sullen, but more often bored, robotic even. Washington has discussed retiring, admitting that he is disheartened by the parts being offered him. Maybe Hollywood should wake up to the fact that the world has moved on since Sidney Poitier came to dinner.

Stephen Cole writes about the arts for

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