The New York Times, 4/24/05


One gauge of the progress we've made in American race relations in recent decades is the growing number of blacks and whites who have integrated their hearts and ended up marrying each other.

As of the 2000 census, 6 percent of married black men had a white wife, and 3 percent of married black women had a white husband -- and the share is much higher among young couples. Huge majorities of both blacks and whites say they approve of interracial marriages, and the number of interracial marriages is doubling each decade. One survey found that 40 percent of Americans had dated someone of a different race.

ut it's hard to argue that America is becoming more colorblind when we're still missing one benchmark: When will Hollywood dare release a major movie in which Denzel Washington and Reese Witherspoon fall passionately in love?










For all the gains in race relations, romance on the big screen between a black man and a white woman remains largely a taboo. Americans themselves may be falling in love with each other without regard to color, but the movie industry is still too craven to imitate life.

Or perhaps the studios are too busy pushing the limits on sex, nudity and violence to portray something really kinky, like colorblind love.

Back in 1967, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" helped chip away at taboos by showing a black man and white woman scandalizing their parents with their -- chaste -- love. In 2005 we have a new version of "Guess Who," but it only underscores how little progress we've made.

The latest "Guess Who" is about a white man in love with a black woman, and that's a comfortable old archetype from days when slave owners inflicted themselves on slave women. Hollywood has portrayed romances between white men and (usually light-complexioned) black women, probably calculating that any good ol' boy seeing Billy Bob Thornton embracing Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball" is filled not with disgust but with envy.

Off screen, the change has been dizzying. At least 41 states at one time had laws banning interracial marriage. A 1958 poll found that 96 percent of whites disapproved of marriages between blacks and whites.

That same year, in North Carolina, two black boys, a 7-year-old named Fuzzy Simpson and a 9-year-old named Hanover Thompson, were arrested after a white girl kissed Hanover. The two boys were convicted of attempted rape. As Randall Kennedy notes in his book "Interracial Intimacies," Fuzzy was sentenced to 12 years, and Hanover to 14 years. Pressure from President Dwight Eisenhower eventually secured the boys' release.

Then the mood began to change, and 1967 was the turning point. That was the year that the daughter of Dean Rusk, then secretary of state, married a black man. Secretary Rusk proudly walked his daughter down the aisle (after warning President Lyndon Johnson of the political risks), and Time magazine put the couple on its cover. That was also the year of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and of a Supreme Court ruling striking down miscegenation laws.

Yet right from the beginning, the entertainment industry has lagged society in its racial mores. Films and television have always been squeamish about race: in 1957, on Alan Freed's ABC show, the black singer Frankie Lymon was seen dancing with a white woman. ABC promptly canceled the show.

There have been just a few mainstream movies with black men romancing white women, lower-profile films like "One Night Stand." More typically, you get a film like "Hitch," where the studio pairs a black man with a Latina.

Popular entertainment shapes our culture as well as reflects it, and one breakthrough might come late next year with the possible release of "Emma's War." That's a movie that 20th Century Fox is considering, in which a white woman -- Nicole Kidman is being discussed -- marries an African. It's great that Hollywood is close to catching up to Shakespeare's "Othello."

Let's hope that Hollywood will finally dare to be as iconoclastic as its audiences. It's been half a century since Brown v. Board of Education led to the integration of American schools, but the breakdown of the barriers of love will be a far more consequential and transformative kind of integration -- not least because it's spontaneous and hormonal rather than imposed and legal.