Huck, Jim and Chantel

LISA RESPERS

April 19, 1993|By LISA RESPERS

Black and white films are making a comeback. Not black and white in the cinematographic sense, but in the sense of stimulating thought about the depiction of blacks in the white, male-dominated movie industry.

Two recently released films portray African-Americans as strong central characters. Disney's "The Adventures of Huck Finn" is an adaptation of Mark Twain's famous novel set in the 1850s. Miramax's "Just Another Girl on The I.R.T." is a contemporary look at a young black woman in Brooklyn.

Although the two movies are set in different eras and describe radically different social conditions, both offer surprisingly moving testaments to the enduring strengths of the African-American personality.

''Huck Finn'' is a very good movie despite the controversy that still surrounds the novel in some quarters. When I was younger, the character of ''Nigger Jim'' made me flinch. Here was a black man being depicted as on the same level as a white child. Moreover, the screenplay was adapted and directed by Stephen Sommers, a white male, and I have often had a problem with images of blacks created by non-African-Americans.

Maybe I've matured, or perhaps this director's obvious attempt at making a movie that was ''politically correct'' worked. In any case, I came away viewing Jim as a hero. Sommers' Jim is richer than the caricature runaway slaves Hollywood has so often churned out in the past. He is also a man of genuine integrity who is able to rise above incredibly adverse circumstances and forge authentic relationships with others.

In one scene, for example, Jim tells Huck he wants to leave the plantation where Huck, for the first time, has come to feel part of a family. Having tasting freedom, however, Jim feels he cannot accept bondage again. After Huck accuses Jim of selfishness, Huck sees the lacerations on Jim's back from a brutal beating by a white overseer. The sight of Jim's wounds changes the boy's mind and gives Huck a lesson in humility.

The movie is a much-needed antidote to the "Gone With The Wind" image of slaves as ignorant brutes or fawning sycophants. Twain infused Jim's character with warmth, humor and intelligence. The author's refusal to make him a catalog of negative racial stereotypes refutes the still widespread perception of Twain as a racist. Director Sommers generally hews to Twain's portrayal and takes it one step further -- he gives Jim dignity.

"Just Another Girl," by contrast, is a lively, well-observed portrait of a young, urban African-American woman named Chantel, who wants something better for herself than the economically deprived life she has. Like Jim, Chantel defies the stereotypes.

VTC She plans to attend college and curses her principal when he suggests that she needs to be more "lady-like." She works an after-school job and gets top grades in her classes while negotiating the pitfalls of inner-city life. She pursues her dreams but never loses a certain street-wise edginess, and when she finds herself confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, the audience agonizes with her over her options.

This movie isn't always pretty. It takes a hard look at the dilemmas its heroine confronts and the conditions that created them. Leslie Harris, the young African-American woman who wrote and directed the film, has created a thought-provoking and poignant document of the post-civil rights generation.

Such films are important because movies still play a big role in shaping perceptions across racial lines. Until recently, the only images of blacks most people saw were of maids, mammies, hustlers, hookers, drug dealers and other lowlifes.

It's a pity that many people still only see African-American culture through the eyes of white directors and writers. Historically, films made by blacks have not gotten the exposure mainstream films have. Why isn't Disney, which has pumped big money into promoting ''Huck Finn,''involved in more films by and about black Americans?

The standard answer is that in a high-risk business where many films don't even earn their production costs, black films don't have the universal appeal to be profitable. Whites won't go see black films because they consider the black experience remote from their own.

Yet "Huck Finn" clearly has mainstream appeal. So does "Just Another Girl." Anyone can enjoy these films and learn something, too. Why does Hollywood think white Americans won't watch? As the early 20th-century African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her classic, ''Their Eyes Were Watching God,'' you gotta go there to know there.

Lisa Respers is an editorial assistant in the the Carroll County bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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