NEW YORK -- When Thandie Newton trained her alluring smile on Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible 2," I asked myself: "What's happening here?"
For two hours, Ms. Newton, a gorgeous black actress, has both the villain of the movie and its world-famous movie star wrapped around her finger.
In a movie that came out about two years ago, Ms. Newton played the role of the maid of an Italian composer who was so obsessed with her that he sold all his furniture, artwork and finally his piano to raise the money to satisfy her one wish.
Black women aren't used to this kind of adulation. I can remember when we weren't anybody's love interest in the movies. The early history of black film actresses is well-documented. For the most part, they were limited to mammy, nanny and strong mama roles. Actresses such as Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers and Claudia McNeil brought dignity to these characters, with Butterfly McQueen thrown in for comic relief. But black women as love objects: almost never.
Dorothy Dandridge flamed up briefly in the 1950s and 1960s. She was so hot she drove Harry Belafonte's soldier to murder in "Carmen Jones." Dandridge was a genuine sex symbol. But she died young and was never allowed more than a hint of romance with her white male co-stars. And it was a long time before there was another black female romantic lead in the movies.
Occasionally a black couple was allowed to have a movie romance -- Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll in "Paris Blues," for example, where he played the part of an expatriate jazz musician living in Paris.
For the most part, however, the few black couples who were in the movies had fractious relationships. They fought with each other, and it was implied that they slept with each other, but they never kissed or embraced on-screen. Mr. Poitier and Ruby Dee in "A Raisin in the Sun" were the typical movie example of the angry, frustrated black man and his worried, long-suffering wife.
Black men and women in the movies might love each other, but life was too bitter for tenderness or romance. Besides, it was an unwritten rule that physical intimacy between blacks in the movies was forbidden.
When Abbey Lincoln finally kissed Mr. Poitier in "For Love of Ivy" in 1968, my world turned over. So that was what white people got out of seeing white couples kiss on the screen, I thought. Black women were never portrayed as being desirable, except in the most denigrating way. We watched white men and women lust for each other, black men lust for white women and vice versa. But black women as love objects didn't exist. When Mr. Poitier took his fiancM-i home to dinner, she was a blonde.
When Spike Lee created Nola Darling in "She's Gotta Have It," here at last was a sexy, independent black woman who was desired by not one, but three men. She also looked like a black woman -- brown-skinned with short hair and a voluptuous figure, not a black woman with white features.
When Wesley Snipes had an affair with his white secretary in "Jungle Fever," leaving his beautiful (light-skinned) black wife devastated, black women all over America identified with the situation.
In the past few years, the image of black women in movies has been changing. "Best Man," which features some of the best-looking young black actors I've seen in a while, is about real relationships between black men and women, with all the tenderness, missed cues, false starts and heartache that love entails. Too bad the women are still, on the whole, more light-skinned than the men.
In "Restaurant," a small movie that few people saw, the white protagonist, an aspiring white playwright who works as a waiter, falls for an aspiring black singer who works as a waitress in the same restaurant. The only stumbling block in their relationship is his lingering obsession for his ex-girlfriend, who is also black.
Now Thandie Newton and Tom Cruise are a hot on-screen couple. There are those who will say Ms. Newton is more an "exotic" than a black woman, and that all this means is that black actresses now have an equal shot with white actresses at being sex objects in the movies.
But I think I speak for most black women when I say that, compared with how things were, I'll take the new portrayal of black women -- no matter if the leading man is Tom, Denzel or Wesley.
Sheryl McCarthy is a columnist for Newsday.