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Oscar contenders move past racial labels

Mixed couples no longer a hot topic for Academy

As America prepares to inaugurate its first biracial president, some of this year’s Oscar contenders are reflecting America’s “new normal” — a country that increasingly accepts interracial relationships and rejects traditional racial labels.

“Rachel Getting Married,” “Seven Pounds” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” all include interracial couples. What’s remarkable, though, is how unremarkable these films make these couples out to be. Race and ethnicity aren’t the thrust of their stories and are barely, if at all, remarked upon.

“A lot of people say that (race) is merely a social construct,” says “Rachel Getting Married” writer Jenny Lumet.

“Rachel Getting Married” not only includes interracial marriages (Lumet didn’t specify races in her script but was open to whatever casting worked well), the screenwriter is the living embodiment of the “new normal”: Her father is director Sidney Lumet and her grandmother is singer Lena Horne.

“You know this is what my friggin’ family looks like,” Lumet says. “The world is interracial. Our lives are interracial.

“I think that the fact that we’ve entered a place where onscreen it does not have to be remarked upon if it’s organic to the characters is a total step in the right direction.”

It’s a big change from the days when an interracial romance had to be the point of an American film that dared to include one. The classic example is “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which earned 10 Academy Award nominations and Oscars for scribe William Rose and actress Katharine Hepburn in 1968. More recent romances such as “Mississippi Masala” and “Maid in Manhattan” also put racial and ethnic conflicts front and center.

In 1961, “The World of Suzie Wong,” controversial even at the time, had the stereotypical subservient Asian prostitute and the would-be white savior. The current “Gran Torino” presents a very different couple: an independent Asian woman and a rather lame white date who is helpless to protect her against street toughs. No one in the picture, not even the racist Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood), has much to say about seeing them together.

Audiences don’t seem to be struggling with the idea of interracial romances when two beautiful movie stars are getting together. “Hitch,” starring Will Smith and Eva Mendez, has earned more than $368.1 million, and last summer’s “Hancock,” which posited a romantic history between Smith and Charlize Theron, has earned

$624.3 million and counting.

The flip side is that among this year’s movies, racial antagonism pops up as a characteristic of hissable villains in “Australia” or as the defining trait of “Gran Torino” protagonist Kowalski. But as “Gran Torino” scribe Nick Schenk says: “That generation is going away. Literally dying off.”

In “Australia,” the mark of heartless white snobs is their indifference to the plight of the mixed-race children born of white settlers and Aborigines. By contrast, the heroes are marked by their more liberal attitudes. Hugh Jackman’s “Drover” was married to an Aboriginal woman (and ostracized for it), and Nicole Kidman’s “Mrs. Boss” falls in maternal love with a mixed-race little boy, defying the racial boundaries of white culture.

Writer-director Baz Luhrmann devoted much of “Australia” to the plight of “the stolen generations,” the mixed-race children who were forcibly taken from their families to ensure they would be assimilated into white society.

“If Barack Obama was born in Australia,” Luhrmann says, “in the 1970s at the age of 10 he would have been taken forcibly by the government from his family, put in a compound, had his name changed, and he would have been sort of reprogrammed to be useful in European society. … It would have been inconceivable that he would have become president.”

Luhrmann says it’s remarkable how fast race became a non-issue in movies: “It’s now a true representation of the world that we live in.”

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