Why Can't A Black Actress Play The Girlfriend?

"I learned early on," says a black actor whose well-known name he asked us not to use, "to ask that my wife or girlfriend, if I have one in the film, be African-American. If I didn't, she wouldn't be. I'm pretty sure Matt Damon and Tom Cruise don't have to ask for a white actress." Hollywood's recent multicultural casting certainly broadens the appeal of its pictures, and is meant to reflect--perhaps even to flatter--a society that increasingly sees itself as multicultural. But how well does it reflect reality? "In everyday, normal life," says Reuben Cannon, a longtime casting director and producer of the new hit film "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," "most black Americans are in relationships with other black Americans."

No right-thinking person wants to see Hollywood resegregated. On the other hand, there's something strange going on in such films as the recent Will Smith blockbuster "Hitch": these days African-American leading men tend to be cast opposite Latinas instead of black actresses. (In Smith's case, it's Eva Mendes; in "Drumline" and "Honey," it was Zoe Saldana and Jessica Alba.) Apparently Hollywood doesn't think America is ready for, say, Mos Def and Kate Hudson heating up the screen--though out in the real America, more black men are married to white women than to Latinas--and the conventional wisdom is, as actress Nia Long puts it, "two black characters equals a black film and not just a movie about two people." Moreover, Hispanics are now the largest American minority group: businesswise, it's a no-brainer. "When you're African-American and in the business of making movies, you know you have to make money, period," says Jeff Friday, a producer and founder of American Black Film Festival. "Will Smith has to hit it out of the ballpark every time or he doesn't get another chance. The casting of himself and Mendes just is a good business sense." (Smith could not be reached for comment.)

But it's tough on African-American actresses--and on Hispanic actors. Long says Smith has called her several times about roles, though not for "Hitch." "Will obviously has say, but not completely," she says. "If we can't play the girlfriend, then Hollywood has to figure out what to do with us." Even Mendes herself thinks it's odd. Why is she considered too dark to be paired with a white lead, but just right for an African-American? "I don't even know what to say about it anymore," she told NEWSWEEK in an interview shortly before the movie opened. "Certainly I've benefited, because I've got to work with Ice Cube, Denzel and Will. But it's lame. I wish the mentality wasn't so closed." We don't know what to say either, except that in Hollywood progress is a work in progress.