Two Sundays ago, a new version of “Steel Magnolias” premiered on cable. This was noteworthy for several reasons. First, somebody actually thought we needed another version of “Steel Magnolias” when the 1989 movie is a certain kind of classic. Second, the cable version starred black women. Third — and this is the remarkable thing — the new, black “Steel Magnolias” premiered neither on BET (because there’s now almost nowhere on the network to put a movie like that) nor the theoretically more upscale BET alternative, TV One (it’s become a lot of “Save My Son” and “Martin” reruns).
No, the new, black “Steel Magnolias” premiered on Lifetime. Lifetime is television for women. And for a long time, that meant television for white women. But on “Steel Magnolias” weekend, the network devoted a prominent portion of its programming to movies starring black women. “Abducted: The Carlina White Story,” with Aunjanue Ellis, Sherri Shepherd, and Keke Palmer, debuted the night before, and “Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys” was its lead-in. And during the broadcasts of both were dozens of commercials for “Steel Magnolias.” The network was proud of this movie.
If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, then the network’s instincts are correct. “Abducted” is just another dumb Lifetime movie in which something bad happens to a woman and then justice is served. The movie isn’t race blind. It’s simply race unimportant. That, of course, is the big deal. This was television for women who were also of color. But blackness — the politics of it, anyway — was in no way the subject of the programming. It was played as universal.
Lifetime was proud of “Steel Magnolias” because it was really good and prestigious — because Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, and Jill Scott were in it; because the talented, well-regarded Broadway director Kenny Leon made it. Its pride had little to do with self-congratulation. Lifetime’s entire approach to that weekend was casual. There were ads for Motions hair-care products and spots for Heidi Klum’s Babies “R” Us clothing line, featuring biracial children who could be her own.
The network seemed to be saying, this is the way it should be. And they might be right. That, of course, is not the way it is. The stars on most television shows and in most movies are still predominantly white and occasionally supported by people of color. Sometimes that support is absurdly derogatory, the way it is on a show like “Two Broke Girls” or in a movie like “One for the Money.” But the news isn’t all bad. Some of it’s extremely interesting.
Friday brings us “Cloud Atlas,” an epic work of science fiction about . . . well, let’s set aside “about,” because we don’t have all day. But in the course of the movie’s almost-three-hour runtime and the centuries and continents it spans, “Cloud Atlas” makes a grand, moving statement about race, its relevance, and its possibilities. The film is based on David Mitchell’s novel, which argued, more or less, that we’ve all been here before. Obviously, the movies are visual in ways books are not, so Mitchell’s vision — under the direction of Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer — becomes a kind of racial odyssey in which the film’s dozens of characters are played by a small cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Hugh Grant, and the Korean star Doona Bae. Hanks plays, among many other things, an uncouth Scot and a pidgin-speaking huntsman. Doona shows up as an Asian waitress and a Hispanic laborer. One of Berry’s parts is a white, Jewish beauty with azure-colored eyes. And Sturgess spends a lot of his time looking like Keanu Reeves. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In 10 years, a lot of the movie’s ideas of cosmic connection might feel even more like kitsch than they already do. But “Cloud Atlas” offers a vision of the future that seems real and true, and it does so without making race its subject. It simply points truthward the way all useful science fiction does. It points toward a universe not of racelessness, per se, but of complete racial recombination. That statement sits a notch above subtext. “Cloud Atlas” optimistically reinterprets the history of racial impersonation at the movies without even attempting to redeem all of it.
From the loaded legacy of Al Jolson pleading in blackface in “The Jazz Singer” to the benign reality that, in “Argo,” Ben Affleck kind of makes sense as someone named Tony Mendez, the movies have always unselfconsciously let actors become characters outside their own race. What “Cloud Atlas” argues, occasionally with a touch of accidental comedy, is that we’re all each other. And that’s also the way it should be.
The operative word in that title, of course, is “cloud,” which is where the movie resides. Back on earth, in 2012, things aren’t quite as racially utopian as they are in Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ vision, but at the movies and on television they’re looking up. In “Madea’s Witness Protection,” Tyler Perry expanded his hothouse to make room for Eugene Levy. To star in “Alex Cross,” Perry leaves the hothouse entirely. This also might not seem like a very big deal since neither movie is very good, but Perry is testing the waters of his stardom in an attempt to discover what else he can do and whether a general audience cares to follow him on that journey.
It’s also important because, like “Steel Magnolias” and “Cloud Atlas” and that movie about Carlina White, “Alex Cross” is a movie starring a black actor that isn’t about how black the actor is. That’s true on ABC’s “Scandal,” which stars Kerry Washington. It’s true in Robert Zemeckis’s upcoming drama “Flight,” which stars Denzel Washington. That’s not true at the great HBO, which has yet to air a non-Chris Rock show featuring people of color that doesn’t pathologize, patronize, or pity them.
The Zemeckis movie is a vivid illustration of where things are. Washington plays a pilot who crash-lands a failing plane but does so drunk and high. The movie doesn’t drag his race into his troubles. Maybe a more daring and ambitious movie would have. But “Flight” wasn’t written with Washington in mind. So his race isn’t the issue. His alcoholism and drug use are. Right now, maybe it’s equally ambitious for films and television to point us toward more race-unimportant entertainment, shows and movies with actors of color that answer a version of what Harry and Sally struggled with. Can more black, Hispanic, and Asian stars connect with a mass audience without the race part getting in the way? Probably, but the makers of these movies and shows have to be more like Tykwer and the Wachowskis and Lifetime. They have to be naive enough to try.
Wesley Morris can be reached