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10 Hollywood Films That Get Women Right

We've come so far since the bad old days when Western writer Max Brand summarized everything wrong with the roles we were assigned on film. "There should be a woman," he said, "but not much of one. A good horse is much more important."

Today, we've got our Meg Ryan comedies, our Meryl Streep dramas, and our Angelina Jolie desert romps. We've got girls with guns, girls with laser beams, girls with briefcases, girls with magic powers -- what's there to complain about?

Quite a bit, I think. I'm a woman who makes IMDB.com her homepage, considers popcorn and Raisinets a well-balanced meal, and pays for the "Magic of 8" on her Netflix account because three DVDs at a time just isn't enough. But I've finally accepted that when it comes to putting people who look like me onscreen, Hollywood really only has four movies on its menu, which it reheats and serves to us over and over again:

The Chick Flick. That 90-minute sitcom you're always stuck watching on the plane. Oh, look, they met in a dog park! But neither one of them has dogs! Wait, they love each other online, but hate each other in real life! Oh no, he/she is a hired escort, but in the end, true love will find a way! More exercises in tabloid wish fulfillment than love stories, the chick flick makes you feel like you need a shower, or at least a wardrobe overhaul.

The Earnest Social Commentary. Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich. In which brave women face down The Man, and let us go home feeling exultant, or at least ready to place our bets in the Oscar pool.

The Cancer Weepie. Terms of Endearment, Stepmom, Steel Magnolias. More brave women share their souls on hospital beds, tearing up photogenically as the sisterhood sweeps them up in tissue-soaked arms and ushers them into the great beyond.

The Action Figure. Catwoman, Tomb Raider, Elektra. All the one-dimensional women in three-dimensional popup bras, who seem pieced together to elicit a collective "You go, girlfriend!" from the audience. As if we all thought heroism -- or rather, heroinism -- should be defined by humorlessness, spandex and a good personal trainer.

Throughout my (evidently unrequited) love affair with Hollywood, I've been empowered, encouraged, affirmed and celebrated on screen to within an inch of my life, but I've almost never felt represented in any way that felt plausible. I say almost never, because even in Hollywood, there are exceptions -- ten of which I humbly submit to you here -- in which the women, their relationships or their circumstances, feel somehow authentic, or, for lack of a better word, real.

Beyond saying that they resonate with my sense of what being a woman means, can I define exactly what makes them real? No, and I wouldn't want to, especially because all those attempts to define female authenticity is part of the problem to begin with. But, like Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it.

(This is, of course, my own highly subjective and unscientifically produced list of anti-Max Brand movies that do offer Much of a Woman. It is based entirely, I'm sure, on personal biases and childhood traumas. AlterNet readers are invited to add alternate lists in the comments section.)

Alien (1979) The iconic image of Sigourney Weaver, cursing behind awesome firepower with her sweaty tank top (and butch hair in Alien 2), spawned a whole crop of chicks-with-ammo knockoffs. But the real leap was 10 years earlier, when writer/producer team Dan O'Bannen and David Giler were pitching their script about a monster that steals aboard a spaceship and starts picking off crew members. It was the mid-70s, and when the filmmakers heard that Twentieth Century Fox was looking for strong female leads, they decided at the last minute to make their main character, Ripley, a woman. Ripley was never intended to be a spokesman, a symbol or a poster child; at first, she was just a marketing gimmick. But when Ridley Scott took over the film and cast then-unknown Weaver in the role, he gave us one of the beautiful, powerful and believable heroines we'd seen so far: She fought to keep the ship secure, fought to keep her crew alive, and finally, in a harrowing last scene, managed to blast the terrifying alien into deepest space. Scott made very few alterations to accommodate the new gender of its star and only survivor -- which was exactly the point. It was the first time I ever saw a capable woman onscreen in a way that didn't call attention to the fact that she was a "capable woman."

All About Eve (1950) The movie posters boasted, "It's all about Women, and their men," promising a juicy, lurid saga of backstage catfights and feminine conniving. The plot delivered on that action, pitting Bette Davis as Margo Channing, an aging, egomaniacal actress, against a conniving upstart named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve begins as a fan, becomes a best friend and ends up a rival, and all the way through she plays on Channing's insecurities and turns both her fiancé and her best friend against her. The scenes between Channing and Richards are some of the only honest depictions of non-romantic rivalry between female friends in American cinema. But Channing's real struggle is a particularly modern one: balancing love, friendship and a career that is eating her up inside -- she's never learned how to be offstage, even in private. Watching Channing navigate -- usually unsuccessfully -- her way across that tightrope is like seeing every modern woman's desire to "have it all" played up in the glorious caricature of one of America's greatest actresses.

Adam's Rib (1949) In this classic comedy, a husband and wife (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), both lawyers, find themselves on opposite sides of a courtroom battle over "women's rights." The heart of the conflict is not really feminism, but rather the role of law in society. Tracy and Hepburn -- whose characters call each other "Pinky" and "Pinkie" when they're getting along, and many far less endearing names when they're not -- argue about the law and lob cheap shots culled from the "Battle of the Sexes" jargon of the day. Hepburn cries crocodile tears, her husband calls it a cheap trick, and he's right. Tracy waxes on about principle, Hepburn tells him he's hiding his own ego behind lofty legal jargon, and she's right. The final resolution of the film pulls them away from simple ideology and back to their basic passion for their chosen profession, and it's a triumph of shared humanity over gender politics, a lovely parable of marriage. Of course, it's also a sad indictment of how far we haven't come since then.

Batman Returns (1992) Michelle Pfeiffer and Tim Burton rewrite the Catwoman myth. Here, Selina Kyle is a mild-mannered single girl, Cosmo magazine's choicest reader: afraid to speak up in business meetings, surrounded by cats, living in an overstuffed, over-cute, ultra-feminine apartment, and getting stood up by her boyfriend because she beat him at tennis. After her boss tries to kill her, she sews a costume for herself, one in which she can be free to reach out and scratch someone whenever she pleases. But her new life is morally untethered and lonely. She can't imagine loving without returning to the repressed, passive life she led before finding her alter ego. "I can't go live in your castle," she tells Batman in the movie's big scene, her sanity by now as frazzled as her wild blond hair. Then, she slips out into the night, a tragic hero in the most modern sense -- her identity split between what she thinks society wants from her and the person she wants to become.

Jackie Brown (1997) Never has a director more masterfully combined lascivious fandom and respectful worship than in Quentin Tarantino's finger-licking homage to blaxploitation queen Pam Grier. Grier plays Jackie Brown, an airline stewardess working for Cabo Air, the "worst airline there is," and earning extra cash as a courier for an arms dealer named Ordell (Samuel Jackson). When the police catch her and try to use her in a set-up, she wins the support of a bounty hunter and works the angles to make off with her freedom and a cash payout. Shot when Grier was almost 50 years old and a good 20 pounds heavier than when she was a black-power nymphet days in the 70s, Jackie Brown was still one of the sexiest movies of the 90s. Grier plays Brown as calm, confident and exhausted, a woman who knows she only has this one last chance. She explains that the only thing that scares her like violent retribution from Ordell is having to start her life over at nothing, and you feel her fatigue, her desperation and the certainty that she deserves a second run. It's Tarantino's take on film noir, told, for once, from the point of view of the victorious femme fatale.

Auntie Mame (1958) Talk about Much of a Woman! Rosalind Russell breathes glamour and adventure as Auntie Mame, the high-society bohemian whose Beekman Place apartment throbs with poets, drunken actresses, aspiring nudists and every other version of eccentric New Yorker that Los Angeles could imagine. Wealthy, spoiled, and intellectually scattered, she seems more like a middle-aged Holly-Go-Lightly than the modern idea of a strong, independent woman. But she still launches her assault on the conventional femininity of the bourgeoisie: She skates through life in her turbans, furs and rustling capes, trailing cigarette holders behind her like magic wands, bustling past trophies of her trips to Africa and India and Arabia. But mostly, Mame begins the movie happily single, marries for money, ends up happily single, and has several affairs in between. Plus, she rescues her beloved nephew from marrying insufferable "Aryan from Darian" by arranging a special new neighbor for the Aryan's anti-Semitic parents: A composer intent on building an orphanage for Jewish refugee children. What's not to love?

Silence of the Lambs (1991) Jonathan Demme's classic nail-biter is a grisly suspense thriller about a terrifying psychiatrist-turned-cannibal-turned-prison inmate-turned-ally (Anthony Hopkins), but it's also about the obstacles an attractive young woman faces as she tries to do her job. Everywhere Agent Starling goes, people react to her as a girl first and an investigator second. They're either trying to pick her up, shut her out, break her down, or chop her to bits. No film has captured the isolation a woman can feel in a room full of suits as well as this one. Her supervisor sends her out of an autopsy room in deference to the sexist local police; a group of male cadets turn to ogle her butt as she trains at the Academy. These are brief, subtle moments, but they add up to a dead-accurate portrayal of a day in the life of a young working woman (except for the flesh-flaying serial killer and cannibalism, one hopes).

Fight Club (2000) The David Fincher/Chuck Palahniuk venture was one of the most controversial statements of masculinity of the last decade. Ed Norton plays a disenchanted everyman, drowning in his IKEA catalogue and searching for meaning wherever he might find it. He first tries support groups (testicular cancer, malignant lymphoma, emphysema), and then enjoys the company of his idealized alter-ego, Tyler Durdon (Brad Pitt). A handsome, insouciant tough guy, Pitt introduces Norton to an underground world where men beat each other to a pulp for fun and camaraderie. It's a man's movie, supposedly, so why did I think it was the best feminist statement of the 90s? Maybe because it was time to watch a man learn what women have always known: That living a life defined by home furnishings, fashion, commercialized domesticity and constant messages about how your body should look can literally drive you batty.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) Being a girl comes before being a woman, and never has a girl had a better role than Mary Badham as Jean Louise Finch. The big-screen adaptation of Harper Lee's classic is most often appreciated for portraying the kind of race relations America likes best. The feel-good courtroom drama cloaks a typically smug, white liberal Hollywood storyline: A saintly white man defends a grateful black man (who would neva, neva touch a white woman, No Suh!) from a villainous mob.

However, To Kill A Mockingbird was revolutionary in its portrayal of the relationship between Atticus and his daughter. Scout wears dungarees and straight uncurled hair in a dome cut, and learns from her father how to read, to reason and to treat others with integrity. Atticus (Gregory Peck) never once differentiates between his expectations of her or her older brother Jed, and when he admonishes her to stop fighting with other schoolchildren in the yard, he doesn't tell her to act like a lady -- he tells her to act like an adult: She's too mature for fistfights now. It's a rare opportunity to watch a little girl develop a moral character, one in which she learns to do the right thing, not to dress, act or talk the right way.

Star Wars (1977) In The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia's tough talk is just that -- talk -- because, like the rest of America, she's falling for Han Solo. In Return of the Jedi, she's a longhaired love slave in a chain mail bikini, with very little to do but wait for her rescue. But back in 1977, when Leia bravely faced off against Darth Vader, she was the brightest of heroes. Even as a captive, pint-sized princess with cinnamon buns for hair, she showed little girls a new of idea of what a princess could be: defiant, politically able, impervious to torture, and, if that weren't enough, the best shot in the rebel forces. It was a promise no movie heroine has matched since -- not even Leia herself.

Ten Ways to Make Hollywood Hate Your Cinematic Masterpiece

Here's how Hollywood's "creative tension" between Commerce and Art really works: Commerce lures Art into his lair with roses and chocolate, swears his undying love, and then quickly leaves her for nights away at a nearby strip club called The Bottom Line. Then he throws the furniture and smacks her around the kitchen a bit, just to let her know who's boss, and when she's finally got her bags packed, to move back in with her sister The Theater perhaps -- Commerce shows up with another batch of roses and convinces her to stay.

There's not a lot of love there, but it's how the babies get made.

Take "Children of Men," for example, by Alfonso Cuarón, the Academy Award-nominated director of both "Y Tu Mamá También" and the only good Harry Potter installment. His movie boasts stellar performances by Clive Owen, Chiwetel Efiojor, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. It's based on a critically acclaimed novel by P.D. James, and what a story: a desperate chase set in a dismal England of 20 years from now, on a dying Earth that has been devastated by nuclear bombings, immigration conflicts, plague and environmental damage.

Not to mention the looming end of the human race -- for the past 18 years, no babies have been born. Enter a young pregnant illegal who is therefore mankind's last hope, and you have the kick-ass sci-fi premise of a lifetime. By all rights, "Children of Men" should be a blockbuster.

But as J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice last month, Universal has done everything it can to bury its treasure, treating the movie "like a communicable disease." Dumped in limited release on Christmas Day and finally released wide this past weekend to just 1,200 theaters, "Children of Men" still managed to come in third, after "Night at the Museum" and "The Pursuit of Happyness." It has also been included on several critics' top-10 lists, and is currently ranked number one on the New York Times' viewing poll.

Cuarón has pulled off the near-impossible: He's made a big-budget, politically charged, visually stunning film -- complete with hot leads -- that grips as much as it entertains. By following these 10 easy steps, you too can make your own $80-million unpromoted masterpiece.

You don't stand a expand=1] baby's chance in 2027 of winning an Oscar, but hey, at least you'll keep your integrity.

1. Show no mercy. The fascist government of future London (one of the few surviving nations) supplements its citizens' rations with anti-depressants and a suicide pill called Quietus, which is plugged on the ravaged city's moving billboards with the slogan, "You choose when."

Heroes do not take Quietus. They trade in the right to choose when to die by choosing what to live for. In cinematic terms, that means death can come at any time -- even to someone you love, even in the first act.

2. Crack a Joke. Grim settings do not require grim performances. Joan Didion says that we tell stories in order to live, but Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor knew that jokes are how we bear it.

The humor in this movie, and there is much of it, doesn't lessen its dramatic impact -- rather it helps us connect with these men and women as they struggle to hold on to their humanity in world with no human future. Significant portions, including a car chase in which none of the characters can get their vehicles to start, play like high farce. And even the most essential plot point of the film is revealed not by a text at the bottom of the screen or by a last-minute printed prologue but by a very stoned and barely recognizable Michael Caine telling a joke.

3. Love your backgrounds. The eye candy is stellar: Clive Owen as Theo, an alcoholic bureaucrat who suddenly finds himself thrust into a heroic role, Chiwetel Efiojor and Julianne Moore as rebel leaders, and stunning newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitay in the role of Kee, the young refugee trying to bring her baby to term. There has rarely been a group of actors as likely to warrant nonstop close-ups. But in several of his interviews, the director has discussed the pact he made with long-time cameraman Emannuel Lubezki -- to return to the strategy they followed in "Y Tu Mamá También." In that movie, the love affairs were between not two, or three, but four: A woman, two boys, and Mexico herself. And actors always shared the screen with the world they moved through, and thus Cuarón's political readings of his own country's class wars told themselves. He never had to push the message.

4. On that note. Just hire Lubezki, and do what he tells you to do.

5. Women are neat! And handy! And versatile! The trope of the man who has to carry the woman to safety is one of the oldest in cinema, but Theo's personal connection to his charge is deeper and more moving than a simple love affair. His other female sidekick is a homily-spouting hippie, the kind you wouldn't want to be stuck with on a life-or-death chase -- unless she turns out to be a trained midwife.

6. Beware Captain Kirk. You know that scene, the one where a blowhard pops up between gunshots to explain the moral of the story? It's the scourge of American popular entertainment, from "On the Waterfront" to every episode of "Star Trek" and on to "Crash," "Munich," "Blood Diamond" and all the way through. It sucks. It out Herods Herod, pray you, and Cuarón avoided it.

7. Remember that we warned you: By following Rule 6, you have effectively disqualified yourself from any chance to thank the academy.

8. Be Mexican. Along with his countrymen Guillermo del Toro ("Hellboy," "Pan's Labyrinth") and Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros," "21 Grams," "Babel"), Cuarón is redefining how we conceive of genre. One could make some sort of disparaging remark about how the media lump these entirely different artists together just because they are Mexican, if it were not for the fact that they are actually close friends and collaborators. See all three interviewed on Charlie Rose, where Iñárritu explains that "we like to keep our forks in each other's salads."

9. We're not stupid. If there is a bright side to our hyper-accelerated technological death-march, it's that we've adapted some neat new skills: We talk on cell phones, play Tetris, instant-message our friends and watch "American Idol" all at the same time, and that means we can follow the conversation between two characters even while the camera pans around the room to provide us with essential visual cues that help us reconstruct the story. We will get it.

No need for clumsy establishing dialogue, no solemn voiceovers, or subtitled meetings at Parliament. Cuarón uses images to tell us what we need to know: Through graffiti, TV graphics, and even the clippings and photographs on a pothead's desk.

10. Pack your bags: Let's say you get past the producers, there's another hurdle. After they screen your baby, the good folks at marketing can still get you fired -- and replaced by that promising A.D. from "American Pie VIII." Relax. There's always Mexico.

Blood Diamonds Are Forever

Edward Zwick's socially conscious action thriller Blood Diamond clocks in at two hours, 19 minutes, and it's at least half an hour too long. Set against the backdrop of the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone, the movie crams in more gore than "Saw" and more sermonizing than a morning at "The 700 Club," all sweetened with a heavy dose of "thirtysomething"-esque tears and epiphany. The movie doesn't know if it wants to be a morality play, political lecture, adrenaline fix, love story, interracial buddy picture or corporate takedown, so it tries for all of the above. "Blood Diamond" is a schizophrenic mess.

It's also, thanks in no small part to the performances of its two male leads, one of the most powerful movies you will see this year.


"Blood Diamond" follows a plotline that echoes at least a dozen films, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Casablanca and the Indiana Jones trilogy. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a mercenary-turned-diamond-smuggler from Zimbabwe (which he insists on calling Rhodesia), who has botched his most recent delivery. Archer needs his big score -- now -- and when he gets wind of the existence of a rare pink diamond buried in secret near a rebel mining operation, he decides that the diamond will be his ticket out. The only other person who knows its whereabouts is Solomon Vandy (played by Djimon Hounsou -- Gladiator, Amistad), a fisherman whose son has been kidnapped by the rebels. Vandy needs Archer to help find his son, Archer needs Vandy to take him to the diamond. Voila! A team-up is born.

But it's not really a team-up. Through most of the film, Vandy is Archer's virtual prisoner, and he has no time for his captor's phony attempts at camaraderie. "So you're a fisherman," says DiCaprio, trying to make small talk. "What do you catch?"

"Fish," answers Vandy curtly. And the conversation is over.

Just as the buddy movie isn't really a buddy movie, the thriller isn't really a thriller, because the narrow escapes that act as bonding points in the men-on-the-run sub-genre are not exciting so much as grueling. The men do dodge bullets together, but they are escaping slaughter, not fighting battles. It's action movie as horror show, complete with bayonets, bullet-riddled children, chopped limbs and, most chillingly, a harrowing subplot in which we watch Vandy's son, Dia (marvelous newcomer Caruso Kuypers), being slowly indoctrinated into the life of a child soldier.

These are the stakes, not just a boy's body but his soul. Hounsou, a former model from the tiny West African country of Benin, whose almost off-putting beauty has only recently settled into a more manageable handsomeness, commits wholly to the role. It is his performance as a man in search of his son, all the while resisting the smuggler's attempts to manipulate and control him, that almost single-handedly keep Blood Diamond from sailing off into pure cliche.

I say almost single-handedly because DiCaprio does well by Danny Archer. He too has finally outgrown the adolescent prettiness that marred his first attempts at serious roles (it's a pity Gangs of New York isn't being made now, because DiCaprio finally has the gravitas to carry it off), and here he is alternately calculating and cocky, with a killer lurking deep inside his narrowed eyes and a better person lurking deeper still. When Archer recognizes himself in Vandy's son, DiCaprio achieves the impossible: He gets in touch with his wounded inner child without making us hurl.

Jennifer Connelly has a much harder time. As Maddy Bowen, a driven American journalist who alienates her sources by lecturing them, Connelly alternately flirts with Archer and scolds him, interrupting occasionally to rant about the Horror That Is Africa, but mostly she just serves as a softening agent, a Downy to DiCaprio's starch. The more resonant quest is the one that binds the two men, and poor Connelly is left to provide redundant commentary for Eduardo's Serra's magnificent camera work. Serra pans out over a vast carpet of refugees at a camp: "This is what a million homeless people look like," Maddy intones solemnly, as if we couldn't see it ourselves onscreen. It's a thankless role, one that only becomes more so as her interactions with DiCaprio dwindle down into drawn-out silences, lingering looks -- Connelly should begin writing "no concerned gazes" riders into her contracts -- and one particularly desultory cellphone tete-a-tete in which both Bowen and Archer have other things to worry about besides their relationship, like maybe the bullets whizzing through the air around them.

Still, DiCaprio, Hounsou and Connelly commit so wholly to the struggles of their characters that we forgive them the excesses of the film in which they are trapped. Leave it to Maddy, in her American earnestness, to remind us why this movie matters: "People back home wouldn't buy a diamond," she says, "if they knew it cost someone a hand."

F/X Plays the Race Card

UPDATE: The show's producers, under fire from its participants, alter parts of the show that were deceptive. Episode 2 of the show airs Wednesday, March 15.

"Black.White.," a six-part series that debuted last night on the FX channel, bills itself as groundbreaking and provocative television, a fearless exploration of racial tension in America. In theory, it could be.

Its premise is provocative enough: Two families -- one black, one white --are made to live in the same house for six weeks in the San Fernando Valley, with camera crews following them around as they grapple with the impact of skin color in America.

Plus, there's a twist: Before almost every day of shooting, the families undergo three hours of makeup magic to effect a complete swap of their racial identities. Brian, Renee and Nick Sparks, a black family from Atlanta, get spray-painted pale skin, light-colored wigs and everything else it will take for them to pass as white. The white family -- Bruno Marcotulli, his girlfriend Carmen Wurgel, and Carmen's daughter Rose -- are all made up to look black.

And the conceit works, thanks to the show's makeup experts, whose previous credits include the race-swapping comedy "White Chicks," the gender-bending film "Big Momma's House" and the spectacularly gruesome "The Passion of the Christ." Made up in skin drag, both families are let loose on the streets of Los Angeles, followed by either hidden cameras or a crew that tells curious passersby only that it is "shooting a documentary on families."

As the series unfolds, we watch 18-year-old Rose -- adorable in a shellacked wig and slathered in enough dark foundation to almost obliterate her teenage acne -- try to make her way through an Afro-centric spoken-word poetry workshop. Forty-one-year-old Brian Sparks, on the other hand, hidden behind an unfortunate but very effective red mustache, sits in on a focus group on racial attitudes among white men, and must endure hearing one of the men in the group admitting that, after he shakes a black man's hand, he feels compelled to wash his own.

Meanwhile, 48-year-old Carmen -- an attractive blond location scout with heavily aerobicized triceps and a proud liberal heritage ("my parents were active in the civil rights movement") -- has to shop for outfits for herself and her boyfriend for their visit to an all-black church. Carmen's choice? An African-print dashiki.

If all this sounds like a Chappelle skit gone to graduate school, that's because it sort of is.

Gangsta-rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube served as the show's co-executive producer, in addition to writing its theme song, "Race Card." R.J. Cutler, who made the groundbreaking 1993 documentary "The War Room," a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, is the one who developed the idea. Cutler hesitates to call the film a documentary, but he has also taken great pains to distance the series from the much maligned and wholly contrived world of reality TV, calling it instead a "reality experiment." As you might imagine, the project has not been free of controversy. Nelson George, an eminent hip-hop journalist, activist and himself a producer of a documentary about race in America, went so far as to tell the Los Angeles Times that this kind of television is "phony and dangerous."

Phony, maybe, but not dangerous. The white adults -- Bruno and Carmen -- are a parody of smug ignorance, fond of expressions like "I'm coming from a place of …" and "I want to speak with an open heart." But it's Bruno, a 47-year-old substitute teacher -- the kind who you just know tries to high-five the kids and doesn't even notice their snickers -- whose behavior most begs for a smackdown.

Bruno is full of hokum about "personal responsibility," and "getting back from the universe what you give to the universe," and good or bad energy, but what he is most excited about, he tells his incredulous housemates, is the chance to be called a "nigger" by an unsuspecting stranger.

He says it and then he repeats. Again. Bruno just loves the sound it makes, and his new makeup gives him the idea that it's now OK for him to use it whenever he wants, but the word is still so taboo -- and in the wrong hands, ugly -- that my dutifully self-conscious white self actually cringed while typing it. Conventional wisdom, aka common sense, dictates that you shouldn't use the word even if you're black -- and even then, it's pronounced n-i-g-g-a -- just the way Ice Cube himself did 20 years ago when he and the hip-hop group N.W.A. (Niggas With Attitude) released their breakout album "Straight Outta Compton." If you're white -- and not a teenager, in which case the lines are a bit blurrier -- then you don't use the N-word, not if you value your teeth.

Unless you're Bruno, arguably the most irksome white man to appear on our television screens since the last presidential address. Part of what makes Bruno so repellent, and part of what makes the show worth watching is that in addition to his smug unwillingness to listen to a word another person says, he's also personally invested in proving that America is a colorblind society, one in which any word that is fair game to blacks should be fair game to him as well. This, even as the Sparkses try to convince him, first gamely and then through gritted teeth, that he is denying their daily experiences. "Listen," they keep saying to him. "I am listening," he insists, "but I'm also trying to enlighten you!"

If Bruno is invested -- some would say obsessed -- with proving that the Sparkses exaggerate their own experiences, the Sparkses themselves are much more sympathetic. Renee, 38, is a dental office manager who pretty much gives up on Carmen after she calls Carmen out on the inappropriateness of addressing her as "Yo, bitch," even as a joke. Instead of apologizing for her gauche behavior, Carmen throws a tear-stained tantrum, insisting, of course, that she's coming from a good place. "You took one for the team, Boo," Renee's husband, Brian, tells her later that night.

One gets the sense that Brian is also grimly "taking one for the team." A computer contractor, his chief personality trait is patience, made manifest by his refusal to ever once clock Bruno over the head with a hammer. Brian goes undercover as a bartender in a sports bar. Hidden once more behind his expertly applied light paint and mustache, Brian gets to hear what white bigots say when they think they're among their own kind. A patron tells him "this is a great neighborhood, one of the last safe (read: white) bastions in the city." Brian does not seem surprised or dismayed by the revelation; this is exactly what he expected. But his wife, Renee, in one of the series' best and most discomfiting scenes, comes in without makeup to confront the clientele and find out for herself just how rotten they are.

Still, it's Carmen's daughter, Rose, who is treated as the series' hero, if only by default. Bright-eyed and articulate, she frets about the ethics of presenting a false face to the world, moderates intrahouse squabbles and recognizes her mother's ignorance without ever condemning it.

Young Rose is open-minded, thoughtful, painfully aware of her own ignorance … and essentially full of shit. This girl was made to mug: She never forgets the camera, and she performs each new observation about her own role in the "experiment" as if she were auditioning for a film role (which it turns out she is; a year after filming, Rose is trying to get work as an actress).

Rose milks the drama for all that it's worth. And so do the filmmakers, but one wishes they'd have a little more faith in their own material. Instead of just letting events unravel, they keep steering their victims' situations with maximized dramatic potential, until finally you feel as if you're being harangued by a modern-day carnival barker: WATCH Bruno and Carmen, in black drag, feel uncomfortable at the redneck cowboy bar! SNICKER as Carmen buys a dashiki for her first visit to a black church! CRINGE, as Nick faces his first etiquette class!

Not only do these situations feel forced, they often actually are forced: Even Rose's class, for example, where she agonizes about whether to come clean with the young poets about her fake identity, is a setup. The kids there are all black, to push the whole racial divide thing, but in reality, spoken-word workshops are usually as diverse and multicultural as Los Angeles claims to be. Poetri and Juren Smith, the husband-and-wife team running the workshop, told the Los Angeles Times that he, Poetri, was asked to put together an all-black group to fit the needs of the show, and that he knew Rose's secret the whole time.

It's a bit self-defeating, especially since the whole point about racial (and ethnic) tensions is that daily life provides more than enough to work with. But the two families' daily lives are what's missing, since the whole situation is contrived from the start: You never see them argue (or agree) on what television show to watch, what food to cook, whose turn it is to take out the garbage, or who drives the car. We're watching "reality," sure, but it's one in which all the conflict is orchestrated around artificial circumstances, far removed from the real-life interactions that both fuel racial tension and ultimately serve as our only means to combat it.

Furthermore, the flawed premise of the show--and incidentally of much of the American "conversation about race" -- is the idea that racism can be vanquished by the talking cure. It would be lovely to think that if whites and blacks sat in a circle and shared their feelings, and purged and validated and tap-danced for two miles in each other's moccasins, we could put aside all the sticky confusions of who can say what and who gets to say the N-word and how it should be spelled and whether Ebonics is a valid dialect and why the NFL has so few black quarterbacks, and just reach out for a big multihued group hug.

But even the desire for that group hug, which underscores the whole "reality experiment" of "Black.White.," is a kind of bad faith -- our way of hiding from the very uncomfortable truth that we can't get rid of racial conflict without dismantling the institutions that help perpetuate it. Skin color per se is not the primary mover of racial strife in 2006. Rather, it's the fact that so many of the people who happen to have black skin are also desperately poor, and for plenty of complex and not particularly TV-friendly reasons: a devastating historical legacy, failing educational systems, welfare reform, and measures like the Rockefeller Drug Laws (which have done more to destroy black families than anything else since slave days). The list goes on and on. But very few Americans, particularly the "haves" of all races, colors and creeds, are interested in making the sacrifices necessary to tackle that list, let alone watch a serious treatment of them in prime time. No amount of empathetic listening and emotional catharsis is going to change that.

Don't we wish it would though? Then we could enjoy our lattes and our tax breaks too. "Black.White." speaks to that wish, reassuring us that our troubles could be resolved if only we'd all just listen to each other a bit better. The series amuses, instructs, frequently embarrasses -- but it never really challenges, because its two families have one thing that may well bind them together more effectively than race could ever pull them apart: They have some money.

Birth of a New Western

When I was 25 years old and knew everything, I headed south for my first trip to the Texas-Mexico border. I was East Coast bred, politically active, freshly armed with the teachings of Edward Said and Karl Marx, and ready to take on some real live racist rednecks. I saw one the very first day, in front of a diner.

Thin red hair, freckled, jowly, chewing his tobacco hard like Rod Steiger in "In the Heat of the Night." He had Steiger's cold stare too, and looked me up and down before turning away, climbing beer belly over spurs into the cab of a yellow pickup. As he drove off, I caught a glimpse of a rifle and three cases of Coors (of course!) in the cab, and then finally the inevitable bumper sticker.

The sticker read: THIS IS AMERICA, GODDAMNIT. LEARN SPANISH.

The only American who speaks Spanish in Tommy Lee Jones' masterful directorial feature film debut, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," is the character Jones himself plays, Pete Perkins. Pete is a cowboy whose closest friend, Mel, has just been shot to death while tending his goats. Since Mel, the Melquiades of the title, was not only a "wetback," according to an uncaring local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) but an illegal worker as well, Pete is left to seek justice for Mel.

He soon locates the killer -- a trigger-happy border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) -- and decides, in classic Western style, to take justice into his own hands. He kidnaps Norton in the middle of the night, beats him and forces him at gunpoint to dig up Melquiades' body.

This is only the first of a series of humiliations Norton will face in Pete's hands, as Pete drags him along, cursing, spitting, handcuffed and on horseback, to take Mel's body to his hometown in Mexico. Norton will also be forced to suck down ethanol, wear Mel's work clothes and sleep inches away from his rotting corpse. But we don't mind, because we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. We've already come to know and love the living Melquiades in flashback and hate Norton, a porn-addled borderline sociopath whom we've already watched break a woman's nose -- on the job -- and enjoy it.

The setup is pure Peckinpah, and it's what westerns are all about. Peckinpah knew, with his intuitive understanding, that violence and her cousin, vengeance, are at the core of the American psyche; he gave our bloodlust back to us in orgiastic explosions of balletlike violence. The hero's job is to kill. Sometimes the reason is to save lives, sometimes the reason is revenge -- but the reason isn't really what he's about; what matters is the killing.

Pete Perkins, however, is a cowboy, not a gunslinger. In an interview with Terry Gross, Jones described him as a "Buddhist stuck in a Calvinist world." As the three men (I say three because even as a corpse, Melquiades is a warm, breathing presence in the movie, kept alive not only by memories but also the grieving Pete's unwillingness to let go) journey deeper into Mexico searching for Mel's hometown and family, and as an increasingly desperate Norton gets beaten up, physically and emotionally, by the land, its animals and finally its people, we realize that Pete is searching for justice, not vengeance.

Vengeance as justice is the theme Eastwood himself brought to the level of the sublime in his second directorial effort, "High Plains Drifter," and then decades later with his more polished but also almost unbearably sanctimonious "Unforgiven." In "Unforgiven," our greatest gunslinger announces that killing isn't worth it, and that killing is bad, even if you're killing to avenge the murder of your best friend, even if that friend is Morgan Freeman. It was exactly the kind of American preaching that leads straight down the aisle toward Oscar, as we can see by the issues-driven nominated films of this season, in which our top directors declare, earnestly and photogenically, that hate and violence are really bad things.

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," however, is a better, more thoughtful and finally much more necessary film than any of this year's best picture nominees, not only because of Jones' light touch and sense of place -- he was born and raised in West Texas -- or because of Chris Menges' electrifying cinematography, which teaches us something new about light in every scene, or not even because of the remarkable chemistry between Pepper and Jones.

No, Jones' movie is the first Western that actually wrestles with the great dilemmas of our time, not only on the border but also as we wage our own Calvinist wars across the globe. Instead of settling for sad finger-wagging about prejudice and "cycles of violence," it actually presents an alternative -- an idea of earned forgiveness, even redemption.

Furthermore, Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga ("Amores Perros," "21 Grams") have teamed up to make a magical and often extremely funny movie about, among other things, the ties between Mexico and the United States. As the border wars grow more and more bitter, and "illegal immigrants" become more and more a part of the national economy (see Time magazine's cover story this week), "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" offers another message for consideration: This is America, goddammit, learn Spanish.

Demystifying the Power of Moolah

"Women, emotions and cash." This is the subtitle Liz Perle chose for her new book, Money: A Memoir, a brutally honest look at how women's conflicted relationship to money holds them back in love and life. We know more about our friends' sex lives, she says, than we do about their pocketbooks, and women are still caught in a push-pull of desire for cash and shame over that desire. Perle doesn't offer any easy answers, but she forces us to ask hard questions about one of our deepest taboos. And asking the questions is the first step.

AlterNet met with Perle in her San Francisco office and asked her all about sex, love, divorce court, double-ovens, and how to decide who should pick up the check.

In this book, you argue that money is always a fraught symbol.

Yes, it always carries the weight of something else. Money for men is power, it translates into sexual power. And for women, it's an aphrodisiac, because for centuries, women could only survive by attaching themselves to people who had money.

So I'm reducing here, but it seems that in the first half of the book you say that for men, money means power, and for women, money means love and security. But then at the end, you reinterpret that formula and say actually that for women too, money means power, which is why our relationship to it is so problematic. But when you say "power," what exactly do you mean?

Power: independence, freedom, the ability to make your own decisions.

Why wouldn't we want that? Why would women have a hard time embracing it? Isn't that exactly what women have been fighting for?

OK, you've got to look at how fast this has all happened. This is where the women's movement to me, is alive and well.

Move back a few generations: My grandmother's relationship to money was indirect. She didn't work. My mother, she went to college and she worked, but then she met my father and stopped working. Now, she died, so I don't know what would have happened, she might have gone back to work. That was a shift, but the money was still expected to come from the husband. The image of nirvana that was being broadcast was still the idea that the husband brought home the money.

Remember that the media creates norms. The Cleavers never existed, but how many people do we describe as Eddie Haskell? The media images are archetypes for us, so my mother felt perfectly secure depending on my father.

Now, today society will judge me on two different scales when they weigh my worth: 1) the amount of money I make and the prestige of my position, and 2) my ability to attain the womanly arts: to marry, to reproduce, to keep a nice home.

What about attractiveness?

Oh, that's part of the womanly arts. Implicit in that is that you've got to look good enough to get there in the first place -- and then keep yourself there.

So here I am: I have both those values systems inside me, I'd have to be the girl in the bubble not to. Each of those value systems contains a specific relationship to money. ... One is direct, the other is indirect. And I've spent my life ping-ponging back and forth between the two.

So you are in this constant state of turmoil between two ideals, two archetypes, and when you have two ideals that are discordant, it makes for a lot of conflict and ambivalence. It's these two different value systems that operate in our society, whether or not we accept them, and they pull us apart.

In your book, you say that the younger generation is different from your generation. What's the difference? Are the conflicts resolved? You found the younger women to be less conflicted.

Yes, I think younger women are more comfortable with their material sides And I'm not sure that's all to the good. The person who reflected the healthiest relationship to money was this one woman, Anna. She knows that cash is just cash. I admire her, because she's got a very clear sense of what cash can and can't do. What they don't have is a sense of fiscal responsibility, they've been raised in a society of credit card debt. That will be their challenge.

It's also more expensive to be middle class than it used to be.

[Laughs] Ah yes, the poor middle class. First of all, what constitutes the range of what we call middle class these days is huge. And I call it an emotional state more than just a financial one. It's an emotional middle class because it's about belonging to a group of people that has enough money to satisfy their material needs and yet feel secure.

Now most of this has been financed by debt, which is not a good development. When I first started writing this book, the average debt of an average family was $8,000. A year later, when I finished, it was $9,000. People save less than 1 percent of their earnings. Look at our country! The fish stinks from the head down.

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The Bestselling Fake True Story

On Tuesday, the investigative website The Smoking Gun published the six-page report, "A Million Little Lies," exposing a number of fictional events in James Frey's supposedly nonfiction memoir A Million Little Pieces.

TSG reported that the confessional, an Oprah Book Club selection and a memoir of Frey's struggle with drug and alcohol abuse and eventual recovery, was riddled with exaggerations, embellishments and outright lies, including claims that he'd beat up a cop and spent three months in jail, as well as an extremely suspect incident involving a fatal car accident.

The scandal was certainly enough to undermine the credibility of the memoir, the man and, worse, Oprah's taste in books. It also made Frey famous. Not just writer famous, but star famous. JT LeRoy hasn't quite capitalized on his 15 minutes -- perhaps because his is a more narrow audience, perhaps because it's hard to do television appearances when you don't exist -- but Frey, already flourishing under Oprah's halo, now managed to do the near impossible: The scandal over his untrue true story bumped both Lindsay Lohan and Brangelina out of the headlines.

Usually it takes weeks or months for beleaguered celebrities to orchestrate their public coming-out, but these are accelerated times, and James Frey broke his media silence two days ago, choosing a celebrity interviewer known for his unrelenting questioning style, ruthless integrity and dogged determination to get the truth at all costs: Larry King. King grilled the famous fabricator with questions such as "Are you surprised at the furor?" and "What are your feelings about 'The Smoking Gun?'" and "Are you a bad guy?"

To be fair to King, Frey has been well coached, and he seems to have learned his interview strategies from George Bush: Repeat a few choice phrases over and over again, do not answer any questions directly, evade, and do it all with a charmless affect and slippery evasions of responsibility at every turn. Above all, stay on message. Which is exactly what Frey did. Frey's "defense" seemed to involve matching one of three answers to every question posed: "I stand by my book and my life" and "changed facts to protect people's identities" and "This is a book about drug and alcohol abuse, nobody has once denied that I was an addict."

His big defense is that since the disputed sections make up only a small percentage of the book's page count, the matter is being blown out of proportion. This is a blank refusal to face the idea that telling the whole truth is exactly what credibility is all about. In addition to being specious and illogical, the Frey non-conversation with King wasn't getting anywhere, even after Frey's mother came on screen to defend her baby.

And then, suddenly, the skies parted, thunder rolled and King received a "surprise" phone call from Oprah herself. Like Bill Clinton, Winfrey is an empath-demon: Her warm timbres, the depths of sincerity in her voice, the feeling that she is just one of us common folk and, of course, her ability to speak well on just about anything gives her a brainwashing charisma. The woman is so accessible and convincing as an Everyman that you even buy her complaint that she had a hard time getting through on the show's call line!

So of course her rush to defend Frey had an effect that was not just legitimating but sanctifying. She insisted that she stood by the book, by Frey, by the incredible power of his harrowing story, the story of how he became "the man you see before you today." (A liar, but an inspiring one.) "What I think," she continued, in that soothing, powerful singsong we all love, "is that this is going to open up the discussion…. The bigger thing is what is this going to say to the world about the memoir category. The bigger question is what does this mean for the larger publishing world?"

Frey is off the hook, the book publishers aren't. Industry take heed: If Oprah gives up faith in the nonfiction market, it could cripple one of the most profitable arms of the business -- the bestselling memoir. And now Larry King had run seven minutes over time. Never mind that a big part of sobriety is supposed to be telling the truth and being accountable for one's actions. Never mind that memoirs are supposed to draw their authority in proportion to their connection with reality, never mind that "A Million Little Pieces" sold itself on its own gritty, harrowing, real-life pain … and of course never mind the scandal's real-world financial implications and back-table negotiating. Time was up, and so Oprah left us with an assurance that the book was still an "Oprah recommends," and with soothing words for an earlier caller:

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The Uses of Laughter

Most of Margaret Cho's greatest comedic moments are also her most difficult to translate into print; first because she delights in the offensive unprintable, and second because her performances are exactly that: performed. Cho's famous facial contortions, the impressions of her Korean mother, and the dancer's awareness she brings to her acts are all part of her outrageous appeal, but they also disappear like smoke in an interview.

She speaks in measured, thoughtful tones, with long pauses and a soft voice completely at odds with her in-your-face onstage persona. But Cho has also been one of the country's most political comedians, and this month she re-emerges as a triple threat: With a new concert film, Assassin; a self-produced feature film premiering this week at the Toronto Film Festival, Bam Bam and Celeste; and a biography with a title that is pure Cho: I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight.

Cho spoke with AlterNet from her home in Los Angeles this week, about Katrina, the connection between humor and hope, her newfound love of belly dancing, and the troubling issue of canine nomenclature as a threat to national security.

SHEERLY AVNI: I had a lot of questions prepared about your new projects -- the book, the feature film, the new comedy documentary -- but in the wake of the flood, they seem fruitless ...

MARGARET CHO: Yes, it's the worst thing. It's almost like September 11 again. And of course a lot of people who are being displaced are people who are poor and black, and it's such a racially defined thing ... Normally refugees should not be deterred by shotguns. It's a very weird situation, terrible.

In times like this, what do you see as the role of a comedian?

A comedian can be more honest, and question things more openly. Like with the issue of black people in New Orleans being called looters [ed note: see this week's edition of The Onion]. There are things that don't get addressed by mainstream pundits, which comedians address. Maybe because with the humor, we're disarming people.

When do you think it's okay to start joking about a disaster?

Oh, immediately. You have to start right at the moment it's happening, because there's nothing worse than having no hope, and humor represents hope.

After 9/11 it was so tragic to me that people like Letterman and Leno were unable to joke, they were coming across so grave and serious. That was what was so terrifying, because we had no one to look to for hope. These were the daddy-clowns, the very major figures that we look to for sarcasm, wit, satire, something. And when people were unable to come up with something, it was scary.

Yes, I remember waiting desperately for The Onion, wanting to believe they could give us some laughter, thinking they probably couldn't, and then lo and behold, their September 11th issue turned out to be their crowning achievement. How long did you wait after September 11th before putting it in your routine?

My very next performance, on September 13.

And Katrina?

Oh, the very next night. and I was talking about how people were just shooting at clouds, shooting at anything looked like weather and also that [switches into her patented Valley girl accent] me, personally, if I didn't, like, have a house and I was all wet? I'd be soooo looting. That's my TV! That's totally my Mountain Dew.

Well even in Assassin, your most recent standup documentary, you seem to be even more political than in the past. What does it mean to be a political comedian, and what kind of an impact do you think you have?

It's hard to talk about my role when I step outside of it, because I don't really have a concept of what my impact is, I can't speak about it in a way that's knowledgeable ... but I do try to represent the underrepresented and voice a political voice that is clear. The thing is that no matter what I actually say, the nature of my existence is political, because I'm an Asian American woman talking about queer rights and race and gender.

Like your joke in the movie, people think they can just walk up to you and say "So what's up with North Korea?"

Yeah, and it's a weird kind of thing, not exactly racist, but it's like the Korean thing exempts me from my Americanness. And even a lot of educated people assume that there are specific things I would know because of what I look like, and I think that is common with Americans who aren't like, blond-haired or blue-eyed.

In the intro to your most recent performance movie, Assassin, you say that you refuse to think of yourself and other minorities as "us and them." You're not gay, yet when you speak about gay rights, you say we aren't going anywhere. Where does that come from?

To me there is no divide, experience to experience, if you're marginalized, you're marginalized. But there are African Americans who will not, for example, extend civil rights to include gay Americans, and I think that's wrong, because the civil rights movement was such a gateway to equal rights, but there's so much animosity from the African community that it divides groups. But if as minority groups we were to band together we would be the majority. And it's not just African American community either. It's Latinos, it's Asians, it's all of these different ethnic minorities who are culturally quite conservative, even though they wouldn't necessarily be politically conservative. A lot of them are unwilling to accept gay marriage as part of the whole package of equal rights, the fight for equality.

And have you gotten much flak from ethnic minorities who are culturally conservative?

No, not really, but -- I'm not so aware of that, because the loudest criticism comes from these very conservative white organizations. ... The most recent was actually about my dog. Gudrin, which is a very great Norse name, and it also happens to be the name of the leader of the Bader-Meinhof gang, which was some terrorist gang in the '70s, so there were all these alarmist blogs. Most of the hatemail is generated by stupid white man hysteria.

And Bam Bam and Celeste, which opens up this weekend, is also about two marginalized people. I've seen it described a Cho-styled Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Was making that film very different from doing standup?

Actually there wasn't a lot of difference to me. The movie was kind of a long extended-play joke, to have my characters take this trip. It's similar because you need to be succinct -- to pack a lot of exposition in just a few words, so it's very similar.

What was the hardest part?

Getting the financing! I don't even know how these big shitty movies get made, when it's so expensive, you'd think people wouldn't throw money away. It was a tiny budget, but for me it was a huge amount. I mean, it was $2 million, but I could never have found that money myself.

Another question, this time more personal. So much of your act is based on issues of body image, weight issues, and your total disdain for dieting after all those years of suffering. But in the past few years you've lost so much weight and become positively slim. How did that happen?

I'm a bellydancer and that brought with it a whole physical transformation. It's the greatest thing ever, and it's exciting for me to be doing something physical because I've been so removed from my body for so long, I didn't accept it as it was. So now I'm able to do things I didn't even know I could do, and seeing a body as beautiful is very new to me.

And also, you can't belly dance if you've got no belly!

You have to have a gut, or it doesn't work. Which is great.

Back to Katrina, How do you think it will impact the current administration?

Not well at all, with all of the anger directed at him and his slowness to act in this whole direction. This and [Supreme Court nominee John] Roberts -- this will be the last straw.

What will comedians do with no Bush to make fun of?

Oh, so long as we still have Pat Robertson, and we still have all our Supreme Court judges, we should be okay!

Joking Along Color Lines

So, 75 white comedians walk into a movie…

This is not the central joke of The Aristocrats, a documentary that opened nationwide this weekend, but it could be. Cutting between interviews and performances of more than 70 comic masters, including Sarah Silverman, Drew Carey, Michael McKean, Eddie Izzard, Paul Reiser and the "South Park" guys, the film traces the history of stand-up's most obscene inside joke -- with almost no commentary from the nation's many black comedians.

By now you may know the joke, but comedians have been telling the gag to each other off-stage since at least as far back as the turn of the century. The set up: A guy is pitching his act, to an agent. The punch line: The act is called "The Aristocrats." Its meat, however, is all the vile stuff that happens in between. The description of the act gives each comedian in the film a chance to show off his or her chops and wax scatological, profane, bestial, necrophiliac and spectacularly offensive. The beauty and appeal of The Aristocrats lies in the virtuosic skills of its tellers: Forget shocking the crowd; watch what it takes to shock the shockers.

But the glaring absence of so much black talent -- and Latino and Asian talent, for that matter -- is a shocker, too. It's especially ironic given the movie's references to the joke as a jazz riff, and comparisons to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. We hear only from Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock. No Dave Chappelle, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy, Cedric the Entertainer, Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes, Steve Harvey, DL Hughley, Bill Cosby, Chris Tucker, George Wallace, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor… the list goes on and on.

Paul Provenza, the film's co-director and himself a respected comedian, doesn't hesitate when I ask how a movie that posits race as the final taboo manages to leave out so many talented non-white comedians. "It is what it is," he says. "But Chris Rock explains why so succinctly in the film, there was nothing we could possibly add."

Rock's explanation is this: Historically, blacks could be as raunchy as they wanted on the infamous chitlin' circuit, and they had no chance of getting on TV or radio anyway. The opportunity to be obscene is less exciting when you can be obscene whenever you want, unheard and unpaid, and you are already on the outskirts of respectability. Unlike almost all the other big-name comics who appear in The Aristocrats, Rock himself does not try to tell the joke.

But that's only part of the story. Provenza and Teller did cast a wide net, beginning with their friends and then reaching out to their favorite comics in the business. But the Hollywood publicity machine knows no color lines, and the most recognizable names on that list of noticeably absent comedians are so well-protected by the phalanx of publicists, managers and agents that even Provenza and co-director Penn Gilette, of Penn and Teller fame, couldn't get through.

Wanda Sikes? Couldn't get to her. Jamie Foxx? Chris Tucker? They never heard from their "people."

Chappelle, who loved the joke, could never make time to film. The directors were lucky enough to catch Chris Rock backstage, with camera in hand. As for the venerable Richard Pryor, "Every comedian in America wishes they were Richard Pryor," says Provenza, who wanted him so badly that he called his idol's wife at home, even though he knew the legendary comedian was ill. "We could hear him laughing and coughing in the background."

Then there were black comedians like Bernie Mac and DL Hughley who didn't know the joke, but agreed to try and do it for the movie "to be nice."

"That didn't seem right either," Provenza says. "We could have let them help us out just so we could get more black faces in, but that would have been totally disingenuous."

The reality is that the gag has historically been a white person's joke, the crystal meth of American humor. "This racial divide is there, and the last thing we'd want to do is try to cover that up to be PC," Provenza says. In fact, Provenza considers political correctness one of stand-up's richest sources of material, and several comics in his film concur, pointing out that talking about race has replaced talking about sex as comedy's best transgression.

But Provenza thinks that could be on its way out, too. "Just like Whoopi said, I'm not even sure if race is the shocker anymore. Now when I tell the joke, I set it in Abu Ghraib."

Ten Hollywood Movies That Get Women Right

A few weeks ago, two AlterNet critics asked whether white Hollywood could ever make a good movie about race relations. This in turn led us to another question: Can Hollywood directors -- male or female -- make good movies about women?

At first, it seems like a ludicrous question. After all, we've come so far since the bad old days when Western writer Max Brand summarized everything wrong with the roles we were assigned on film. "There should be a woman," he said, "but not much of one. A good horse is much more important."

Today, we've got our Meg Ryan comedies, our Meryl Streep dramas, and our Angelina Jolie desert romps. We've got girls with guns, girls with laser beams, girls with briefcases, girls with magic powers -- what's there to complain about?

Quite a bit, I think. I'm a woman who makes IMDB.com her homepage, considers popcorn and Raisinets a well-balanced meal, and pays for the "Magic of 8" on her Netflix account because three DVDs at a time just isn't enough. But I've finally accepted that when it comes to putting people who look like me onscreen, Hollywood really only has four movies on its menu, which it reheats and serves to us over and over again:

The Chick Flick. That 90-minute sitcom you're always stuck watching on the plane. Oh, look, they met in a dog park! But neither one of them has dogs! Wait, they love each other online, but hate each other in real life! Oh no, he/she is a hired escort, but in the end, true love will find a way! More exercises in tabloid wish fulfillment than love stories, the chick flick makes you feel like you need a shower, or at least a wardrobe overhaul.

The Earnest Social Commentary. Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich. In which brave women face down The Man, and let us go home feeling exultant, or at least ready to place our bets in the Oscar pool.

The Cancer Weepie. Terms of Endearment, Stepmom, Steel Magnolias. More brave women share their souls on hospital beds, tearing up photogenically as the sisterhood sweeps them up in tissue-soaked arms and ushers them into the great beyond.

The Action Figure. Catwoman, Tomb Raider, Elektra. All the one-dimensional women in three-dimensional popup bras, who seem pieced together to elicit a collective "You go, girlfriend!" from the audience. As if we all thought heroism -- or rather, heroinism -- should be defined by humorlessness, spandex and a good personal trainer.

Throughout my (evidently unrequited) love affair with Hollywood, I've been empowered, encouraged, affirmed and celebrated on screen to within an inch of my life, but I've almost never felt represented in any way that felt plausible. I say almost never, because even in Hollywood, there are exceptions -- ten of which I humbly submit to you here -- in which the women, their relationships or their circumstances, feel somehow authentic, or, for lack of a better word, real.

Beyond saying that they resonate with my sense of what being a woman means, can I define exactly what makes them real? No, and I wouldn't want to, especially because all those attempts to define female authenticity is part of the problem to begin with. But, like Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it.

(This is, of course, my own highly subjective and unscientifically produced list of anti-Max Brand movies that do offer Much of a Woman. It is based entirely, I'm sure, on personal biases and childhood traumas. AlterNet readers are invited to add alternate lists in the comments section.)

Alien (1979) The iconic image of Sigourney Weaver, cursing behind awesome firepower with her sweaty tank top (and butch hair in Alien 2), spawned a whole crop of chicks-with-ammo knockoffs. But the real leap was 10 years earlier, when writer/producer team Dan O'Bannen and David Giler were pitching their script about a monster that steals aboard a spaceship and starts picking off crew members. It was the mid-70s, and when the filmmakers heard that Twentieth Century Fox was looking for strong female leads, they decided at the last minute to make their main character, Ripley, a woman. Ripley was never intended to be a spokesman, a symbol or a poster child; at first, she was just a marketing gimmick. But when Ridley Scott took over the film and cast then-unknown Weaver in the role, he gave us one of the beautiful, powerful and believable heroines we'd seen so far: She fought to keep the ship secure, fought to keep her crew alive, and finally, in a harrowing last scene, managed to blast the terrifying alien into deepest space. Scott made very few alterations to accommodate the new gender of its star and only survivor -- which was exactly the point. It was the first time I ever saw a capable woman onscreen in a way that didn't call attention to the fact that she was a "capable woman."

All About Eve (1950) The movie posters boasted, "It's all about Women, and their men," promising a juicy, lurid saga of backstage catfights and feminine conniving. The plot delivered on that action, pitting Bette Davis as Margo Channing, an aging, egomaniacal actress, against a conniving upstart named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve begins as a fan, becomes a best friend and ends up a rival, and all the way through she plays on Channing's insecurities and turns both her fiancé and her best friend against her. The scenes between Channing and Richards are some of the only honest depictions of non-romantic rivalry between female friends in American cinema. But Channing's real struggle is a particularly modern one: balancing love, friendship and a career that is eating her up inside -- she's never learned how to be offstage, even in private. Watching Channing navigate -- usually unsuccessfully -- her way across that tightrope is like seeing every modern woman's desire to "have it all" played up in the glorious caricature of one of America's greatest actresses.

Adam's Rib (1949) In this classic comedy, a husband and wife (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), both lawyers, find themselves on opposite sides of a courtroom battle over "women's rights." The heart of the conflict is not really feminism, but rather the role of law in society. Tracy and Hepburn -- whose characters call each other "Pinky" and "Pinkie" when they're getting along, and many far less endearing names when they're not -- argue about the law and lob cheap shots culled from the "Battle of the Sexes" jargon of the day. Hepburn cries crocodile tears, her husband calls it a cheap trick, and he's right. Tracy waxes on about principle, Hepburn tells him he's hiding his own ego behind lofty legal jargon, and she's right. The final resolution of the film pulls them away from simple ideology and back to their basic passion for their chosen profession, and it's a triumph of shared humanity over gender politics, a lovely parable of marriage. Of course, it's also a sad indictment of how far we haven't come since then.

Batman Returns (1992) Michelle Pfeiffer and Tim Burton rewrite the Catwoman myth. Here, Selina Kyle is a mild-mannered single girl, Cosmo magazine's choicest reader: afraid to speak up in business meetings, surrounded by cats, living in an overstuffed, over-cute, ultra-feminine apartment, and getting stood up by her boyfriend because she beat him at tennis. After her boss tries to kill her, she sews a costume for herself, one in which she can be free to reach out and scratch someone whenever she pleases. But her new life is morally untethered and lonely. She can't imagine loving without returning to the repressed, passive life she led before finding her alter ego. "I can't go live in your castle," she tells Batman in the movie's big scene, her sanity by now as frazzled as her wild blond hair. Then, she slips out into the night, a tragic hero in the most modern sense -- her identity split between what she thinks society wants from her and the person she wants to become.

Jackie Brown (1997) Never has a director more masterfully combined lascivious fandom and respectful worship than in Quentin Tarantino's finger-licking homage to blaxploitation queen Pam Grier. Grier plays Jackie Brown, an airline stewardess working for Cabo Air, the "worst airline there is," and earning extra cash as a courier for an arms dealer named Ordell (Samuel Jackson). When the police catch her and try to use her in a set-up, she wins the support of a bounty hunter and works the angles to make off with her freedom and a cash payout. Shot when Grier was almost 50 years old and a good 20 pounds heavier than when she was a black-power nymphet days in the 70s, Jackie Brown was still one of the sexiest movies of the 90s. Grier plays Brown as calm, confident and exhausted, a woman who knows she only has this one last chance. She explains that the only thing that scares her like violent retribution from Ordell is having to start her life over at nothing, and you feel her fatigue, her desperation and the certainty that she deserves a second run. It's Tarantino's take on film noir, told, for once, from the point of view of the victorious femme fatale.

Auntie Mame (1958) Talk about Much of a Woman! Rosalind Russell breathes glamour and adventure as Auntie Mame, the high-society bohemian whose Beekman Place apartment throbs with poets, drunken actresses, aspiring nudists and every other version of eccentric New Yorker that Los Angeles could imagine. Wealthy, spoiled, and intellectually scattered, she seems more like a middle-aged Holly-Go-Lightly than the modern idea of a strong, independent woman. But she still launches her assault on the conventional femininity of the bourgeoisie: She skates through life in her turbans, furs and rustling capes, trailing cigarette holders behind her like magic wands, bustling past trophies of her trips to Africa and India and Arabia. But mostly, Mame begins the movie happily single, marries for money, ends up happily single, and has several affairs in between. Plus, she rescues her beloved nephew from marrying insufferable "Aryan from Darian" by arranging a special new neighbor for the Aryan's anti-Semitic parents: A composer intent on building an orphanage for Jewish refugee children. What's not to love?

Silence of the Lambs (1991) Jonathan Demme's classic nail-biter is a grisly suspense thriller about a terrifying psychiatrist-turned-cannibal-turned-prison inmate-turned-ally (Anthony Hopkins), but it's also about the obstacles an attractive young woman faces as she tries to do her job. Everywhere Agent Starling goes, people react to her as a girl first and an investigator second. They're either trying to pick her up, shut her out, break her down, or chop her to bits. No film has captured the isolation a woman can feel in a room full of suits as well as this one. Her supervisor sends her out of an autopsy room in deference to the sexist local police; a group of male cadets turn to ogle her butt as she trains at the Academy. These are brief, subtle moments, but they add up to a dead-accurate portrayal of a day in the life of a young working woman (except for the flesh-flaying serial killer and cannibalism, one hopes).

Fight Club (2000) The David Fincher/Chuck Palahniuk venture was one of the most controversial statements of masculinity of the last decade. Ed Norton plays a disenchanted everyman, drowning in his IKEA catalogue and searching for meaning wherever he might find it. He first tries support groups (testicular cancer, malignant lymphoma, emphysema), and then enjoys the company of his idealized alter-ego, Tyler Durdon (Brad Pitt). A handsome, insouciant tough guy, Pitt introduces Norton to an underground world where men beat each other to a pulp for fun and camaraderie. It's a man's movie, supposedly, so why did I think it was the best feminist statement of the 90s? Maybe because it was time to watch a man learn what women have always known: That living a life defined by home furnishings, fashion, commercialized domesticity and constant messages about how your body should look can literally drive you batty.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) Being a girl comes before being a woman, and never has a girl had a better role than Mary Badham as Jean Louise Finch. The big-screen adaptation of Harper Lee's classic is most often appreciated for portraying the kind of race relations America likes best. The feel-good courtroom drama cloaks a typically smug, white liberal Hollywood storyline: A saintly white man defends a grateful black man (who would neva, neva touch a white woman, No Suh!) from a villainous mob.

However, To Kill A Mockingbird was revolutionary in its portrayal of the relationship between Atticus and his daughter. Scout wears dungarees and straight uncurled hair in a dome cut, and learns from her father how to read, to reason and to treat others with integrity. Atticus (Gregory Peck) never once differentiates between his expectations of her or her older brother Jed, and when he admonishes her to stop fighting with other schoolchildren in the yard, he doesn't tell her to act like a lady -- he tells her to act like an adult: She's too mature for fistfights now. It's a rare opportunity to watch a little girl develop a moral character, one in which she learns to do the right thing, not to dress, act or talk the right way.

Star Wars (1977) In The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia's tough talk is just that -- talk -- because, like the rest of America, she's falling for Han Solo. In Return of the Jedi, she's a longhaired love slave in a chain mail bikini, with very little to do but wait for her rescue. But back in 1977, when Leia bravely faced off against Darth Vader, she was the brightest of heroes. Even as a captive, pint-sized princess with cinnamon buns for hair, she showed little girls a new of idea of what a princess could be: defiant, politically able, impervious to torture, and, if that weren't enough, the best shot in the rebel forces. It was a promise no movie heroine has matched since -- not even Leia herself.

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