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February 26, 2004


White Hollywood +

As we approach this year's Oscars ceremony, we recall the awards from two years ago, aka The Year Hollywood Pretended It Wasn't Racist. How are things looking this year for multiculturalism? Not great. There's the odd Iranian and Japanese man and West African among the supporting actor nominees, but these are people from other countries, not Americans whose race is not white. The Times has a piece on the role of black people in Hollywood, which points out: "In the history of the movie studios no African-American has ever had the power to green-light a film." Hollywood still seems to believe that movies about black people might be successfully here in the U.S., but won't do well internationally. But movies like Barbershop have had such massive domestic success that overseas box office doesn't matter. Whether this will result in a shift in power remains to be seen. -Amy
At this point, I would almost settle for someone telling me why Wesley Snipes appears to be the only black movie star who is allowed to kiss white women on screen -- and even he isn't allowed to do it all the time. One of a thousand examples: Did you ever see The Siege? If any white actor had that role, Denzel and Annette Bening would have made out furiously. Instead, they just sit their with their hands folded and harmlessly flirt with each other. This trend is brilliantly spoofed at the end of Steven Soderbergh's under-rated Full Frontal. As Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts fly off into the sunset together, they face each other for what should be the film-ending kiss. Instead, Soderbergh has them face the camera and grin, cheek to cheek, in a final bit of anti-miscegenistic Platonic warmth.

Why are Wesley, Denzel, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, and Morgan Freeman practically the only black men Hollywood allows to headline major films? And why are nearly all of these men always in action films or comedies? Probably because the film industry presumes its white audience's racism, a presumption which leads to actual institutional racism in Hollywood. But as hard as it is to come up with the names of more than maybe five African-American lead actors, it's even more difficult to identify that many black actresses who are given a chance. Take a look at the careers of Andre Braugher, Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett (Courtney's wife, by the way), Mekhi Phifer, Don Cheadle, and Isaiah Washington and see if you can come up with any decent explanation -- besides race -- for why they have not had the number of quality roles given to lesser white actors. Most of the overlooked stars I mention above have been acting since their twenties but are now pushing into their late thirties or beyond, and their potential as leads has been purposely overlooked throughout their careers. I'm not sure to what degree audiences can or will demand more ethnic diversity, but maybe the successes of films like Barbershop, Soul Food, Orginal Kings of Comedy, etc., will get Hollywood to put money behind someone other than the same "bankable" five guys it's been using for the last 10 years. I suppose one way things could change is if as as younger, more open-minded directors and producers start getting authority, they begin insisting on more diverse casting, establishing beyond doubt that audiences will pay to see multi-racially cast films. Interestingly, the force of hip-hop in the record industry has begun to translate into a greater African-American presence in films, as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Latifah, and others (Mos Def, soon?) have successfully crossed over, and it's worth noting that Laurence Fishburne, Samuel Jackson, Ving Rhames, and a few other actors have had good success lately diversifying supporting roles but, again, those are supporting roles, and that's not enough.

It's easy to be dismissive of words like "pioneer" when they get thrown around to describe, say, Halle Berry, but I think it's important to remember that Hollywood is so dominated by white people that for any black person to achieve what she's achieved (even if you don't think she's a great actress) is, by its nature, pioneering and, in a sense, radical. -ADM

categories: Business, Movies, Race
posted by amy at 12:19 PM | #