April 02, 2001
Hollywood Blackout, the Sequel
By Samantha Miller for People Magazine
Five Years After a People Report, Signs of Change Are
Visible Onscreen, at the Box Office and on TV, but for
Blacks, Progress in Hollywood Comes One Slow Step at a
In March 1996 a PEOPLE special report described the movie industry's "continued exclusion of
African-Americans" as "a national disgrace." The article ignited debates that raged from this
magazine's letters column to ABC's Nightline. Rev. Jesse Jackson, citing PEOPLE'S observation
that only one of that year's Oscar nominees was black, urged a boycott of the telecast.
Five years later, as Oscar night approaches with one African-American (documentary producer
Leelai Demoz) among 163 nominees, are things better for blacks in the movie business? A
second investigation shows that the industry has taken some encouraging steps but still has a
long way to go in welcoming the black community and illuminating their lives onscreen.
Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph remembers her own searing introduction to Hollywood nearly 20 years
ago: "You're beautiful and talented," a producer told her, "but you're black, so what do I do with
you? Am I supposed to cast you in a movie as a romantic lead against Tom Cruise?"
Five years since she first shared that story, Ralph points to one particularly sweet symbol of
progress. "Look at Tom Cruise. Who was he playing opposite in Mission: Impossible 2? A black
girl [Thandie Newton], that's who!" Still, to Ralph, the big picture is far from uniformly bright.
Despite steady work on the UPN sitcom Moesha, Ralph, 45, has never been a leading lady in a
major film. And in an industry whose "gatekeepers of power," she says, are almost exclusively
white, she and other African-Americans struggle to make movies that defy stereotypes. "Even
though some things have changed," she says, "I have to tell you there are some things that just
Since 1996, PEOPLE'S reporting shows, African-American actors and blacks who work in some
offscreen jobs have made encouraging gains. But many areas of the business remain as
exclusionary as ever, and even top stars are frustrated by Hollywood decisionmakers' reluctance
to risk abandoning hidebound attitudes about race. "Every year it gets a little better," says actor
Chris Rock, 36, "but not as quick as you want it to. You still have to attain greatness to get the
same thing white guys get just for being mediocre."
The past five years have brought good news on several fronts. More black actors and directors
have broken into the industry's top ranks with hit movies that prove black stars and stories can
score with all moviegoers. Last year three films with black directors or mostly black casts—
including Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Big Momma's House and Scary Movie, the top-
grossing film ever made by a black director, Keenen Ivory Wayans—cracked the blockbuster
barrier of $100 million in domestic grosses. Films such as 1997's Soul Food and 2000's Love &
Basketball (the highest-grossing movie ever directed by a black woman, Gina Prince-
Bythewood) have opened doors for stories outside the action and comedy genres. Meanwhile, as
award-winning movies with African-American casts flourish on cable, a threatened NAACP
boycott last year increased minority representation on-and offscreen on network TV—and
spurred movie studios, which the NAACP may target next, to seek ways of diversifying their
ranks. Behind the camera, Hollywood's directors' guild reports a small increase in work for black
The bad news? Even with those increases, blacks, who make up about 13 percent of the U.S.
population and 25 percent of moviegoers, are still severely underrepresented behind the scenes in
Hollywood. Only 3.5 percent of screen-writers' guild members are African-American, and just
5.4 percent of guild movie-directing jobs go to blacks. The figures are even lower for the
notoriously discriminatory technical unions, which control access to jobs such as camera
operator and sound technician. Black actresses have lost ground since 1996, with stars like
Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett cooling off, and the likes of Halle Berry and Jada Pinkett
Smith still unable to ascend to Hollywood's A-list. "There isn't a single black actress who the
studios look at as being a leading lady" for a major film, says Tracey E. Edmonds, who
coproduced Soul Food. And at the very top of the Hollywood food chain, the key number is also
zero—the number of blacks among the dozen or so top studio executives who can approve, or
"green-light," spending the millions of dollars it takes to make a movie. "I've seen a lot more
people of color in the executive ranks," says Edmonds, who is black. " [But] they still have to go
up the hierarchy and convince the studio head to move forward."
Studio heads, of course, are keenly sensitive to the color of money. In the last few years box-
office bucks have propelled new names—such as Martin Lawrence (Big Momma's House), Chris
Tucker (Rush Hour) and Keenen Ivory Wayans (Scary Movie)—onto the short list of black stars
and directors viewed as bankable. Studios "see that people want to see these stories. Now there
are more directors they trust, more directors and writers who are able to do their own vision,"
says Tucker, 29, who bagged $20 million for Rush Hour 2. Tucker next plans to direct and star in
Mr. President, a comedy he wrote. "They'll do what I want to do," he says, "because there's a
market out there for me."
That's still a statement few black actors—and no black actresses—can make. "I've worked with
white actresses who have their next three projects lined up, and they go, 'What are you doing
next?' and I'm like, 'Auditioning!' " says Soul Food's Vivica A. Fox, 36, who stars in the
upcoming comedy Kingdom Come. The dearth of stars whom studios are willing to bet on
frustrates filmmakers. "When you write for a non-African-American lead, they'll start at Harrison
Ford and work their way down to Haley Joel Osment," says Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote
last year's $116 million hit Remember the Titans, starring Denzel Washington. "They won't keep
going down the list with an African-American. If Will [Smith] passes, if Denzel passes, if Sam
[Jackson] or Cuba [Gooding Jr.] passes, that's it. And sometimes if just Will passes, that's it."
Even the biggest stars often find themselves steered toward stereotype-heavy shoot-'em-ups and
comedies. Chris Rock recalls a 1997 experience he had as a rising star: "They want to meet me at
Miramax, home of Pulp Fiction. I get there and they offer me a movie about a bunch of rappers
on a bus going to make a video. I was like, 'Oh my God, what is this? Ghettoized!' " Actors such
as Laurence Fishburne and Halle Berry have headed to pay-cable channels like HBO, whose
African-American dramas have won movie or miniseries Emmys for four years running. "We
don't have to worry about ratings," says Colin Callender, president of original programming at
HBO (which, like PEOPLE, is owned by AOL Time Warner). That "allows us to take risks. But
also we can create new audiences because we create high-quality African-American product."
Twenty percent of subscribers to HBO and Cinemax are black.
What happens to black roles that break the mold? Sometimes they go to white actors. The movie
Pay It Forward was based on a novel with a black main character; onscreen Kevin Spacey
starred. Screenwriter John Ridley created the lead role in 1999's Gulf War drama Three Kings
with Samuel L. Jackson in mind, but the part was revised for George Clooney. "I feel very
frustrated to be here and not be able to make a difference," says Ridley, who is black.
Monetary inequalities also persist. Though at least four black actors—Martin Lawrence, Eddie
Murphy, Will Smith and Chris Tucker—command $20 million a film (Hollywood top dollar),
most black dramatic stars collect lower salaries than whites. "Sam Jackson, who audiences really
like, commands a decent salary, but he's not up there with the Travoltas," says NYU's Donald
Bogle. Jackson made $10 million for 2000's Shaft; Travolta makes at least $20 million a film.
Some filmmakers complain that risk-averse executives allot lower budgets to black-themed
dramas, making self-fulfilling their prophecy that black films earn less. "Most black filmmakers
encounter the idea that we don't do well overseas, which means that they push our budgets down
or sometimes films don't get made at all," says director George Tillman Jr. He made last year's
Men of Honor, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro, for $32 million. "It should have
been a $50 million movie," he says.
Such decisions simply reflect financial realities, says 20th Century Fox studio chairman Tom
Rothman. African-American family dramas like Soul Food are "too specific an American
experience to be relatable to an international audience," he says. "But that's true with other
genres too." The increasingly diverse U.S. audience flocking to recent hits is prompting
Hollywood to rethink some calculations. Weaned on rap, moviegoers aged 18 to 24—the
heaviest ticket buyers—are "much more colorblind" than past generations, says MTV
Productions president Van Toffler. Young whites, he says, are as receptive to movies like Save
the Last Dance, the MTV-produced interracial romance that has earned $86 million, as to all-
white films. "Those kids," says Vivica A. Fox, "are not afraid of color."
Five years after Jackson and fellow protesters picketed TV stations broadcasting the Academy
Awards, most black moviemakers shrug off this year's nomination near-shutout. (In 1997 two
Oscar nominees were black; in 1998, four; in 1999, none; in 2000, three. One African American
has won since '96: Cuba Gooding Jr. as Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire.) Academy
executive director Bruce Davis angrily rejects any allegations of racism among the 5,722
predominantly white voters. "At the cream of the art form, there just isn't an enormous amount to
choose from," he says. Indeed, many blacks view the Oscars as a reflection of more pervasive
problems. Instead of trying to influence Academy decisions, "what we need to do," says Sidney
Poitier, "is put that effort toward creating a level playing field for job opportunities so that we
will have actors working with the degree of consistency that will produce the performances that
cannot be denied."
For blacks in off-camera professions, progress toward that level playing field can be measured in
millimeters. Though black membership in the directors' and writers' guilds has risen since 1996,
technical jobs remain largely white. (While some union locals claim not to track members by
race, and others decline to divulge the numbers they do have, members report little change from
years past.) The president of one large L.A. craft local, who estimates its membership at 2 to 4
percent black, says criticism has spurred his union to ease its Byzantine eligibility rules—joining
unions requires work experience, but jobs are tough to get without union membership. But
clubby "father-son" hiring practices still exclude minorities. "It's the same as it ever was, it's all
contacts," says the official.
What is Hollywood doing to break the pattern of business as usual? Most major movie studios
and TV networks offer internships for minority students and have appointed executives to
oversee efforts to increase diversity on and offscreen. In corporate corridors diversity once "was
an afterthought," says Mitsy Wilson, Fox's senior vice president of diversity, but now "that
commitment is there from the executives." But there's room for improvement, says Jaleesa
Hazzard, executive director of L.A.'s Y.E.S. to Jobs, which placed 250 minority teens in summer
jobs in entertainment companies nationwide last year (up from 175 in 1996). "I'd like for [film
studios] to do more," says Hazzard. "I'm constantly begging for money and begging for jobs."
Some prominent African-Americans are fighting for change themselves. Bill Cosby funds two
programs for aspiring minority film-makers at USC's nationally recognized film school; Chris
Rock founded a humor magazine at historically black Howard University to train comedy
writers. Many blacks have started production companies. And several top directors, including
Tillman, Spike Lee and John Singleton, insist on integrated crews for their sets. Singleton
criticizes those who don't make similar efforts. "There are a lot of black people in Hollywood
who don't exercise the clout they have," he says.
One exercise of clout is still sending shock waves through Hollywood. Last February NAACP
president Kweisi Mfume and leaders of other ethnic groups negotiated agreements with the four
major TV networks, threatening a boycott if the numbers of minorities working in TV did not
increase. Consequently 31 prime-time shows now feature racially mixed casts, up from 13 in
1995. NBC started a program that requires every show that reaches its second season to hire a
new minority writer. Still, two months ago, Mfume castigated the networks for moving at "a
snail's pace" and said a boycott of one undisclosed network is "extremely likely."
Might movies be his next target? Many Hollywood African-Americans say they would welcome
a dose of his wrath. "I hope to meet with some studio heads very shortly," he told PEOPLE. "If
there is a way to broker an agreement, the NAACP will move to try to do that."
Such a move would almost surely accelerate the pace of change in Hollywood. As for Sheryl Lee
Ralph, she has founded a film festival to uncover new talents and plans to get into directing and
producing. "Eventually Hollywood will become color-blind, and the only thing that will matter is
good work, hard work and talent," she says. "But I'm not the type to sit around and wait for it to
Elizabeth Leonard, Michael Fleeman, Cynthia Wang, Karen Grigsby Bates, Lyndon Stambler,
Lorenzo Benet and Florence Nishida in Los Angeles and Steve Erwin and Amy Longsdorf in
New York City
Karen Grigsby Bates,
More From This Article
THE NUMBER OF RACIALLY MIXED CASTS ON PRIME-TIME TV HAS GROWN
132% IN FIVE YEARS
BLACK OSCAR NOMINEES SINCE '96 1.2%
SCARY MOVIE HAD THE TOP-GROSSING WEEKEND EVER FOR A BLACK
DIRECTOR $42.3 MILLION
MOVING FORWARD While blacks increase their clout at the box office and behind the
STANDING STILL ...they remain underrepresented in many of Hollywood's power
BLACK FILM EARNINGS 1996: $126 M 2000: $632 M
BLACK OSCAR NOMINEES 1996:1 of 166 2001:1 of 163
TOP BLACK ACTOR SALARIES 1996: Eddie Murphy $12M 2001: Chris Tucker (one
of four) $20M
TOP BUCK ACTRESS SALARIES 1996: Whitney Houston $10M 2001: Halle Berry
BLACKS DIRECTING FILMS 1996: 2.9% 1999: 5.4%
WORKING BLACK SCREENWRITERS 1996: 2.5% 2001: 3.5%