African Americans in Hollywood: A black-on-black shame

It’s Friday night in Chicago. Ice and snow blanket the surrounding landscape. Chicago’s frigid winds reinforces its nickname “Windy City.” But despite the sub-zero winds, a long line of shivering Chicagoans fight off the bone chilling cold and huddle tightly together, anticipating the first showing of the movie “Jason’s Lyric.” A voice bellows from behind the ticket window, announcing the 9:30 p.m. show is sold out. The next Showing is scheduled for 10:45 p.m. But ignoring the cold, not a single person moves. With such loyalty from African-American filmgoers, the question begs asking: “Why do so many Black filmmakers in Hollywood seem to take this level of dedication for granted?”

In every movie magazine, newspaper article and television show that I encounter, Blacks in Hollywood are persistently crying the blues, constantly belly-aching about what they don’t have and what they can’t do because they never learned to use what they have to accomplish what they can.

But what are they trying to accomplish? The right to produce the same average stories? The right to produce films about violence, killings, drugs, hip hop gansta rap and the broken African-American family?

Regardless of who is in control, we can define our own destiny. When is the last time that we searched our souls for a story and not simply a script for money? When has a successful Black filmmaker truly opened his or her arms to provide a new, talented Black filmmaker fast-track access to the inner circle?

What we need is a coming together of African-Americans in filmmaking so that we can deal with corporate Hollywood as it is today. When we come to terms with what it is we want in this business and what level we want to play, then we will have the respect and attention that we deserve.

The real story behind what is on the movie screen is not about race but about money, and we all know Hollywood is not in the business of losing money.

Should we expect corporate Hollywood to hand over control of a $5 billion dollar industry? No. This is where the problem in Hollywood exists — job security, plain and simple. Hollywood traditionally has been a business of dog eat dog … swim with the sharks or be eaten alive … either you make it or you don’t.

It is not only artists who affect the content of film but the executives, who fill positions of wealth and fame. Some of these executives were raised in environments sheltered from Blacks. The only image they have of African-Americans are what they see on the news or read in newspapers and magazines. Therefore, this is the only picture they have to portray on the big screen. To them it is business and business only.

The African-American men and women who hold major positions in Hollywood add to the problems that exist. They are usually not willing to go out on a limb for a new project that might place their jobs in jeopardy.

A review of box office history shows that African-American films with the highest revenue grosses are those containing a strong story, character development, comedy, and more action than violence. “Boyz N the Hood,” “Stir Crazy,” “Boomerang,” “Sister Act II,” and “She’s Gotta Have It” are all films that had significant cost/return revenue. In contrast, most films that deal strictly with violence seem to start strong the first weekend just to die shortly thereafter.

African Americans are tired of the same types of films depicting us in a negative lifestyle. This is such a small picture of Black America. The Black middle and upper classes — educated and employed — have grown by leaps and bounds. Our economic, political and social powers continue to grow year by year. Furthermore, all other ethnic groups would be likely to support our work if we stopped always presenting African Americans as inept, ghetto-ridden, down-trodden and oppressed, and instead began to present a more accurate picture of the total African-American community.

Another area in the African-American filmmaking community that spells major trouble is the marriage of the African-American film and the ancillary motion picture soundtrack. It is problematic because we are beginning to think “booming-soundtrack-first-and-film second.” More and more of our films are simply two-hour music videos. A case in point is “Murder Was the Case,” a video turned into a movie that premiered on pay-per-view television.

Exceptions include “Purple Rain,” “The Bodyguard,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” and “The Five Heartbeats,” which are all examples of a successful marriage of the two genres because the music was used as a vehicle to carry the action and entertainment value of the movie. The music was not simply used as a flashy marketing tool to get an audience to rush out and see a very disappointing story. We must stop putting the focus on the soundtrack, and return our primary attention to the problems of the African-American filmmaking.

We are blessed to have excellent writers, actors, and directors. Give them a chance to prove themselves Let’s lose the egoism of “Look at me world, I’m one of the chosen few.”

It’s a Black-on-Black shame if we don’t take time to open our eyes and give back to others who have real talent.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group



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