Has visibility in front of camera translated into black power behind it?

TIP SHEET
What: NAACP Image Awards
When: Tonight (5 PT/8 ET)
Where: Shrine Auditorium, L.A.
Telecast: Fox 8 p.m. (live Eastern Time, tape-delayed Pacific Time)

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For years, the NAACP Image Awards’ podium was the only venue for black actors to make acceptance speeches. Recently, it’s just as often been used for encores.

Coming after a record five black nominees in Oscar’s acting categories, this year’s Image Awards ballot overlaps the Academy’s to an unprecedented degree. And as the box office receipts for “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Dreamgirls” demonstrate, toplining black actors have become as prominent commercially as critically.

While this is certainly cause for celebration, serious questions remain about how long this prominence will last, and whether onscreen diversity will carry over to less-visible areas of the industry.

Don Cheadle, who has one Oscar nom (“Hotel Rwanda”) and nine Image noms to his name, is cautious to declare any sort of black conquest of Hollywood.

“In the 1970s, during the blaxploitation era, you might say that a similar comment could have been made,” he observes. “Then it kind of fell off the radar, and it was like, ‘Where are the black people?’ And then they started showing up again, but mostly in roles as criminals and gangsters and murderers and thieves.

“And then there was sort of a hibernation and a reemergence again, with black actors now representing the whole diaspora of black people. But it’s something we’ll have to look back on to see if it’s just a trend or something more.”

Even if it turns out to be the latter, there’s no guarantee the scene behind the camera will mirror that in front of it.

“The rise in visibility of black actors seems to have coincided with a decrease in the number of films by black writers, directors, producers,” says Todd Boyd, cinema studies professor at the U. of Southern California and author of “Am I Black Enough for You?”

For contrast, Boyd points to the early 1990s as a time of burgeoning potential for African-Americans in the industry, a potential he feels has yet to be realized. “These days you don’t have the kind of groundbreaking films that you had with ‘New Jack City,’ ‘Boyz N the Hood’ or ‘Menace II Society,’ ” he opines.

Indeed, despite the abundance of young black helmers from that period, the number of African-Americans nominated for the best director Oscar can still be counted on one hand. Or rather, on one finger: John Singleton’s nom for “Boyz” marks the only time an African-American has cracked the category. And it’s looking increasingly possible that an African-American may sooner preside over the entire country than head up a major studio.

Past Image winner and current supporting actor nominee (for “Blood Diamond”) Djimon Hounsou looks to lead by example. “I certainly hope that my journey in Hollywood doesn’t go unnoticed, and that it encourages others of African descent to do more as directors and producers,” says Hounsou, who was born in Benin and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Yet he also finds fault with the notion that encouraging black talent should be seen as an end in itself. “We owe it to ourselves not to use the terminology of, ‘Hey brother, can you help me with this, help me with that…'” he says, “because this is a business. If we can stay away from that and treat it as a business, the same way we treat other vocations, I think we can advance.”

Kerry Washington, who took home a best actress Image kudo for her role in “Ray” and is nominated this year for her supporting work in “The Last King of Scotland,” takes a similarly professional stance. “If people feel that there’s a problem (with the number of African-Americans behind the camera), then they should be proactive about it,” she says. “If I feel that there aren’t enough X’s or enough Y’s, then I should try to evolve to fill those spaces.”

Many actors are doing just that. Award darlings Forest Whitaker and Denzel Washington both made the leap from actor to director years ago; Will Smith, Cheadle and many other thesps have taken the reins as major producers. Though many decry what they perceive as antiquated stereotypes in his films, Tyler Perry has nonetheless found phenomenal success as an actor, director, writer and producer.

These recent strides may not be accompanied by the fanfare that greeted the emergence of Singleton, Spike Lee and the Hughes brothers, but perhaps that’s for the better.

According to Boyd and other observers, a major impediment to further growth is the misconception that “black cinema” can be regarded as a unified, specialized genre. “It’s good when you start to see films where individuals are cast the way Denzel Washington or Will Smith are cast,” Boyd says. “The movies they star in now are not necessarily what people would consider ‘black movies’ or to have ‘black’ subject matter.”

Hounsou, speaking of his plans to branch out into production with his Belly Serpent shingle, agrees: “Am I going to focus on (producing) African and African-American stories? No, not at all. I’m only interested in human stories.”

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