No doubt the Oscars’ overlooking of black industry players this year will come in for sharp criticism, accompanied by hand-wringing and amorphous pledges to do better. Yet the ensuing platitudes are likely to omit a very important detail: with a few notable exceptions, 2010 was a figurative wasteland for black cinema.
By no means should this imply that quality black films do not exist — plenty do, and the industry is replete with examples of excellent movies with black actors and directors at the helm. The principal problem is that for every emotional Eve’s Bayou or Precious, there’s a proportionately farcical Soul Plane or a Lottery Ticket. In short, much of what is considered marketable fare in Hollywood skews toward the comedic or romantic variety with an urban (and often buffoonish) flavor. While many laudable and noteworthy independent black films (such as the little-seen Night Catches Us) do get made, they often debut to minuscule audiences, virtually non-existent industry buzz and sharply limited distribution. Many have talented yet unknown actors and directors that lack name recognition and track record that brings in audiences. Suffice to say, most well-made black movies are hard-pressed to find financial success and mainstream accolades.
It’s not difficult to fathom why. A thoughtful 2009 New York Times article accurately detailed the state of contemporary black cinema and what continues to hamper its development. Despite the commercial and critical successes of Mr. Washington, Ms. Berry and especially Will Smith — all of whom have enjoyed a variety of roles that steadfastly defy stereotyping — Hollywood continues to view black moviegoers through a woefully circumscribed prism. To them, black movies are less mainstream products than they are niche. And let’s be frank: the overwhelming majority of black consumers give them ample reason for doing so.
- Javier E. David, The Grio
You can argue that some minorities have been snubbed, starting with Spike Lee, who’s never been nominated for a directing award, not even for landmark films like “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.” But the Oscars reflect what’s happening in the marketplace. And the cold truth is that black talent rarely receives Oscar opportunities because it works in one of the most minority-free industries in America.
Two African American coaches have faced off in the Super Bowl. Black coaches have won NBA championships. A black man has served on the Supreme Court, been a senator, an astronaut, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, won a Pulitzer Prize and — oh, yes — is currently serving as president of the United States. But if you look at the people who make the decisions about what movies are made in Hollywood, you’d have to look far and wide to find any prominent AfricanAmerican or Latino executives.
There are no studio chairmen or heads of production who are black or Latino. In fact, there are barely any people of color in any high-level positions at any major studio, talent agency or management firm. When I asked a couple of reporter pals to name the most powerful black executive in town, a lot of head-scratching ensued before we decided that the person with the most clout was probably James Lassiter, Will Smith’s longtime business partner and production company chief.
Smith has plenty of juice in town, with every studio salivating at the chance to make his next project. But he’s an anomaly and largely more interested in making commercial movies than Oscar-oriented fare (although he has twice been nominated for an acting Oscar).
Of last year’s top-grossing films, only one in the top 40 was directed by anyone of color, “The Book of Eli,” which starred Washington and was directed by the Hughes Brothers. Tyler Perry had two films in the Top 100 box-office grossers domestically, but like most films with African American casts, they made virtually no money overseas, which is where Hollywood increasingly looks for its profits.
- Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times