The Color of Money: No Longer Black and White

The New York Times

THIS month, if all goes according to plan, two very different impulses roiling inside of black Hollywood will have met in the middle of the summer movie season.

With the release of 20th Century Fox's "Fanatastic Four" this weekend, Tim Story becomes one of the few African-Americans (joining John Singleton with "2 Fast 2 Furious," Antoine Fuqua with "King Arthur," and Keenen Ivory Wayans with "Scary Movie," for instance) to direct a major studio "popcorn" film. Mr. Story, best known for his breakthrough movie "Barbershop," has thus made his mark as a major league director who only happens to be black.

Two weeks later, a largely black cast and producing team - working with the white writer-director Craig Brewer - will deliver "Hustle & Flow," a hip-hop inspired picture from Paramount Classics and MTV Films. The movie is intent on turning its portrayal of a distinctly African-American pop-cultural icon - the actor Terrence Howard's sympathetic pimp who dreams of the rap life - into a broadly appealing story of human redemption.

Both films share a fierce determination by their African-American principals to reach the mainstream audience, albeit by different strategies. Mr. Story's challenge doesn't hinge on race: he has to find something for Everyman in the travails of his Marvel Comics heroes. "Hustle & Flow," meanwhile, gives viewers a pass to the ghetto, to show that all the world shares its tragedies and triumphs.

As it happens, neither Mr. Story nor the "Hustle & Flow" team found it easy to crack a system where black talent, despite some enormous successes, is still finding barriers to be overcome. Yet their movies have arrived in the middle of a year that may someday be seen as at least a minor watershed in Hollywood's long struggle with matters of race.

In February, Jamie Foxx (in "Ray") and Morgan Freeman (in "Million Dollar Baby") won Oscars - as their fellow black actors Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo joined them in picking up a record five Academy Award nominations. The showing came as a startling string of box-office successes, as black actors rode (or drove) one picture after another to the No. 1 spot in the early weeks of the year. Tyler Perry did it "Hustle & Flow"-style, by making his low-budget, overtly black "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" a cross-cultural hit for Lions Gate, with over $50 million in domestic ticket sales. It competed with Sony Pictures' "Hitch," in which Will Smith put aside racial stereotyping to play his first comic-romantic lead (following the colorblind impulse, and a trail blazed by Denzel Washington with dramas like "The Siege" and "The Manchurian Candidate"), to score over $177 million at the domestic box office. It was also up against "Are We There Yet?," with Ice Cube; "Guess Who?," with Bernie Mac; and "Coach Carter," with Samuel L. Jackson - all of which were solid performers, and all, remarkably, playing theaters at the same time.

"I do think the tide is turning," said John Ridley, an African-American filmmaker who is writing and producing a "Barbershop" television series for Showtime Networks. "Things are definitely moving forward. People look at Hollywood and say, 'I wish it was changing here or there.' But if I'd come in the business 10 years earlier, I wouldn't be where I am today."

In interviews, black filmmakers and actors and those who work with them echoed that sense of progress, pointing especially to evidence that white audiences - spurred by the 20-year-old hip-hop revolution - are going to films that might once have been seen as an African-American preserve. Sony Pictures, for instance, found the audience for "Are We There Yet?" - its star once best known for the brutal harshness of his gangsta rap with NWA - was 43 percent white, 26 percent black and 18 percent Hispanic.

"Music is always the first crossover medium," said David Gale, executive vice president of MTV Films, which is releasing "Hustle and Flow." "Hip-hop is universal right now, or more universal right now than rock, and that's a big foundation for MTV. In film, we just get the benefit."

Still, several key African-American players cautioned that Hollywood - largely run by white agents and executives -had yet to find its comfort zone with black talent and black themes.

"I don't think much has changed for black films," said Jeff Friday, who runs Film Life Inc., a small distributor specializing in black-themed movies. "They still think that we're monolithic, and mostly the films are limited to urban themes and comedy. Don Cheadle just got his first big lead role this year. Hollywood is risk averse, and I do think it's more economics than it is race. But here's the thing about the economics piece - when a black movie goes outside the box and does well, Hollywood doesn't follow up on it."

In the case of Mr. Story, a 35-year old Los Angeles native once known mainly as a director of music videos, Fox actually did follow up on his success with MGM's "Barbershop" by backing his "Taxi" with Queen Latifah. And the studio went the next step by assigning him "Fantastic Four" despite weak reviews for "Taxi" and its modest box-office performance. But he felt that, as a black director seeking a mainstream assignment, he couldn't afford any weak spots.

"I knew that if I got my chance, I would be better prepared than anybody out there," Mr. Story said. He added, "it took a while" for the implications to sink in: "A few people called me about the black thing and said: 'This is major. You're a black director on "Fantastic Four." ' But all I was thinking was: 'I just don't want to screw up.' But then people were like, 'If you screw this up, we all got a problem,' and I said, 'Oh, man, I got that on me now?' "

If Mr. Story felt extra pressure in undertaking "Fantastic Four," those behind "Hustle & Flow" still found Hollywood surprisingly slow on the uptake when asked to translate rap iconography to film. Stephanie Allain, who helped produce "Boyz N the Hood" while an executive at Columbia in 1991, struck out repeatedly when pitching "Hustle" to studios that weren't ready to accept a pimp -a stock urban character who through rap has become a familiar of the MTV generation- as a hero. "Can he be a mailman? Can he be a U.P.S. driver?," Ms. Allain recalled being asked. "Can he do anything but the lowest of the low? There was this P.C. thing going on."

She joined forces with Mr. Singleton and financed the film independently, then sold the completed picture to Paramount Classics after screening it at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Set for release on July 22, it will forcefully test Ms. Allain's theory that a substantial audience, having already embraced the harshest aspects of street culture in music, will now do so in film, provided the story's moral remains clear: "If a low-down, dirty pimp can be redeemed, so can we."

Some say the challenge in universalizing such projects may largely be one of marketing. In making "Barbershop" a crossover hit with $75 million in domestic ticket sales despite its cozy, insider's sense of black neighborhood life, MGM, at the urging of the producers Robert Teitel and George Tillman Jr., promoted the film well beyond the usual boundaries of black radio, BET and billboards on assorted Martin Luther King boulevards. "Offhand, I would say our movie was about 60/40 black-white," said Mr. Tillman. "They said they believed in 'Barbershop' like any other film."

In tapping black experience for the broad audience, both "Barbershop" and "Hustle & Flow" have clearly pursued the promise of "Boyz N the Hood," which 14 years ago proved the potential in a ghetto-based drama with a solid $57 million in domestic ticket sales - and jump-started the film careers of not just Mr. Singleton, but also of Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut and Nia Long. Yet Hollywood quickly veered toward the somewhat harsher visions of pictures like the Hughes brothers' "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," which to many lacked the compassion and broad humanity that underlay Mr. Singleton's debut film. Only lately, has it seemed to rediscover the potential commercial power in simple black morality tales like "Drumline," a low budget picture about a black high school marching band that two years ago took in $56 million for Fox, or "You Got Served," an inexpensive amalgam of cliché and hip-hop dance scenes that had $40 million in ticket sales for Sony last year.

As such pictures complete their circle - and Mr. Smith, in colorblind studio fare, commands grosses to rival those of Eddie Murphy at his peak - at least one major sore spot still remains in black Hollywood: its women.

None of the big hits anchored by African-Americans this year were carried by women. The one major candidate was "Beauty Shop," which starred Queen Latifah and, notwithstanding her much-lauded performance in "Chicago," brought in $36 million dollars at the domestic box office - around half what the original "Barbershop" and its sequel each did.

"After Halle Berry does her films and Latifah does her films, it's left to all the black, Latino and Asian actresses to fight over a couple of roles," said Gabrielle Union, who played Alice Kramden in Paramount's poorly received black-themed adaptation of "The Honeymooners" this year. "I opted for some TV. There's just not a ton of work in film."

By early next year, even that may begin to change, as Ms. Berry, putting "Catwoman" behind her, returns in her third showing as Storm in Fox's "X-Men" franchise, and Beyoncé Knowles arrives as a full-blown lead in the director Bill Condon's adaptation of the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" for Dreamworks SKG.

Yet progress isn't victory. Indeed, Mr. Gale of MTV warned that viewers tend still tend to polarize along racial lines if not encouraged to see common ground in a film. "There's still a lot of segregation among movie audiences, but the younger audience is more open," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Friday of Film Life cautioned that success and acceptance aren't quite the same, either - and that the second may still be several beats behind the first. "We ate at the table this year," he said. "But we can't afford to get comfortable."