A changing of the guard is slowly taking place in Hollywood. Larger than life movie stars of yesteryear are dying out. The new school is rolling in. But in the process, many talented upstarts are being judged by the color of their skin, not their ability.
Ironically, Hollywood is only a hop, skip and a jump away from Los Angeles, a town often classified as the diversity capital of the world. African Americans make up 9.6 percent of the city’s population, and 9.3 percent of L.A. County. This essentially means that Hollywood–the place where magic happens to only white folk (I’m paraphrasing a bit) — is surrounded by a pool of black, brown and yellow inhabitants, many of whom will never realize their dreams of making it to the big screen. That in and of itself is a drama. Because work is hard to come by these days for black actors, the trend has been for the more established bunch to hoard the scraps left behind by the Taylor Lautners and Jennifer Lawrences of the world. Even when movies are made specifically for black actors, the names on the marquee rarely change.
For example, “The Best Man” rocked theaters over 13 years ago (during the Clinton era). Nevertheless, “The Best Man 2,” is slated to premiere on November 15, despite the prolonged delay. During production, the amenities on set included rocking chairs, joint juice, Epson salt, butterscotch, bingo cards, seltzer, mashed potatoes, and access to handicap parking (per request of the cast). Yes, that’s a reference to old age.
“Bad Boys,” the original, exploded on the scene back in 95′ (when hoop earrings were a staple in men’s fashion). But lo and behold, a third installment of that franchise is rumored to be in its developmental stages (prepare for a 2015 release. At that point, the dynamic duo will be pushing 50. Perhaps afterward they will audition for roles in “The Expendables” series).
And someone recently told me that “Still Breathing,” the second chapter of “Waiting To Exhale,” is on its way.
“They’re gonna use a holograph of Whitney Houston so she can be in it too,” this person said.
No. Wait. I’m just kidding about that last one. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true.
In all seriousness, there is a gaping hole in Black Hollywood that can’t be filled with only the cast of “The Wood.” I’m all about consistency. But damn, when will we (the audience) finally be subjected to some brand new blood Black Hollywood? I think we’ve had our fill of Sanaa Lathan being hemmed up against a wall by some horny professional, and no disrespect, but Morgan Freeman is on the brink of croaking (he even completed his bucket list on screen).
I’m not saying that priority should be given to fresh-faced rookies trying to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. It shouldn’t, in most cases. But how can a youngster eat when his older brother or sister (or great grandfather in Freeman’s case) keeps hogging all the food? Add race to the equation and finding a gig becomes twice as gnarly for a young upstart.
This concept transcends color barriers. However, it applies most to young black actors in search of steady work. Gaining a foothold in the entertainment industry is hard enough. But achieving longevity becomes an even greater challenge when road blocks are created by those who are supposed to open doors (ala veteran black actors and directors).
But, let’s get back to brass tax.
It’s no secret that African Americans are underrepresented, and generally unwelcome, in (White) Hollywood. Granted, the wheels of progress turn with every passing year (which is indicated by the proliferation of black talent on television recently). However, at the varsity level (or rather, in film), your typical All-American blond (at least that’s how they start out) still sets the standard for what’s “in.”
It doesn’t matter that many of these so-called “movie stars” consistently fail to impress on screen, and some collect more DUI’s than rednecks collect shotguns, bourbon and rally invites from the NRA. But I digress.
“Its unfortunate,” says Edna Simms of ESP Public Relations. “There is so much new talent out there but directors don’t want to give them a chance. You see so many girls who started off doing films forced to do TV now. Taraji (P. Henson) was nominated for an academy award. Now she doing TV. It makes you go hmm what’s going on here?”
The transition from the big screen to the smaller version is one that black actors have learned to embrace over the past few years, Sims says. In the future, she believes that primetime television will become an amalgam of cultural and racial inclusion, anchored by the presence of Black star power.
“I’m seeing a lot more television roles for young black people,” she predicts. “Right now there are plenty of television show that feature people of color. That’s a good thing. I don’t know what’s happening on the big screen. But these folks are leading television.”
Nine major television networks including NBC, ABC, and CBS have propelled several black actors into new roles on a variety of shows.
“But that has no bearing on why shows aren’t created to feature black youth in starring roles,” Sims quickly retorted.
To make matters worse, Sims added, the roles that are normally designed for up and comers have been monopolized by wily veterans who are either desperate for exposure or need the income.
“It’s the same thing in the music industry,” she went on to say. “You always hear from the same rappers. It’s always Jay-Z or Kanye West. They stick around until they get played out. We suffer through the same old same talent. It’s no different with Gospel or anything else. Actors are being recycled ad nauseum.”
This discrepancy between young and old is no coincidence. We live in a world of capitalism, where the bottom line is supersedes all else. Thus, “for profit” filmmakers instinctively choose the sure thing—a seasoned performer—instead of gambling on a rookie, Sims says.
“It’s economics 101. They live by the accountant theory. If the numbers makes sense, why change?”
Edna added, “There are so few roles to go around. Even the sidekick roles are few and in between for young black talent. So what’s happening is that directors are choosing the best the bunch to maximize their earning potential. There aren’t very many of us in film in the first place. And not to many people are going to line up to see a no name. We are creatures of habit. So we pay to see who we have been seeing all along. In many cases, that doesn’t include a Jurnee Smollet or Lance Gross. And they’re good actors. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”