Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Negro Problem

Two things floated across my eyes today, and together, they got me thinking. The first was Glory, that fantastic Ed Zwick Civil War movie starring Denzel Washington (in the role he won his first Oscar for), Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Matthew Broderick. Its Black History Month, so you're bound to catch this on basic cable at one time or another. Fantastic film, if you haven't seen it.

The second was a trailer for a film called The World's Fastest Indian, starring Anthony Hopkins as a colorful New Zealander who tries to break the land-speed record on a motorcycle of his own invention. True story, apparently. Probably pretty decent, since, at the very least, Sir Tony's worth watching in almost anything. (Having said that, I vividly recall renting Zardoz, spurred by the thought "It's got Sean bad could it be?" Ooof.)

And what do these two films have in common? Not too much, except that they point out a strange Hollywood blind spot. There are not a lot of big-budget movies erected around black stars. (Will Smith is, really, the only exception to this rule.) The popular wisdom is that black actors don't pull people into movies, especially overseas. Even Denzel, fresh off his second Oscar for Training Day, had to watch as a film he was set to star in called American Gangster (directed by Antoine Fuqua, also rebounding from Training Day) fell apart because the budget was over $100 million.

As I watched Glory, I got to thinking, Where's the Martin Luther King biopic? Where's the Jackie Robinson film that Spike Lee's been trying to make for a decade now? Hell, Spike had to beg for money to complete X. (Inside the Actor's Studio is, by now, pure knob-smoking farce, but if you've never seen the Spike Lee hour, in which he tearfully recounts how Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey wrote him personal checks so he could finish editing the film, track it down.) There are great stories about the black experience out there to be made, why is Hollywood so reluctant to make them? Why can a film about some Kiwi motorcyclist get a theatrical release, with ads during the Super Bowl, but a movie like Boycott—starring the witheringly talented Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King—has to be made for HBO? The World's Fastest Indian isn't gonna make any money, no way, no how. But someone bankrolled it, anyway. Because they loved the story.

For a while, January was seen as a dead month for magazine newsstand sales. Nothing sold. And nothing we did would change it. (Things have since changed a bit.) So, when faced with the reality that no matter what we put on the cover the magazine wasn't gonna sell on the newsstand, we realized that we could put whatever we wanted on the cover. Things we would never try any other time during the year. It was liberating, and we got some terrific covers out of it.

There are stories out there, crying to be told. And if no one's gonna see your movie anyway, why not make the best one you can? To quote that wizened cinematic sage, Wesley Snipes, in Passenger 57, "Always bet on black."

EDIT: I see that New Line is moving ahead with a Duke Ellington film, The Jazz Ambassadors, starring Morgan Freeman and directed by (apparently, the only black filmmaker working in the studio system) Antoine Fuqua. Good on ya.


Ken Lowery said...

It's funny. You mentioned Anthony Hopkins, so I wondered if The Human Stain was going to come up. I haven't actually seen it, but I realize I'm hardly alone there.

As far as I can tell, the only black people getting movies made about them are black women -- witness Something New as the latest example of this. But with most of the entertainment press (ahem) decreeing last year a failure for movies aimed at adult women, I wonder how much longer studios will sink money into even those projects. (I know I'm not exactly vibrating with excitement at the thought of Medea's Family Reunion.)

It's too bad Snipes doesn't get more work. I challenge anyone to see Blade, Demolition Man, Jungle Fever, and White Men Can't Jump and then tell me that guy doesn't have incredible range.

marc bernardin said...

Yeah, Anthony Hopkins is maybe the least convincing black guy since C. Thomas Howell.

Black men are getting lots of movies made for them. The problem is, those films are direct-to-DVD films starring barely known rappers as thug-life criminals. Because, apparently, black men in their 30s care about nothing else. (And you ain't the only one rueing the day when Madea's Family Reuinion comes out, brother.)

It's really too bad Wesley Snipes went crazy, because he held the most promise out of all of them, Denzel included. He could do comedy, action, drama, romance...I caught One Night Stand last night, totally by accident, and while it isn't a fantastic film, it's got a lot of things going for it, including a Wesley Snipes who could hold his own with Robert Downey Jr--perhaps the actor of his generation.