The Hollywood Shuffle : Black Film Makers Decry Lack of Industry Clout
Two years after creating the cult comedy “Hollywood Shuffle” and directing “Raw: Eddie Murphy Live,” is Robert Townsend getting offered lots of parts? “Oh, sure,” the black actor-director said with a wry chuckle. “All the ones that Eddie (Murphy) or Richard (Pryor) have passed on.”
Lauded by critics as a hot comic commodity, Townsend has the ultimate Hollywood calling card--a three-picture development deal with Warner Bros. Films. But so far he is not being offered the kinds of parts that would go to white comic actors like Martin Short or Billy Crystal.
Is it because he is black? Do the economics of the Hollywood studio system stack the deck against young black talent? According to black film makers, Townsend’s career opportunities are severely limited by an apparent Hollywood attitude that white audiences will not go see films populated with black stars.
Black entertainers have achieved widespread acclaim in pop music, sports and television. But in Hollywood, black star power is a rare commodity. With major studio production geared toward mega-hits, it has become increasingly difficult to bankroll modest-budgeted films that explore ethnic issues or feature black directors, writers or black casts.
“It’s a shame--it’s a totally messed-up situation,” said Townsend, currently co-starring with Denzel Washington in “The Mighty Quinn,” an MGM/UA film. “The studio people are scared. Nothing about black subject matter gets done until a film maker with clout--like Norman Jewison or Steven Spielberg--comes along and insists on telling the story.
“America should be the melting pot of all kinds of film and all kinds of stories. But instead, you almost never see films where black characters are the heroes. You don’t see blacks with sex lives or even girlfriends.”
According to conventional studio wisdom, Eddie Murphy is the only black actor with enough box-office wallop to draw a significant crossover audience. “That’s so out of touch with reality,” said Keenen Ivory Wayans, who directed and starred in “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” a popular low-low-budget blaxploitation spoof.
“Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey are all huge stars. It can’t be that only black people support them. White America goes to the movies. And if you entertain them, they’ll go to your movies, regardless of the color of the entertainer.”
Even Murphy, whose films have grossed more than $1 billion in barely six years, isn’t immune to studio fears about attracting white audiences.
“My last movie was virtually all-black and the studio was definitely a little nervous,” said Murphy, who has a lucrative long-term contract at Paramount Pictures. “They were wondering if white people--or how many white people--would go see it.
“Then the movie made $200 million worldwide, so I think you can say there are plenty of white people out there who’ll go see a movie with black people-- lots of black people--in it.”
You can always find black people in Spike Lee’s movies. Lots of them. In fact, the young black director’s third feature, a barbed tale about New York race relations called “Do the Right Thing,” is his first with a major white character, played by actor Danny Aiello. (The film is due this summer from Universal.)
“It was supposed to be made at Paramount,” he said. “But they got scared of how people might react to it. They were afraid it was going to incite people to riot or something. When they got cold feet, I took it to Universal, who’s been very enthusiastic about it.
“In fact, I was out in L.A., in between meetings with Paramount when I realized they were starting to get scared. So I had (ex-Universal production exec) Sean Daniels come over to my hotel and gave him a copy of the script while I was waiting for the next meeting. When Paramount told me they were passing, I had him OK the script within an hour!”
According to Paramount motion picture group chairman Sidney Ganis, the studio had no problems with the film’s content. “There was nothing extraordinary or inflammatory about the material at all,” he said. “We were interested in the film--and in Spike. And we continue to have a strong interest in working with him. We’ve spoken several times since we passed (on “Do the Right Thing”). We just decided it was a film we didn’t want to make.”
Lee isn’t shy about attacking what he sees as moviedom’s racial politics. He contends that Columbia Pictures, which distributed his second feature, “School Daze,” did little to promote the movie outside the black community. Before it opened, he complained that Columbia chief Dawn Steel had “ghettoized” the film. (Today he says: “It was left out there to die. It made $16 million with no help at all. It was pitiful how they dogged us.”) Columbia refused to comment.
Lee’s current “great” relationship with Universal hasn’t stopped him from speaking out about what he calls Hollywood’s “total disregard” for black history. “Film has an enormous power to interpret history,” he said. “Listen, lots of people--even black people--think Cleopatra was a white woman just ‘cause Elizabeth Taylor played her in the movie.”
He is especially outraged by “Mississippi Burning’s” controversial fictionalization of the 1964 murder of three civil-rights workers. “Now you got people walking around thinking the civil rights movement was saved by the FBI! Real art has to be about the truth. You can’t make stuff up and twist facts around just because you want to sell the picture.”
Lee takes his complaints to the top. Spotting an anti-"Mississippi Burning” letter in the New York Times, Lee faxed copies to Orion production chief Mike Medavoy and MCA motion picture chairman Tom Pollock. He followed with phone calls. “I simply asked Medavoy how Orion could make a film about the civil rights movement without any prominent black characters. He told me it was a really uplifting film and that they were getting criticized from both sides, so they must be doing something right.”
Lee disagreed. “The people--black and white--who died in the civil rights struggle have got to be spinning in their graves after that movie.”
Hollywood’s white Establishment isn’t Lee’s only target. “I love Eddie Murphy and I’m 100% behind him, but if I ever get one iota of the power he has, I’m gonna raise holy (expletive) hell,” Lee said. “Eddie has made a billion dollars for Paramount. Yet I don’t see any black executives with any real power at that place.
“If I were Eddie, I’d go into Sid Ganis’ office and say, ‘If you want me to keep making movies here, I want to see some qualified black production execs and marketing execs. And I can guarantee you the next day there’ll be plenty of black execs on that lot.
“I have minuscule juice compared to Eddie. I can’t go into Tom Pollock’s office and ask for anything--he’d think I was crazy. But Eddie has economic clout. Look at Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. They all use it. It’s a privilege that comes with power. And once we get in that position, we shouldn’t be uncomfortable or ashamed about using the same Hollywood machinery everyone else uses to get our people access to jobs, too.”
Still, hasn’t Murphy provided lots of black talent with jobs through his production companies Lee countered: “Come on. Everyone he’s got working there is related to him!
“Eddie needs to flex his muscles in ways that can help black people get into this industry. Clout isn’t just getting the best table at Spago. How’s that helping your people?”
Murphy was dismayed by Lee’s harsh criticism. “It’s real easy to be on the outside looking in, telling people what you should be doing,” he said. “But I don’t need anyone telling me how much social consciousness I should have, especially if you don’t know my overall plan. I’ve done a lot for my people.
“Progress is a gradual thing in this town. We’ve made light years of progress in the past five years. And Spike, Keenen and Robert Townsend are great examples. Ten years ago those guys couldn’t have gotten pictures made in this town. But since I’ve had success at the box office, every studio has been looking around for a black guy of their own who could make hit movies.”
Murphy laughed. “I’ve opened the door for Spike and now he’s throwing rocks at me!”
Murphy is now directing “Harlem Nights,” a film he wrote which stars himself, Richard Pryor and Arsenio Hall. He said Eddie Murphy Television has two black producers, while his film arm, Eddie Murphy Productions, has two black development executives.
“And none of them are related to me,” he added. “I do have two family members who are associate producers with my companies. But that’s not unusual. And on my films, my editors, my cameramen, my make-up people--and lots of behind the scenes people--are black.
“I don’t think the answer is me rushing into Paramount and raising hell. You can’t go into someone’s house and start yelling (obscenity) just because you’re Eddie Murphy. It’s their house. Clout comes and goes around here. I’m just the brother of the moment.
“I’ve made lots of contributions to help my people prosper. But I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman and a film maker. And what I try to do is make movies that appeal to everybody. The loudest statement you can make is to be a black man and make movies for everybody. I think that’s the biggest political statement of all.”
Paramount’s Sidney Ganis said his studio enjoys strong associations with blacks, noting that both Murphy and Arsenio Hall have exclusive film deals at Paramount. “It also so happens that for years we’ve had a black publicity executive--Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who’s now a vice president of publicity here,” Ganis said. “And in our production area, we have Kevin Jones, a young black executive who’s been responsible--along with others--for developing our upcoming films, ‘Fat Man and Little Boy’ and ‘Star Trek V,’ and who’s worked with Eddie Murphy and his development people on his new film, ‘Harlem Nights.’
“Our hiring them, among others here, had nothing to do with black or white issues--or anything Eddie might ever say. We hired them because they’re good movie executives.”
Still, other film makers see an industry full of white faces. “I look out there and I only see a handful of black executives or agents,” said Robert Townsend. “It goes all down the line. There are still plenty of places in America where theater owners just don’t want black films.
“But when you make a great film, the issue isn’t color. The issue becomes magic. If the industry feels you can make money for them, then the color issue turns green. I never say, ‘Man, if I was white. . . . ' If I do quality work, I’ll get my share.”
No one has lambasted the Hollywood shuffle more than Lee, whose outspoken views often rattle film executives. “I know Hollywood isn’t in love with me,” he said. “But they believe they can make money with me. And the minute they don’t, I bet they’ll get rid of me.”
Lee insists that most Hollywood executives have little contact with black realities. “They pride themselves on being so liberal and open-minded, but they never come into contact with real black people. Just because you see Eddie Murphy or Quincy Jones or some other Hollywood Negro at a party, doesn’t mean you know black people.
“In Hollywood, business gets done by connections. I get resumes every day from young black people who want to get into the business. Eighty-five per cent of the crew on my last movie was black. I got 11 people into the union. They don’t want me to take the mike and blast it out that they don’t have any black people in the union, so we got waivers to hire them--and by virtue of them working on the film, we found ways of getting them into the union.
“It’s not much, but it’s a start. They probably had two black people in the union before. Now they got 11 more!”
Lee cautioned: “There are only two things people react to in our society today--violence and economic pressure. I’m not ready to pick up a gun yet, so I practice economic pressure. Because money is one thing Hollywood really understands.”