Traditionally, Hollywood studios have measured the success of Latino- and African American-themed films based on how well the movies do among white audiences. But a group of Latino and African American industry insiders is hoping to broaden the idea of a “crossover” success to mean making movies that appeal to the nation’s two largest minority groups.
“We are trying to bring the two worlds and audiences together because it makes sense,” said Debra Martin Chase, executive vice president of Whitney Houston’s BrownHouse Productions. “As substantial minority groups, there are social and political situations that are common to both. Both groups are fighting for political and economic power that has been denied to them historically.”
Though directors like Gregory Nava (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love”), Leon Ichaso (“Sugar Hill”) and Randa Haines (“Dance With Me”) have made films with both Latino and African American sensibilities, more and more independent production houses are creating stories--ranging from romantic narratives to urban dramas to tales set in the segregationist South--with mixed casts and narratives that appeal to both communities.
“We live with each other in the same neighborhoods,” said actor-director Forest Whitaker. “We have a lot of cultural similarities, and I’m hoping that we could use those similarities to make something special. We come from storytelling cultures, and with that we could make great films.”
Whitaker’s production company, Spirit Dance Entertainment, is working on a film based on John Leguizamo’s Broadway show “Freak.” In addition, Spirit Dance is developing “The Lives of Danny Sanchez,” a coming-of-age film about a young Puerto Rican boy who falls in love with a white girl.
“I wanted to embrace people of color and let them know that we have a place for their stories,” Whitaker said. “We don’t see these stories as foreign.”
BrownHouse is in discussions with Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith’s Green Moon Productions for a romantic drama starring Banderas and Houston. In addition, BrownHouse hired Puerto Rican writer Ruben Gonzalez to write a made-for-TV movie on the integration of a black Little League team in South Carolina. The film, tentatively titled “Cannon Street All-Stars” for the “Wonderful World of Disney,” will begin production next year.
“As a Puerto Rican we were all discriminated against,” said Gonzalez, who grew up in Spanish Harlem. “I’m not a bitter guy, but I understood it immediately.”
Other productions also seek to expand the concept of “crossover” appeal. For example, producer Moctesuma Esparza, whose company Esparza/Katz Productions produced HBO’s “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” is working on a new film, “Shiprock,” to be directed by Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”) based on the true story of a championship-winning Navajo girls basketball team. Laurence Fishburne has signed up for the role as coach of the team.
“It’s all about economics and having a market size that is powerful,” said Esparza, who as a leader in the Chicano rights movement modeled many of his activist tactics on the black civil rights struggle. “This is about producing stories that are attractive to audiences without the initial economic concern of having to cross over to the Anglo market.”
Warrington Hudlin, a producer (“Boomerang”) and president of the New York-based Black Filmmaker Foundation, is working on a broadcast-Internet program with multicultural themes and cast. Hudlin expects to make an announcement on the details of the deal in the near future. He is also one of the producers of the annual Black Film Festival, which is held every year in Acapulco.
“In Los Angeles and New York we [Latinos and African Americans] are the majority,” Hudlin said. “There should not be a knee-jerk assumption that we cannot have a viable film industry without appealing to white audiences. Our cultures are so dynamic. The crossover should be from whites to us--they need to get some flavor in their world.”
The problems faced by Latinos and African Americans in Hollywood are similar. They are rarely cast in leading roles for major films; stories focusing on the African American or Latino experience are rarely financed by studios.
Often, films with a primarily black or Latino cast are marketed as “black” or “Hispanic” movie categories, even though the film’s story might have a universal appeal with narratives that have meaning to people of all ethnic backgrounds.
According to a recent study by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, nationwide blacks and Latinos spend more than $1 billion annually on movie admissions, compared to non-Hispanic whites (including Asians) who spend $6 billion.
Though the buying power of blacks and Latinos is not as large as the white consumer muscle, it is a viable market, said Institute President Harry Pachon.
“That $1 billion is hanging out there like a big fat plum,” Pachon said. “This is the hidden market that is out there.”
The focus of these new productions is to find independent means to tell their stories without having to convince white executives that their experiences are viable, said Tajamika Paxton, vice president of Spirit Dance.
“Our goal is to say, “Why can’t this movie be made with a different actor?’ ” Paxton said. “You add a dimension to your film that might not have been thought of. This does not detract from the story, but rather enhances it.”
She points out that socially, culturally and historically, the Latino and African American communities in the U.S. share many common bonds. Both face similar obstacles in overcoming racism and achieving the American Dream; in many inner-city communities, including those in Los Angeles, Latinos and blacks live in the same neighborhoods. At the same time, both African Americans and Latinos are enjoying increasing rates of social mobility, moving up the economic ladder into the middle and upper-middle classes.
The connection between Africa and Latin America has been heard most passionately in music. The mambo, guaguanco, cumbia, son, rumba and most recently hip-hop, meld both African and Latin rhythms. In jazz, African Americans Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker made pilgrimages to Cuba and synthesized their sounds with the tropical Latin beat. Most recently pop artists like Toni Braxton and Whitney Houston have recorded songs in Spanish. Houston has recorded a song with crooner Enrique Iglesias in English.
This is not to say there aren’t conflicts. In densely populated cities like Los Angeles and New York, small but significant skirmishes have broken out between African Americans and Latinos over religious, political and labor related issues.
But the similarities are more powerful than the differences, Hudlin maintains. And as the United States’ population becomes increasingly mixed, the stories will continue to overlap. Among the hip-hop generation, racial differences are much less defined than in the boomer generation. In music videos and films where teens are the target audience, diverse casts are more common than not.
“There is a real solidarity. It is more than political and economic convenience--there is a real strong cultural link,” Hudlin said. “We are at the point now of hitting a comfort level.”