Black celebs are major players

Hollywood’s biggest and richest fundraisers of this election cycle are being hosted by some of the entertainment industry’s most respected and influential African Americans, a potent symbol of how much has changed in recent years.

These fundraisers underscore the importance and security of the black celebrities and executives, who have become such an integral part of Hollywood. They’ve become a community unafraid to divide its loyalties, regardless of race. The days when “black Hollywood” felt that it needed to marshal all its resources behind a single candidate or cause are past. So, some of the biggest names are backing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, while others are supporting Sen. Barack Obama.

“I have never seen the African Americans in the Hollywood community this excited and involved, ever,” said Democratic political consultant Kerman Maddox. “I was around when [former L.A. Mayor Tom] Bradley was running for governor and [Jesse] Jackson was running for president. I’ve never seen it like this.

“You have a lot of young African Americans in Hollywood with disposable income ready to write a check.”


On Sept. 8, media icon Oprah Winfrey -- who also happens to be one of America’s richest women -- will open her rambling Santa Barbara “getaway” home to raise money for fellow Chicagoan Obama. At least 1,500 people are expected to attend, and organizers are hoping to raise between $2 million and $3 million, a huge amount under new federal campaign limit rules.

Six days after the Winfrey event, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Magic Johnson and his wife, Cookie, will open their Beverly Hills mansion to supporters of Hillary Clinton. That’s a switch for the onetime NBA great, who donated $2,300 to Obama in March. Sources say that the NBA Hall of Famer was attracted to the Clinton cause by his billionaire friend Ron Burkle, a major pal of Bill and Hillary. (Johnson and Burkle both worked with their mutual friend, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, to try to bring a pro football team back to Los Angeles.)

“The fact that Magic Johnson, a very instrumental African American within our country and somebody who is the ultimate point guard, is supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton says a lot,” said Clinton supporter Alex Avant, son of former Motown head Clarence Avant. (His sister Nicole is busy fundraising for Obama.) Magic, Alex Avant said, sticking with the basketball analogy, is “a guy who knows literally and figuratively his surroundings. He understands synergy.”

He’s also, according to Avant, a guy who understands the value of experience. “Could you imagine Magic trying to learn how to do his job in the fourth quarter in a championship game? That would be scary. Each and every one of us, regardless of your ethnic origin, should pay attention and do what’s best for their country. Hillary is ready.”

Johnson’s decision to enlist with Clinton is particularly important because Obama’s supporters include some of Hollywood’s hot young African American artists and executives, including Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith, Jamie Foxx and Chris Rock.

Magic’s collaborators are, so far, drawn mostly from among African American Hollywood’s elder statesmen and include such longtime Bill Clinton loyalists as Quincy Jones, Motown founder Berry Gordy and Clarence Avant. Still, they’re hoping his gala will rival the fundraising wattage of Winfrey’s soirée.

There’s already so much buzz around town that people are wondering, if both events sell out the way the Lakers did during Johnson’s playing days, will there be scalpers on the streets of Beverly Hills and Santa Barbara?

“We’ve been talking about it a lot among ourselves,” said Maddox, who is supporting Obama. “Maybe the single biggest fundraiser in the history of America is being organized by an African American, and the people raising the bulk of the money are African Americans? It’s a sea change” in presidential politics.

For her part, Winfrey has always been a great tastemaker. Now she hopes to be a political kingmaker. In keeping with her penchant for micromanaging every detail of her career, Winfrey is insisting not only on making all the arrangements herself but also on keeping them secret. She didn’t get to be Oprah Winfrey because she didn’t understand the value of timing and surprise.

Obama’s national fundraisers have largely been left in the dark, and even his closest Hollywood supports still are speculating on who Winfrey will tap to provide the entertainment.

“She has completely taken over, and she’s calling all the shots,” said one campaign insider. “She’s coordinating everything: the entertainment, the invites, everything.”

Magic has worked on city issues over the years, lobbying City Hall to revitalize the Crenshaw district with a movie theater and a Starbucks franchise. However, this is his first serious foray into the national political scene. It speaks to the depth of Clinton’s support in the black community, which supported her husband down the line.

“The Clintons are like the Kennedys to the African American community,” said Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman.

Hollywood African American celebrities can’t be taken for granted as a single-issue constituency, however. Even 10 years ago, it would have been hard to predict that black celebs wouldn’t unanimously enlist in the campaign of a first credible black presidential candidate, but that’s the thing about meritocracy -- whether on the court or on the screen -- it leaves people to think for themselves.

It’s a remarkable watershed. Where else could it happen but in Hollywood?