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.