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MOVIES : Writing a New A-List : Hollywood is finally finding room for black actors in prime film roles. But the good news sometimes carries a subtle downside.

November 12, 1995|David Ehrenstein | David Ehrenstein is a film writer based in Los Angeles

"I have an announcement to make," says Jeff Goldblum, his voice echoing across a movie set standing in for a Las Vegas hotel suite crowded with party-goers. "Fred, it's all over!"

"Over? You must be crazy," replies "Fred" (Samuel L. Jackson, colorfully decked out in flowing purple robes and a faux turban). "What's over?"

The film the actors are making, a boxing satire called "The Great White Hype," has only a day of shooting to go on the 20th Century Fox lot before principal photography is wrapped. Whether "Fred's" career is really over will be revealed next summer when this Reginald Hudlin-directed comedy is released. But there's no question that things are far from finished for its star. With his intense, precise style, Jackson has become one of the busiest actors in the business, shooting four features last year alone; two of them--"Pulp Fiction" (for which he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar) and "Die Hard With a Vengeance"--were box-office blockbusters.

During a break in the afternoon's "Hype" shooting, Jackson confers with an assistant about his next film, "A Time to Kill," the latest screen adaptation of a John Grisham bestseller, set to start shooting the minute "Hype" ends. Still, the 47-year-old actor doesn't seem harried by his schedule. While the camera crew sets up a new angle, Jackson retires to a less-crowded part of the ersatz suite, props his feet on a desk and happily contemplates his newfound career options.

"People in the industry tend to think of me differently now," Jackson says, "but amazingly enough, it has very little to do with my abilities as an actor. Some of them hire me because they want to bring a certain 'quality' to their film--the same way they hire Morgan Freeman. Plus I've got an international market profile now [especially from "Jurassic Park" and "Die Hard"]. So does Morgan, and so does Forest Whitaker."

*

Jackson isn't alone in gaining access to this new global arena. Along with Freeman, Whitaker, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne and Wesley Snipes, he is part of a growing group of African American men on Hollywood's short list for the pick of prime movie roles.

How and why this has happened is a question to which there is no simple answer. Thirty years after the end of segregation, black and white Americans continue to inhabit separate, highly circumscribed social spheres--a condition underscored by the tumultuous reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict and the sociopolitical ascendance of Louis Farrakhan.

Hollywood has reflected white America's racial unease throughout its history. When Sidney Poitier broke through to become the No. 1 box-office star in the mid-1960s, he did so alone. The crop of performers that burst on the scene in the blaxploitation thrillers of the 1970s faded into the background when that sub-genre ran its course. In the 1980s, the rise to superstardom by comedians Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy was unaccompanied by any alteration in the hiring status quo. But as the '90s progress, things would appear to be changing, with more African American talents looking to the prospect of long, lucrative motion picture careers.

Nevertheless, some observers argue, there's a subtle downside to what seems to be good news.

In an article in the September issue of Harper's magazine, social critic Benjamin DeMott notes the great number of recent films ("Pulp Fiction" and "Die Hard With a Vengeance" among them) in which "whites and blacks greet one another on the screen with loving candor, revealing their common humanity." In DeMott's view, this is nothing to cheer about, as "the good news at the movies obscures the bad news in the streets," where racial hostility continues unabated.

Jackson is well aware of the power of movie images to shape public consciousness. But in his view, Hollywood's "happy face" spin takes a back seat to the negative perceptions that have long been promulgated in the culture overall.

"There's a tacit acknowledgment now that 'Well, they just might be normal after all,' " the actor says sardonically. "And as such perceptions grow there are certain of us they will allow to convey these images in films. Look at Denzel [Washington]. He's commonly depicted as a nice, normal kind of guy, and the average white family--if their daughter brought him home--would say, 'Fine.' But if they brought me or Fish [Laurence Fishburne] home, there's an edge to us that would make 'em say, 'Well, I don't know.' And they definitely don't want to see Wesley [Snipes] coming up the walk!

"I'd like them to stop showing us as the culprits or victims of our own machinations," says Jackson, his normally jovial tone turning dour. "I'd like to see some owning up to the fact that sometimes the playing field is not level, and depicting that in a way that white people will understand."

Seconds later, Jackson is called back to the set. "What do you mean, 'Over'?" he booms at Goldblum.

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