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Memo to Would-Be Moguls: Looking for Clout in Hollywood? It Takes Some to Get Some

A select number of African Americans have parlayed success in one field into power in the movie world. But it isn't easy--even if you're, say, Kenneth 'Babyface' Edmonds.

June 14, 1998|Richard Natale | Richard Natale is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The exterior of Kenneth and Tracey Edmonds' Beverly Hills home is deceptively modest. Tucked into a quiet corner off Sunset Boulevard, the pink stucco structure was built in the 1980s. Most days it's swarming with workers, carpenters and landscapers perpetually enhancing and refining the surroundings--just as its owner has reshaped R&B and pop over the past decade.

A peek through the front door is the first indication of the house's hidden dimensions. The entryway, a three-story sun-splashed semicircular hall, is paved in glistening off-white marble. The room is dominated by a shiny black Yamaha grand piano framed against a bank of windows--a testament to the house that music built.

Edmonds, 39, better known as Babyface, is this decade's most prolific and successful R&B producer and musician. Like her husband, Tracey Edmonds, 31, runs her own record company, Yab Yum Music (which is distributed by Epic Records), which since 1993 has scored several notable hits with such performers as Jon B., Laurnea, Beverly Crowder and Shya.

From that formidable power base, Edmonds Entertainment is poised to make the leap into Hollywood's film power structure, with uniquely African American fare that includes last fall's sleeper hit "Soul Food" and, under its specialty film arm, E2 Entertainment, the Sundance favorite "Hav Plenty," which opens Friday. The company, which is headed by Tracey Edmonds, now has an overall deal with 20th Century Fox and is developing projects with the likes of John Travolta and Garth Brooks.

With such a carefully considered and ambitious slate, the Edmondses join a select group of African American talents in Hollywood--virtually all of whom made their entree to the film world after having conquered another entertainment industry:

* Quincy Jones, who was arguably the first African American to successfully make the journey from music to film. Like Edmonds, he also came to movies via his compositions, scores for such movies as "In Cold Blood," "In the Heat of the Night," "The Pawnbroker" and "Cactus Flower." He produced his first film, "The Color Purple," in 1985 and was responsible for the hit TV series "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." He most recently produced another series, "In the House," the talk show "Vibe" and the action film "Steel."

* Oprah Winfrey--one of Jones' "Color Purple" stars and now talk-show superstar. Her production company, Harpo, started with such TV movies as "Women of Brewster Place" and, more recently, "The Wedding." This fall she produces and stars in a feature film adaptation of Toni Morrison's "Beloved" as part of Harpo's overall deal with Disney.

* Will Smith, actor and rapper, whose rise to power began when he starred in "Fresh Prince." Thanks to star turns in two of recent history's biggest blockbusters, "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," Smith is one of Hollywood's hottest properties; Overbrook Entertainment, the company he started with his producing partner, James Lassiter, is set up at Universal Pictures. The company's coming projects include "KPAX," a drama-comedy about a psychiatrist who learns important lessons from a man who claims to be an alien, and "The Mark," a thriller.

* Ice Cube, the rapper who made his first screen impression in "Boyz N the Hood" and has since expanded his involvement with movies by co-writing "Friday" and, more recently, directing and writing "The Players Club."

* Magic Johnson, the beloved ex-Laker whose talk show "The Magic Hour" recently debuted, and who has an overall deal to produce films and television shows at 20th Century Fox.

What these talents have in common--and what helped them get a toehold in the notoriously hard-to-break-into film world--is that they are virtually brand names, points out manager Benny Medina, whose clients include Babyface, Smith and Sean "Puffy" Combs.

"Any time you have a potential brand that can cross over to another medium, that is of value to a studio," says Medina. "It's a brand they can put above the title."

All these African American talents have also "demonstrated universal or crossover appeal with audiences," says writer-producer Michael Henry Brown of Suntaur Entertainment. Brown wrote the Hughes Brothers' film "Dead Presidents" and is producing "In Too Deep" for Miramax. "They have already proven that they appeal to a wider segment of the population than just the black community."

Todd Boyd, a professor at the USC School of Cinema & Television and author of "Am I Black Enough For You?: Popular Culture From the 'Hood and Beyond," observes that "when you're talking about Hollywood and the people who want to participate in the game, there are always fewer slots than people to fill them. It's difficult for anyone to get a foot in the door, but a bit more difficult for African Americans because they have no history of involvement in this capacity."

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