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FALL SNEAKS

If It's a Question of Money . . .

Black culture generates mega-dollars. That's why a director wants to know why studios still equate "black" with limited appeal.

September 10, 2000|REGINALD HUDLIN

Calendar invited director Reginald Hudlin to offer his perspective on how things have changed in the 10 years he's been making movies.

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When "House Party" debuted 10 years ago, hip-hop was considered so dangerous that a theater in Colorado refused to dim the lights completely when the film played. Now Ice Cube, Snoop and Eminem play to SRO stadium crowds of white kids. Instead of wondering whether hip-hop is a fad, critics today wonder if rock is dead.

I mention hip-hop in an essay about my career as an African American filmmaker because the music business plays an integral part in two of the biggest changes I've seen in my 10 years in Hollywood: (1) the ever broadening appeal of black cultural product in the global marketplace, and (2) the increasing financial clout of the black audiences.

From Louis Armstrong to Chuck Berry to James Brown, from Bill Cosby to Eddie Murphy to Will Smith, blacks have held a disproportionately prominent place in popular entertainment for the past half century.

For the most part, black cool has been translated to white audiences through white men, "with the Negro sound and feel," to quote Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker. But, in the Hip-Hop Era, white kids want their funk uncut. The audience for "black product" is broader than ever.

But what is a black film? "Black" is not a film genre, like comedy, musicals or period drama. Is it a film with a black lead ("Blue Streak"), with a predominantly black cast ("Next Friday"), or with a black director ("Hope Floats")?

A black film is the one with the lower budget. Why? Because race only counts in the negative. If O.J. has taught us anything, it is that the importance of race declines with financial success. It doesn't disappear--Bill Cosby still has a hard time hailing a cab in New York. But, in Hollywood, "black" is code for "limited appeal." Black talent and black product with broad appeal are given honorary white status.

When my brother, producer Warrington Hudlin, and I were promoting our first film, "House Party," we emphasized in interviews that the audiences had to come out the first weekend and "vote" with their dollars. If they wanted to see more black films, the battle was won or lost in the first 72 hours. Don't wait to see it at the discount theater or on cable.

The Wall Street Journal picked up on this notion that the film was a litmus test for the broader economic viability of black films, raising the stakes even higher.

"House Party" cost $2.5 million to make. With cable and home video deals in place, the film recouped its negative costs before its $4.5-million opening weekend. It made 10 times its production cost in domestic theatrical alone. I don't know exactly what it's done in home video, but I've been told it is the most stolen movie from video stores. And it's not just popular in black neighborhoods. An Orange Country video store owner told me "House Party" is one of his biggest rentals.

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While the economic model of "House Party" was very attractive, the subsequent flood of "hip-hop comedies" were bad movies that were contemptuous of both audiences and subject matter--including the sequels to "House Party," which we had nothing to do with.

Still, there was plenty of money in "niche" films. New Line Cinema made a lot of money, and we weren't doing so badly, either. My brother and I had offers from every studio in town. I wanted to emulate my idol, George Lucas, and follow up my coming-of-age comedy with a science-fiction epic.

While that dream was deferred, I got a call from Eddie Murphy, who offered me "Boomerang"--a fantastic opportunity. The film grossed almost $125-million in theaters worldwide, but the split response between white and black audiences illustrates the persistent cultural gap.

Murphy played a sophisticated, hip guy who meets his romantic match. Many white fans felt betrayed because he did not portray yet another "fast-talking con man." Black audiences felt it was a dream come true: black characters who are intelligent and cool, who work at a black-run company, who are comfortable with their racial identity and their sexuality, and who live a comfortable lifestyle where whites are neither their alpha buddy nor their opponent--actually just irrelevant. The compliments I've received about the film from black moviegoers from Ice Cube to Kathleen Battle to airport skycaps underscore the hunger for images depicting not "black life," but the diversity of black lives.

Movies like "The Best Man" and "Love and Basketball" have a harder time crossing over because they offer something to which white audiences are unaccustomed--a complex portrait of African American lives. Ultimately, a cinematic equivalent of "The Cosby Show's" humanistic appeal would generate huge box office but would require perfect execution. Broad comedy is safer because there's a greater margin for error. Even bad fart jokes get a chuckle.

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