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If It's a Question of Money . . .

FALL SNEAKS

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

However you cut it, black comedy is stronger than ever. With six networks fighting for eyeballs with cable channels, the network at the bottom of the ratings will be deploying a "black" programming strategy modeled on the early days of Fox. That means more "black" television shows, not to mention more token blacks on "white" shows, creating more black stars than ever. It's important to note these comedians are blowing up on shows that the networks do not, or cannot, get white audiences to watch. If "Sanford and Son" and "The Jeffersons" debuted today, they would be relegated to UPN and play to a small fraction of the audience they reached three decades ago.

Segregated or not, these new shows have built a loyal fan base that follows their stars to the movies. Instead of the Cosby Era turning to the Pryor Period, then the Murphy Millennium, Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock and the Wayans Brothers are mainstream movie stars simultaneously. With the exception of Chris Tucker, all used television comedies to solidify their fan base before becoming movie stars.

*

With all this hot talent, it should be easy for black directors to get movies going. Well, it is easier--to a point. There are more black stars than ever, but once they get enough clout, they are reluctant to commit to movies that might fall prey to Hollywood "logic": The self-fulfilling prophecy that black films don't sell to the mainstream audiences (or international audiences), so don't even bother trying.

Black directors are still seen as the "farm club," developing stars but rarely traveling with them to the upper echelons of success. In some cases, careers suffer when actors no longer work with filmmakers who create vehicles showcasing the full range of their talents.

The most notable exception is Samuel L. Jackson, who not only works with Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, but also Kasi Lemmons, F. Gary Gray, John Singleton and me. I would argue he has one of best careers in town (both critically and commercially) because of this eclectic approach. Well, that and his gigantic acting talent.

Some social critics complain that black Hollywood does too much comedy. That's like Kuwait complaining that it has too much oil.

One reason for the emphasis on black comedy is the globalization of the movie business. With the international market now providing 60% of a film's potential revenues, studios look to broad comedy and action films, which travel best around the world. But black actors have not had the same success in the action genre as their comedic counterparts. Perhaps it's because the black guy who punches the villain and gets the girl is perceived as more threatening to white audiences, or simply presumed to be perceived that way.

In either case, there's a big pot of gold waiting for the company that decides to create specialized marketing campaigns promoting black films for each international territory, as they do with other culturally idiomatic material like "Wayne's World."

Returning to the music analogy, black musicians from Sidney Bechet to Jimi Hendrix have traveled overseas to receive acclaim they could not find in their homeland. If the Japanese go to Harlem to learn to jump double dutch while Germans and Italians make their own rap records, international audiences are more ready for black cinema than the buyers for those markets assume.

Black comedies are not the problem. It's the lack of sufficient opportunities in other genres. That's why I occasionally direct episodes of "City of Angels"--to support a diversity of black images. That's why for 20 years, my brother has organized independent film festivals (most recently the Acapulco Black Film Festival), helping to make the current wave of black film in Hollywood possible.

It's frustrating to be pigeon-holed as a black director, a comedy director, or any type based on prior work. Many of my friends are shocked to hear my plans for action films or historical dramas. It's particularly frustrating when I see the kind of career mobility my white peers enjoy. It's hard for white Hollywood to understand why black talent gets angry when, in the larger context, we live incredibly privileged lives. But, in any context, it's impossible to take a "don't worry, be happy" attitude while routinely battling racial prejudice even from people who mean no harm as they inflict it.

There will always be films that can't be made inside the system. Until we no longer have to ask permission, we will have to prove our case one success at a time. Fortunately, the financial strength of black audiences is stronger than ever. The success of Walter Latham's "Kings of Comedy" tour and Magic Johnson's theater chain shows how much money corporate America has been ignoring until recently.

Who knows? Perhaps one or more of the black-owned dot-coms like Urban Entertainment or Okayplayer will survive the current shakeout and ultimately become our Paramount Pictures. In the meantime, Paramount is employing Singleton, Spike Lee, Thomas Carter, Chris Rock and me.

I appreciate the great summer. When a black-directed film like "Scary Movie" blows past the $100-million mark, it makes it easier for all of us to get that elusive green light. Maybe if I put some male full frontal nudity in my sci-fi epic . . . *

Hudlin's latest movie, "The Ladies Man," opens in theaters Oct. 13. The most recent episode he directed of the hospital drama "City of Angels" airs the night before on CBS.

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