If Washington only had more hotel space, all of Hollywood would've happily hurried back East this week to be a part of the Obama inaugural festivities, instead of just the lucky, deep-pocketed few like Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg (and others) who got some of those highly sought-after inaugural tickets in return for a hefty $50,000 donation. Even though Barack Obama carefully kept his distance from showbiz during the presidential campaign, he's easily Hollywood's favorite politician in years, perhaps even more than Bill Clinton, who was pretty hot stuff himself, at least until he started acting like a rock star with a hotel room full of groupies.
But will America's embrace of the son of a white mother and a black father inspire Hollywood to be less rigid about dividing the world into convenient black and white demographics? That's a harder question to answer. It's no secret in Hollywood that films aimed at an African American audience are seen as black-only movies. To get greenlighted, they have to be made on budgets far lower than the average movie, since Hollywood believes, based on experience, that those films won't attract many white moviegoers.
As novelist Susan Straight has suggested in an L.A. Times article, perhaps with Michele Obama appearing on magazine covers and TV shows everywhere, is it possible that someone in Hollywood might wonder, "Could we actually make a movie with a black woman in the lead?" It's easy to point to Will Smith and say that if a black man can be the industry's top box-office attraction, then audiences are more colorblind today than they've ever been. But for all his talent, Smith has become a star by living in a white man's world -- if you watch his most successful movies, it's hard not to notice that he is largely surrounded by white faces.
Black actresses have it even harder, since when they are cast in relationship films or romantic comedies, they are almost always playing opposite a black man, not a white or Asian or Latino. Some of the best and biggest parts given to African American actresses in recent years have been in musicals, such as "Dreamgirls," "Ray" and "Cadillac Records," since that is viewed in Hollywood as an acceptable, audience-pleasing role to play.
In years past, the arts -- led by music and theater (with Hollywood usually lagging behind) -- have broken all sorts of cultural barriers. The big bands of the late 1930s and 1940s, for example, were integrated long before Washington got around to passing any civil rights legislation. With the arrival of the Obamas, Washington now has a leading man and woman of color, setting a new cultural agenda. I'd say the ball is in Hollywood's court. If Hollywood really wants to show some respect for the Obama revolution, it's time for the movie business to break some ground of its own.