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FRESH FROM HER triumphant Broadway run in Dream-girls, where her sinewy portrayal of the Diana Ross character won her a 1982 Tony nomination, Sheryl Lee Ralph was ready to storm Hollywood. During one of her first studio meetings, she found herself talking to a top producer about her future. Recalls Ralph: "The man looked at me and said, 'You're obviously beautiful and talented, but what do I do with a beautiful black girl in a movie?' "

In the decade since that conversation, Hollywood still hasn't figured out what to do with Sheryl Lee Ralph. Despite critically praised roles in movies including The Mighty Quinn (1989), in which she played Denzel Washington's feisty wife, and Mistress (1992), in which she was Robert De Niro's fiercely ambitious girlfriend, the actress says, "I'm still looking for my break. I've made good, but not good enough. There should be room for more than just a few."

The reality, however, is that when African-Americans like Ralph come knocking on Hollywood's door, the response too often is still "Whites Only." Despite the widespread perception—fueled by the rise of big-draw talents like actors Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston or directors Spike Lee and John Singleton—that blacks are enjoying a boom in Hollywood, a shocking level of minority exclusion remains. "Don't look at the token, visible stars who are market draws. You see them in a sea of whites," says Jesse Rhines, assistant professor of political economy at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming book Black Film/White Money. "Ask yourself, how many blacks are behind the camera?"

Exact figures are hard to come by, but those that exist contradict Hollywood's image as a politically progressive community where the only color that counts is the green of ticket buyers' money. After an exhaustive four-month investigation, PEOPLE has found ample evidence that the film industry, for whatever reasons, continues to resist the inclusion of African-Americans, onscreen and off. Others, such as Latinos and Asians, have been similarly blocked. But our investigation focused on blacks, both because they are America's largest minority and because of the widespread belief that they have successfully broken through Hollywood's barriers.

The statistics tell quite a different story. While African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, and 25 percent of the moviegoing audience:

•Only one of the 166 nominees at this month's Academy Awards is African-American—a a live-action short film director.

•Of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 5,043 members, who nominate and choose the Oscar winners, fewer than 200—or 3.9 percent—are African-American.

•Only 2.3 percent of the Directors Guild membership is black, according to the guild's 1994 figures.

•A mere 2.6 percent of the Writers Guild is African-American.

•Blacks account for less than 2 percent of Local 44, a 4,000-member union that includes set decorators and property masters.

What's wrong is considerably more significant than whether Whitney Houston—whose performance in Waiting to Exhale and on its multiplatinum soundtrack was passed over by the Academy this year—gets another conversation piece for the powder room. Hollywood's creations are the mirror in which Americans see themselves—and the current racially skewed reflection is dangerously distorted. "The consequence of exclusion by the film industry is cultural apartheid. It's happening now—white America doesn't understand black America," says Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., who is currently writing the screenplay for her stage hit Having Our Say, about the pioneering black professional women Bessie and Sadie Delaney. "A lot of racist images are made unconsciously, and whites just aren't aware they're doing it. With black writers and producers on the inside, they would be able to call them on it."

But for African-Americans, breaking into Hollywood can be like climbing a mountain of marbles. In the union ranks, rampant nepotism and byzantine work rules mean it may take longer for a black aspirant to become a makeup artist than a heart surgeon. As for higher strata, about the only black faces getting near Hollywood's executive suites are studio security. Insiders say the number of African-Americans at a studio vice-president level or above can be counted on the fingers of one hand. "The fact that you can still name the people [blacks in various jobs] illustrates the problem," says John Mack, president of the Urban League's Los Angeles chapter. "The continuing reality is that if you're an African-American, it's still a good ol' boys club."

Within that fraternity, studio executives, producers and superagents make handshake deals on the beach at Malibu or after backyard barbecues in Bel Air. And if blacks are shut out of the socializing, then they're also cut out of the wheeling and dealing that takes place. Such was the case last month at a small dinner party at the Malibu home of record and movie mogul David Geffen. The dozen or so guests who shared caviar, roast duckling and small talk with visiting President Bill Clinton—among them co-DreamWorks SKG founders Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg—were exclusively white, and exclusively male.

Hollywood's power circle "has levels of segregation that would not be accepted in IBM or American Express,"-says black filmmaker Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang). "An individual actor or director can come and go, but those people are there for decades. That's where we need to make great changes."

The dearth of black executives has broad impact, ranging from the kind of movies made to the ways in which minorities are depicted—when they are cast at all. Actor-writer-producer Damon Wayans (Major Payne) tells the story of his sister Kim, who costarred with him on the hit TV series In Living Color. After she pitched a Doris Day-type vehicle, "the studios loved the project and said they'd buy it," says Wayans, "but they wouldn't do it with her because it 'wasn't black enough.' "

TV veteran Tim Reid (Frank's Place) had a similarly disheartening experience trying to make his first film, Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored. He says that the warm coming-of-age story about a black boy in the segregated South was rejected by every studio because it was considered "too soft"—or, as he sees it, "too human." Reid subsequently scraped together a shoestring $2.7 million budget from BET Pictures (a joint venture between the black TV network and Blockbuster Entertainment), and the movie opened in January to enthusiastic reviews. "The view of us perpetuated by Hollywood and the press is that of a dysfunctional, angry, frustrated populace prone to violence and self-destruction," he says. "Along comes a movie that says we are human, that we're compassionate, that we care for our children and our culture. That's [seen as] subversive."

When Hollywood does decide to make a black-themed movie, it wants to do it cheap. Though Waiting to Exhale boasts stars Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, its bankroll was slim by Hollywood standards: an estimated $15 million, compared with the $35 million spent on the average studio movie. (The picture has so far earned more than $65 million.)

"The budget ceiling for African-American productions is dramatically lower than for so-called mainstream projects," says Warrington Hudlin, who has produced four of his brother Reginald's movies. Hudlin cites their experience after their first studio film, House Party, grossed over 10 times its $2.5 million budget. "One would think that the interpretation would be, 'Here are guys who have their ears to the ground, so let them come back with a more challenging budget to make even more money,' " he says. "But instead the response was, 'No, you'll do another movie in the same budget range.' "

Part of the studios' justification, Hudlin says, is their contention that "blacks don't sell overseas." Yet he points out that Eddie Murphy's 1988 movie Coming to America, made for $39 million with a virtually all-black cast, did a whopping $350 million internationally. And last year's Bad Boys, starring the lesser-known Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, scored $75 million overseas. (Its U.S. take was $64 million.) "There's conventional wisdom that catches on," Hudlin says. "Statistics come out that. refute it, but people hold on to it."

Current wisdom also says that things have never been better for black actors. They "are having a field day," says one who is, three-time Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman. "I don't think Hollywood is racist; I think Hollywood lives and dies on greed. Jobs are not given because of race. They're predicated completely on money."

Few would argue that black actors' prospects haven't improved from the days when there was room for only one major African-American star per decade—Sidney Poitier in the '60s, Richard Pryor in the '70s, Eddie Murphy in the '80s. "I don't do auditions anymore," says Pulp Fiction star Samuel L. Jackson. "Denzel, Fish, Forest [Whitaker], Wesley—we don't have to deal with those problems. We're not colorless, but we're above that."

But Jackson admits that his newfound stature—"I'm told using my name adds class to a film"—hasn't protected him from some of the old pitfalls. The actor says he lost the lead opposite Geena Davis in an upcoming movie "because it was a white heroine and there is some attraction between them. They didn't think the audience would go for it." He adds, underscoring the irony, "They said they didn't want to portray the bad guy as African-American, but that was a bulls—t concern."

Jackson says the film industry often seems to have tunnel vision when it comes to black talent. "There is an A-list," he says. "And if they can't get us, they say, 'Well, we'll wait till we can.' They're not looking for the next us."

Nor, it appears, is Hollywood really looking for African-American women, period. After all, there is barely enough work to keep Angela, Whitney and Halle Berry busy. "You can't keep your clients working on what's written for black actresses," says Robin Givens's manager Barbara Stark. "You've got to put them up for roles that aren't written black." The poster girl for "color-blind" casting is Whoopi Goldberg, a category-defying original who has built a career on parts earmarked for whites, including her Oscar-winning turn as the dizzy clairvoyant in Ghost.

Hollywood does appear more receptive these days to such nontraditional casting, particularly for male actors who typically have a wider range of roles available than the foxy hookers and sassy mamas that black actresses are so often asked to play. But it's a virtue born of the actors' necessity, because there are so few roles written for blacks. "Whoever's writing is writing what they know about," says Morgan Freeman. "And I would think that the bulk of the writing, like the bulk of the population, is not black."

Nor are the overwhelming majority of the directors, the cinematographers and the union crews. "Unions are probably the ultimate good ol' boy network in terms of protecting their turf and their people," says the Urban League's John Mack. "You find father bringing in son." It's a situation Shirley Moore knows all too well. "It took me eight years to go from stage sweeper to [union] prop master," says Moore, who in 1987 founded the Alliance of Black Entertainment Technicians to help others sidestep the shifting union requirements that made her progress so glacial. "I could have been a f—in' doctor in that time."

La Lette Littlejohn struggled to become a union makeup artist for a decade, even after making a name for herself in advertising and fashion work. "It's a Catch-22," she says. "You need to be hired on a union show in order to join the union, and you need to be in the union to work on the union show." And the rules for gaining union membership are not only unpublished but constantly changing. Over time, Littlejohn realized that as her work hours increased—getting closer to the threshold that current word-of-mouth said would earn a union card—she was often removed from jobs. "They were blocking me," she says. "The union would find out where I was working and pull me off the show." Littlejohn finally became a member of LA.T.S.E. Local 706 only last year, as the result of a "star request" by black actor-writer-director Robert Townsend, for his TV series Parent'hood (on the WB network).

Even those African-Americans who scale the hiring barriers can never forget that they're on alien soil. On the set of the upcoming Sgt. Bilko movie, actor Daryl Mitchell, who costars (as Dexter, the short-order cook) on TV's The John Larroquette Show, tried to join in his colleagues' running movie-trivia game. Someone would describe a scene and the actors, and another player would guess what film they were from. "They didn't ask one question that I knew—I figured that they were white actors," Mitchell says. "Finally I just started yelling out 'Sidney Poitier' and other black stars' names. They died laughing." Later, Mitchell says, the group admitted they didn't realize their references had been so exclusively white. "I know I've got to rest twice as hard as the next man," Mitchell adds. "You have to be up for the fight."

Recently, when sound mixer Russell Williams, who won Oscars for his work on Glory and Dances with Wolves, tried to board a truck on location to remove his audio equipment, he was stopped by a burly security guard. "That kind of stuff happens to me all the time," Williams sighs. "He naturally assumed because I was black, I wasn't getting on one of those trucks." More significantly, the acclaimed sound mixer still considers his career to be limited by what he calls "the melanin factor." Says Williams: "The more successful you are, the more they hate you. If there is some other way to keep you out of the good jobs and the good seats, they'll find it."

One coveted seat Williams has managed to slip into is at the Academy; his first Oscar win and two letters of recommendation got him in. (Each of the Academy's 13 branches has its own membership requirements. Some are straightforward, others mystifying; for instance, director Reginald Hudlin is a member, while his brother and producer partner Warrington is not.) Williams, the Hudlins and others regard the Academy's limited African-American membership as a major factor behind its pattern of slighting black artists—just as the absence of adequate Hispanic representation probably accounted for its most notorious recent blooper.

What happened was that "Cancion del Mariachi," Los Lobos's guitar-driven ballad in last year's Desperado, was nearly declared ineligible for consideration as Best Original Song because its Spanish lyrics were deemed "not intelligible" by the Academy's music branch. (The Academy later blamed a "clerical mistake" for the ruling.) Frank Lieberman, the Academy's spokesman, says that data on its racial demographics "is not information that we keep," but that there is "no voting [by] color in the Academy."

Perhaps the most glaring black Oscar snub this year is that of Don Cheadle, who was named Best Supporting Actor by the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for his performance as Mouse, Denzel Washington's trigger-happy sidekick in Devil in a Blue Dress. "The fact that Cheadle didn't get a nomination is deeply, deeply disturbing," says Warrington Hudlin. "Not only should he have been nominated, he should win." Other Oscar-worthy performances, many insiders feel, include Washington's private eye, Easy Rawlins, in the same movie, Laurence Fishburne's starring role in Othello and composer Kenny "Babyface" Edmunds's chart-topping score from Waiting to Exhale.

But the Academy can't shoulder all the blame for Exhale's being slighted. Fox didn't mail out viewing tapes to Academy members for their consideration—a common promotional technique—though it did send out 5,043 copies of the clunker A Walk in the Clouds, starring Keanu Reeves. Fox declined comment. Says Newsweek film critic David Ansen: "It's obvious that whoever made [Exhale] didn't have enough clout to force the studio to send [videocassettes] out."

Similar complaints were among the many heard by the chairman of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, Gilbert F. Casellas, during a meeting with civil rights organizations and film industry reps and unions in L.A. last month, after, which he announced that his office would start looking into allegations of discriminatory hiring in the industry. "There really does seem to be a problem," he said. "Some of the grievances I have been told about are blatant and egregious." But when asked for specifics, Casellas declined to comment.

Currently some efforts are being made to get more African-Americans inside the studio gates. Last week marked the celebrity-studded launch of HIP (Hollywood Internship Program), a project sponsored by the City of Los Angeles to offer inner-city youths access to entry level jobs. (See box, page 51.) And the fledgling DreamWorks studio is discussing a minority training program with the Urban League.

But many blacks say it's time to take matters into their own hands, as with efforts by directors like Spike Lee to help blacks break into the guilds by employing as many as possible. "I got 11 [black] people into the union," Lee exulted after shooting Do the Right Thing in 1989. "We got waivers to hire them—and by virtue of them working on the film, we found ways of getting them into the union."

Eighteen years ago, Warrington Hudlin founded the Black Filmmaker Foundation, which has since helped nurture dozens of budding cineastes, including Lee. He says there was a time when he thought that economics rather than race dictated who would succeed in the movie business. But then he got wise. "If Hollywood wasn't racist, it wouldn't be American. I'm neither complaining nor whining," Hudlin says. "I like to always operate from an illusion-free place."

PAM LAMBERT
LYNDA WRIGHT, KAREN BRAILSFORD, JOHNNY DODD and BETTY CORTINA in Los Angeles and NANCY JO SALES, RON ARIAS and SABRINA MCFARLAND in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Lynda Wright,
  • Karen Brailsford,
  • Johnny Dodd,
  • Betty Cortina,
  • Nancy Jo Sales,
  • Ron Arias,
  • Sabrina McFarland.