Blacks in Hollywood: Where Have They All Gone?

updated 05/17/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1982 01:00AM

The day of Stepin Fetchit is past. It is hard to imagine a movie today in which a black man shuffles along in a haze of lethargic stupidity, as Fetchit did to great acclaim in a string of movies in the '30s. The Grinning Minstrel in blackface, the Grateful Slave, the Gibbering African, the Watermelon Baby—all the conspicuously racist stereotypes have vanished. Yet black actors and actresses in Hollywood aren't rejoicing: They, too, are fast disappearing from American films.

Yes, Richard Pryor has emerged as Hollywood's top-grossing attraction, but the majority of black performers face a dramatically shrinking market for their skills. Consider the case of Lynne Moody, who was featured in both Roots and Roots II and who, given that intense national exposure, had every reason to expect a booming film career. "After Roots II I went a year without working," she says. "I put price tags on my furniture, was accepted at law school, and told my agent I was leaving. I thought, 'If I can't get a job after my strongest, most recognized work, what else is left?' " Although a last-minute TV offer persuaded her to continue acting, she is still waiting for her big role in films. She is one among thousands. As Shaft star Richard Round-tree grimly puts it: "We're becoming invisible again."

But they are also becoming increasingly vocal about it. Later this month the Beverly Hills/ Hollywood chapter of the NAACP hopes to release a blistering, chapter-and-verse report on black employment in the film industry. Already its representatives have visited several of the major studios, warning of a possible boycott of 43 current and upcoming movies that the NAACP has "whitelisted" on the grounds that blacks have been excluded "from significant participation in front of or behind the cameras." "Roots was hailed by blacks as a breakthrough," says Collette Wood, executive secretary of the chapter. "We hoped the film industry would become racially mixed in its employment policies after that. But it didn't happen. There has been a steady decline in black employment in the industry since 1975." Of the movies on the NAACP's "whitelist," she adds: "Last February we invited any studio with evidence to the contrary to provide us with the name and position of any black people on those films."

None of the major studio heads or their spokesmen would discuss this issue with PEOPLE. The industry's official defense comes from Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. He claims that blacks and Hispanics last year received 10.2 percent of all speaking roles in the films of the eight largest studios. "The movie industry may be the least discriminatory industry around," says Valenti. "Producers want to make the best movies possible, so they'll hire the best people, regardless of color." Critics charge that by lumping together Hispanics and blacks and by refusing to break down the figure for individual studios, Valenti's statistic obscures the true picture. In his own survey of cast lists for the 299 major films made between September 1979 and April 1982, Leroy Robinson, president of the Black Motion Picture and TV Producers' Association, estimates that blacks appeared in barely 3 percent of all speaking roles.

Placing blame and prescribing remedies for the inequity is a perilous undertaking, and one that raises a host of thorny questions. Among the most unsettling is whether the NAACP, in attempting to influence a director's casting choices with threats of a boycott and its menacingly connotative "white-list," is courting a kind of censorship. James Earl Jones, for one, would not support a boycott: "I have nothing to say about the problems of blacks in an artistic field. You cannot dictate the artistic value of one image over another: social, racial, sexual or anything."

The injustice which the NAACP seeks to redress is felt among blacks in Hollywood from bottom to top. Bill Cosby consistently refuses to appear as an Oscar-night presenter "because this industry just does not represent America in its films." Harry Belafonte, who became America's first black matinee idol in the '50s, gradually withdrew from screen acting in disgust. "I cannot sit down in Hollywood and make deals with those people," he says. "We are to be used and manipulated at the convenience of their agenda, and when that is no longer necessary we can be abandoned as garbage." Agrees black personal manager Dolores Robinson: "There are some very big black stars who can't pay their mortgages." Sidney Poitier, who managed to parlay stardom in the 1960s to success as a director (Stir Crazy) and producer, cites "institutionalized racism in our industry. A great number of people participate in a very subtle way in excluding minorities, not consciously but as part of a pattern that was developed over long years."

The NAACP believes that the silence of many black stars on this issue (Robert Guillaume, Billy Dee Williams and LeVar Burton were among those who refused to comment) speaks eloquently to the dimension of the problem. "When they're on the inside, they get afraid they're not going to be hired if they get involved," says Geraldine Green, president of Hollywood's NAACP chapter and a black lawyer. "We tell them not to get involved." Others cannot constrain themselves. "I don't care if I get somebody angry," says Lynne Moody, "I am mad. Keeping quiet just eats you up."

A major complaint among Moody and her colleagues is that they are rarely considered for any role that is not specifically labeled black in a script. As Bill Cosby observes: "It is taken for granted that a man is a white man, and that a black man is written in as black." Movies hardly ever feature black characters whose race is irrelevant. The NAACP's Wood makes that point by citing an exception, Body Heat, in which J.A. Preston played a detective friend of William Hurt. "He wasn't a black detective," she says. "He was just a guy doing his job." Geraldine Green criticizes some black performers for no longer pursuing general roles. "Some people think if it doesn't say 'black,' it's not for them," she notes. "We're saying, if it doesn't say 'white'..."

Yet black characters continue to be written as stereotypes, if not those of the Stepin Fetchit era. "As a black actor, you're so limited," says Dolores Robinson, who represents LeVar Burton. "They're looking for druggies, athletes or men struggling out of the ghetto. I've had a director tell me on the phone that LeVar was too intelligent to play a black." Black actresses have even more trouble finding work, says Robinson, who sums up the Hollywood formula this way: "If you're beautiful, you can play a prostitute; if you're fat, you can play a mother; and if you're ugly, you can play a maid." Because the opportunities are so few, Robinson says that she has turned down all black would-be clients except Burton. "There are no jobs," she explains. "I'm not a miracle worker."

While white actors also can be pigeonholed into certain kinds of roles, they don't have to suffer racial stereotyping. Observes actor/ director Georg Stanford Brown, some blacks can't get roles because they aren't black enough: "I never heard of anyone being too white!"

Gordon Parks, who directed The Learning Tree and Shaft, says similar experiences have conditioned many young actors to adopt the ghetto-black persona. "When young blacks came in to read for a part, many would start using black accents," he remembers. "I always said, 'Why the switch in your voice?' They would always say, 'I thought that's what you wanted.' It's shameful that all black actors should be expected to behave a certain way." Ron Glass, who plays Det. Ron Harris on the TV show Barney Miller, recalls: "When I first came to Hollywood, various casting agents told me I should darken up and stop speaking so well." Having been trained classically in the Tyrone Guthrie Company in Minneapolis, Glass rejected the advice, and his ambitions remain unfulfilled. "In terms of my training and background, I am in a position where I could easily play parts that need not be written for a black man," he says. "It's very difficult for me to understand why I haven't done any films."

Hollywood's unions maintain they have little help to offer Glass and those in his position. The Screen Actors Guild is vehemently opposed to any talk of a black boycott and to negotiating more work for its black membership (3,500 out of 50,000). Explains Asian Sumi Haru, head of the union's committee on minorities: "It would be an infringement of the moviemakers' First Amendment rights." Adds Guild President Ed Asner: "The racism in Hollywood is not deliberate. Discrimination is the farthest thing from the screenwriters' minds, but most of them are white males, and when they sit down to write, they write about what they know—other white males." Indeed, the Writers Guild of America, West has a black membership of less than 2 percent, and those writers, like black actors, suffer the indignity of stereotyping. Says Guild spokesperson Naomi Gurian: "The only blacks I know who are successful have written for black TV shows such as Roots and The Jeffersons." At that, only two of the numerous writers credited on floors and Roots II were black.

The most activist minority group behind the scenes is the 30-member Coalition of Black Stuntmen and Women, which has won out-of-court settlements against two studios and has cases pending against three others. The coalition leader, Lenton Glascow, says blacks still average barely a quarter of what their white counterparts earn. He bitterly cites an incident recently in which a stuntman was painted black in order to double for Paul Win-field on the set of Paramount's Star Trek sequel.

For black performers, the bottom line seems to be just that—commerce. "The producers and directors worry that the market will not support the use of black actors," says Ossie Davis. As a consequence, he and wife Ruby Dee have made their careers more in theater and on TV than in films. Diahann Carroll, who often performs in Las Vegas, observes pointedly that "we have never had a black female star who could support herself, live comfortably by her craft on the screen." The one obvious exception, Diana Ross, commanded a $1 million fee for her last picture, The Wiz, in 1978, but she has not made a film since. Cicely Tyson may be the most steadily employed black actress, but her schedule is hardly filled by Hollywood: She has made 14 theatrical movies in 25 years.

The wave of low-budget black-oriented movies—such as Shaft, Cool Breeze, Cleopatra Jones and the subsequent spate of cheaper "blaxploitation" features—briefly opened doors in the early '70s. But as inflation raised the cost, studios became less willing to make movies for a limited audience. The one all-out attempt to create a mass-market, black-acted film was The Wiz, a $30 million fiasco that is blamed in some quarters with ending the black movie boomlet of the 1970s.

Since then, says Sylvester Stallone, who is exceptional for his use of black actors, producers have been afraid to undertake "what could be a very costly sociological experiment." He knows such fears first-hand: He originally proposed filming his 1978 movie Paradise Alley with an all-black cast, but his backers vetoed the idea. "They said a black movie could only gross a certain amount of money and never had a chance to go into megabucks," he reports. (The all-white film they wanted and got was a box office bomb.)

"Motion picture executives have made the decision that they can get black audiences with white movies, but that they can't get white audiences with black movies," says producer Steve Krantz. "So why make black movies?" Producer Norman Jewison was turned down by four studios before Warner Bros, agreed to finance A Soldier's Play, Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a black Army company in World War II. "The studios' executive producers told me they couldn't do it because it was about blacks," says Jewison. Writer Robert Peet painfully recalls selling a screenplay about black teenagers that was eventually produced under the title Drive-In—with all the blacks transformed into white hillbillies.

By comparison, the days of the much-criticized blaxploitation movies look almost rosy. "Those pictures were the only game in town," says Ossie Davis. "They were a way for young black actors to get their foot in the door." Yet those who made them recall that they too led into a cul-de-sac. Melvin Van Peebles directed the 1970 movie Watermelon Man, starring Godfrey Cambridge, which helped inaugurate the black movie vogue, and his independently produced Sweet Sweetback's Badaasssss Song was a huge moneymaker. Nonetheless, Van Peebles complains, he has never been offered a lucrative Hollywood deal. "I can act as a hired hand, but I can never work as a part-owner or owner of the franchise," he says. Van Peebles denigrates the blaxploitation films that followed in Sweetback's wake. "Those movies were in the hands of whites, and they milked the genre dry," he says. "Blacks were running around in front of the camera, but they were being used in the way motorcycles are used in the cycle films." In the film industry, as Madge (Trapper John, M.D.) Sinclair observes, "Everything that blacks have done, with very few exceptions, has been engineered by white people." The same may be said, though, of virtually every industry in America.

Richard Radnitz, a white producer of successful black films (Sounder), views the increasing problems of black actors as a result of building racial tension. "The feeling in the motion picture community reflects an enormous backlash in this country," he says. Even so, Radnitz does not let filmmakers off the hook. "The cop-out is, 'We're just reflecting the times, the mores of the country,' " he says. "Well, my opinion has always been that the real artist, the real person does not just reflect—you try to do a little leading."

The obstacles to black actors and filmmakers are not insurmountable. "It is clear that for modest amounts of money, films can be made that will return a solid profit," says Poitier, whose return on the five all-black films he directed supports that opinion. "If you make a movie today for $3 to $4 million for the black community, and if the film is even moderately entertaining, there is no way to lose."

The movie industry helps shape public opinion, and at the same time responds to it with extraordinary sensitivity. A movie that ignores blacks or treats them in stereotypical ways gives life to racist attitudes. On the other hand, a movie that casts blacks against type, unintentionally injecting the issue of race, can be ruined by a tangled story line.

NAACP executive Wood cites many cases in which she finds no valid commercial or aesthetic justification for the absence of blacks. Of Woody Allen's Manhattan, she asks: "How can a man make a movie about New York and not include a single black person that I can see? He never passes black people on the street?" Of Star Wars, in which the only black representation was the voice of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader: "If you make a movie about the future and there are no blacks in it, what kind of statement are you making?"

Movies do help to create the future, especially so since 26 percent of their audience is under 17. "Discrimination is passed from generation to generation," says Georg Stanford Brown. "We have to reverse the trend so our children aren't faced with it too."

This story was written by Arthur Lubow, with reporting from Lois Armstrong, Gioia Diliberto, David Gritten, Lou Robinson and David Wallace in Los Angeles and Alan Carter in New York.

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