Racing down the twisting roads of Hollywood Hills in a gleaming black Jeep Wrangler, Hollywood's wheels du jour, Melvin and Mario Van Peebles head toward the flatlands where the studio moguls make the megabuck deals. Today it's Twentieth Century Fox. Or is it Universal?
Never mind. They all want square-jawed, handsome Mario, 34. His film directorial debut, New Jack City, a black gangster flick that cost only $8.5 million to make, has brought in more than $44 million at the box office for Warner Bros. As the Jeep cruises down Sunset Boulevard, Mario's father flashes a paternal smile, one that belies decades of frustration, anger and pain. Twenty years ago, with the release of his X-rated Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Melvin, now 58, became the godfather of modern black cinema. But when the Chicago-reared Van Peebles first arrived in Hollywood in 1958, he showed his three short reels to every studio in town and was quickly disabused of his dream. "I'd tell them I wanted to be in film, thinking I could start in the editing room or as a production assistant," he says. "They'd say, 'How nice'—and offer me a job as an elevator operator."
For Hollywood's black community, the Van Peebles story is both a glimpse of history and a sign of the times—times, it is clear, that are getting better. This year alone, blacks will direct 19 films—more than were released all through the '80s. Nowadays, Americans are on a first-name basis with Whoopi—who copped an Oscar for her role as a medium in last year's Ghost—as well as Arsenio, Eddie and Spike. The Cosby Show's Huxtables have been part of America's TV family for nearly seven years, and Steve Urkel of Family Matters, played by Jaleel White, has become the nerdy kid next door. Just about everybody, it seems, argues about the controversial movies of Spike (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever) Lee, a thorny voice of contemporary black consciousness.
Hip to the times, studios are snapping up young directors off inner-city streets like Matty (Straight out of Brooklyn) Rich, 19—and fresh out of film school—like USC grad John (Boyz N the Hood) Singleton, 23. Says Spike Lee: "I don't think there has ever been a better time than now to be a young African-American filmmaker."
But along with success have come unforeseen problems. Boyz N the Hood, for instance, Singleton's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in the fought-over turf of his own south central Los Angeles, opened two weeks ago to a thunder of critical acclaim—and gang-related gunfire. Across the nation, at least 35 people were injured, and in the Chicago area, one man was killed. Some insist that films like Boyz and New Jack City, whose March opening was marred by similar outbreaks, are incendiary. But film critic Roger Ebert disagrees. "Boyz makes a powerful statement against exactly the kind of street violence that is being associated with it," he wrote. "Nothing on the screen could have possibly inspired any trouble—just the reverse." Indeed, in the case of Boyz, as well as New Jack, most of the troublemakers hadn't even seen the movie. Says the shaken Singleton: "[The gunfire is] more an indication of the degeneration of American society than a reflection on my film."
Though at least eight theaters canceled plans to show Boyz, most refused to change their marquees. "I'm not prepared to give up," says Alan Friedberg, chairman of Loews Theatres, which has 878 movie houses in 16 states. "I'm not prepared to cooperate in the killing of an idea."
Or the killing of a profit. Showbiz, it is said, is neither black nor white but green. And while Hollywood (whose audience is 25 percent black) continues cashing in on its black talent—Boyz cost $6 million to make and took in $10 million-plus its debut weekend—the African-American moviemaking community is cashing in on its newfound cachet. Says Warrington Hudlin, producer of 1990's successful House Party and head of the Black Filmmaker Foundation: "For the first time,, the authorship and control of the creative strings are ours."
Already, Hollywood's black power brokers are fighting onscreen the slights and shocking abuses they and other black citizens suffer offscreen. Recently, for instance, Debbie Allen, producer-director of NBC's sitcom A Different World, was refused service by a white salesclerk at a Beverly Hills jewelry store. Allen believed the clerk "assumed because I was black I couldn't afford anything in the store." Later, she recreated a similar incident on her show. "I'm not saying I did it all by myself," says Allen of her increasing ability to call the shots, "but I certainly came in and pushed people around to get them going."
What this awakened social consciousness means—how blacks will look, speak, eat, dress, even make love under the tutelage of Hollywood's newly empowered blacks—is hard to say. If there is unity, it surfaces not in vision, but in camaraderie. Says A Different World star Jasmine Guy, who plays the outspoken, upper-class Whitley Gilbert: "At the parties I go to, it never fails. Someone, whether it's Whoopi Goldberg or Margaret [The Color Purple] Avery or Diahann Carroll, will pull me into a corner and give me a talking-to. Even though I've never met these people before, there is a sense of family. 'Now what is your plan?' they'll say. 'Call this person.' "
Team spirit abounds, but make no mistake: Every player has a different take on how to win. Are street-smart directors from the projects more authentically "black" than their college-educated colleagues, as Matty Rich has suggested? No, snaps third-generation Morehouse College graduate Spike Lee: "It's that kind of ignorant thinking that has black kids failing on purpose in class because they're ostracized for getting good grades or speaking good English." Okay then, should black producers hire predominantly black staff and crew, as Lee contends? No way, objects rapper and New Jack City star Ice-T. "That's a reverse racism thing." Then again, with hundreds of trained actors aching for a break, what's a rapper doing starring in a movie anyway? "Who else?" shrugs Ice-T. "It's all for one. If the movie sells, there'll be more films and more work. You should be grateful to Ice-T." The perspectives, clearly, are endless. As Mario Van Peebles puts it, "We are not one monolithic force."
At the moment, little provokes more debate in black Hollywood than the theme of interracial romance, explored most recently by Lee in this summer's Jungle Fever. It is a topic only a few white movies have dealt with, most notably 1967's impeccably chaste Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Studios and networks are now willing to cast prominent black actors in roles or situations originally slated for whites—such as Danny Glover's detective in Lethal Weapon and Whoopi Goldberg's clairvoyant in Ghost—but not usually if the roles involve physical love.
Continually rejected for parts that would involve even the most limited sexual contact with a white actor, many blacks no longer even try for them. Says Lynn Whitfield, who played the title role in HBO's Josephine Baker Story and is married to Brian Gibson, the film's white director: "It's frustrating to have to pass on a project because you might have to kiss someone white."
Given the industry's uneasiness with the topic, many blacks are pleased that Spike Lee was able to get his story onscreen at all. Others are dismayed that, given the chance, he chose to make such a cynical statement about interracial romance. In Jungle Fever, a yup-and-coming black architect (Wesley Snipes) leaves his happy black home for a feverish fling with his white secretary (Annabella Sciorra). The film's inference is that interracial relationships are dead-end affairs based largely on lust.
For some, including the filmmaker, the issue is not only political but personal. Lee's father, jazz musician Bill Lee, married a white woman, Susan Kaplan, after Lee's mother, Jacquelyn, died of cancer in 1976. Some who know Lee suggest that he was bitter about the marriage. Lee, who dates Veronica Webb (she played Lee's wife, Vera, in Jungle Fever), denies having such feelings but has said he would never become involved in an interracial affair. "I don't need the trouble," he said. Of white women involved with black men, he added, "They be ugly. Mugly, dogs."
It's a particularly sensitive subject in Hollywood, where many interracial romances thrive. Director Charles Lane (Sidewalk Stories, True Identity) and actress Lonette McKee (the betrayed wife in Jungle Fever) have white spouses. Quincy Jones, who has had three white wives, including actress Peggy Lipton, is now involved with another white woman. Brett King, director of television development for Quincy Jones Entertainment, lives with his white girlfriend, Elaine Farley, who is often the target of the kind of resentment Lee portrays in his film. "For a black voice to condemn an interracial relationship," says King, "is irresponsible."
Many black actresses must contend with another kind of discrimination. While Hollywood has long practiced skin-tone typecasting. Light-skinned actresses play sexy sophisticates, while darker women play tough, street-smart ghetto characters. Now many of these actresses are discovering that the more things change..."Black filmmakers," says actress Anne-Marie Johnson of NBC's In the Heat of the Night, "are just as guilty. They do the same crap." Fair-skinned Kimberly Russell, of ABC's Head of the Class, is accustomed to wearing dark makeup and visiting tanning salons to get roles. Still, at a recent casting call for the romantic lead opposite Damon Wayans, she says, "I wasn't even allowed the opportunity to read for it." The reason? According to the producer, she wasn't sufficiently "ethnic."
Equally frustrating, many women say, are the cliché characters—mostly maids, best friends and hookers—they've come to expect from white writers but are surprised to find in black films as well. Take, for instance, Eddie Murphy's 1989 hit Harlem Nights. "The women were sleazy," complains Rain (Head of the Class) Pryor, whose father, Richard, co-starred in the movie. And yet, says Johnson, because it was a black product, no one complained. "If Steven Spielberg had Delia Reese [who played a madam] speaking and performing the way she did, we would have been picketing and shouting, 'How dare he?' But because Eddie Murphy did it," she says, "everyone goes, 'Oh, wow, a touch of black culture.' "
Exploring black culture—or exploiting it? Sometimes even black entertainment figures find it hard to say. Many consider raucous humor, like Murphy's or Keenen Ivory Wayans's on his TV show In Living Color, more like self-mockery than the satire it is intended to be. Says veteran television director Roy Campanella Jr., son of the famous Dodger catcher: "Buffoonery is in, and it has been since Stepin Fetchit. In Living Color is just the '90s version." Though Mario Van Peebles's New Jack City drew critical praise this spring, Brett King labels it "black exploitation by blacks. Leroy 'Nicky' Barnes [the drug kingpin played by Wesley Snipes] is a horrifying individual who gets defeated only in the last scene. Despite Mario's saying it's a positive [antidrug] message, what you walk away from the film with is crazy wealth, huge houses, lots of guns, naked girls and any number of really negative images of blacks."
King's attack—in fact all the criticism and controversy that Mario Van Peebles jokingly calls "tribal infighting"—smacks, to outsiders, of destructive feuding. But King—and others—don't see it that way. There is no reason, they say, to expect unanimity. "There is no more a cohesive black America than there is a white or Jewish America," says King. "It's not that we want to see the black point of view, we want to see a black point of view."
Groupthink that categorizes black professionals by color rather than by ability and measures their work by the same stunted yardstick is deeply frustrating to many Hollywood blacks. "When I go to see a Martin Scorsese film, I don't say, 'Oh, what a wonderful white Italian film." I say, 'Jesus, what a great film,' " says director Bill (A Rage in Harlem) Duke. Artists of color, delighted to tell their own stories, are at the same time fearful they will be neither asked nor allowed to tell anyone else's. Their fear, says new Paramount studio head Brandon Tartikoff, is well-founded. "Definitely there is a tendency on the part of television and film executives to box these people in," he says. It was, after all, just four years ago that acclaimed cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who has done all Spike Lee's films, in urban settings, was turned down for a movie because, he says, "[The producer told me] it was being shot in the country, and he didn't think I'd know how to photograph a tree."
Understandably, many blacks in Hollywood remain skeptical about their future. True, blacks occasionally get superstar treatment these days—the role of Robin Hood's sidekick was tailored for Morgan Freeman, for instance. But, says Mario Van Peebles, "We're glorified house-guests right now." "We can be asked to leave." It is a precarious position that leaves even the most successful blacks seething. Arsenio Hall still gets angry recalling his failed attempts to secure syndication support for his talk show in 1988. "They told me, 'There's one black talk show [Oprah
]. That's enough,' " he recalls. "The geniuses in the ivory towers where they make decisions for TV and film tell black artists, 'It didn't test well in America.' But the bottom line is, it's not testing well in their minds and on their desks and in their hearts."
Success, as every underdog knows, is the best revenge. Says Stephanie Al-lain, vice president of production for Columbia, who "discovered" John Singleton (and who is the only black creative VP at any Hollywood studio): "I don't think there's any 'conspiracy.' It's just a white male business. We're trying to get to a place where it's not about blacks in Hollywood, it's about filmmakers in Hollywood."
In the end, though, blacks will have to build and hold their own power. "Progress has got to come from black companies and black directors," says Quincy Jones, whose own multimillion-dollar Quincy Jones Entertainment (Thriller, The Color Purple) is perhaps the most important black media conglomerate in Hollywood history. Jones, like his black colleagues, wants to settle—and rewrite—the Hollywood score. "I've been preparing for this for 40 years. So far, we're just making a dent," he says. "But we intend to blow your mind."
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
LOIS ARMSTRONG, SABRINA McFARLAND, VICKI SHEFF, WAYNE EDWARDS in Los Angeles, SUE CARSWELL in New York City