Black Execs Describe Obstacles in Film Industry

It's a mixed bag this holiday season for African-Americans in the film industry. The biggest movie star in the world, Will Smith, is black, and he's one of many black actors in contention for an Oscar this year. But African-American pros in the film industry say that black talent still faces obstacles — notably an entrenched notion that overseas audiences aren't interested in movies with black casts. There is also a sense that the Academy has an unspoken — maybe even an unconscious — quota system.

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Oscar ballots are in the mail to the voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. And this year's nominations are expected to include several African American actors. That's been the trend in recent years. And many black people in the entertainment industry say it is encouraging.

But as NPR's Kim Masters reports, African Americans still face obstacles in the business, and not just when it comes to winning awards.

KIM MASTERS: One of the memorable moments in Oscar history came in 2002, when black performers took top acting honors for the first time. Denzel Washington won for "Training Day." In accepting, he acknowledged Sidney Poitier, whose trail blazing career was also recognized that evening.

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): Forty years I've been chasing Sidney. They finally gave it to me. What did they do? They gave it to him at the same night.

MASTERS: And that same night, Halle Berry became the first African American woman to win as best actress. Stephanie Allain recalls the emotion.

Ms. STEPHANIE ALLAIN (Columbia Pictures): I was crying when Halle and Denzel won that year. I mean, it definitely felt like we are in the big leagues. We're here now.

MASTERS: Allain is a veteran studio executive. At Columbia Pictures, she championed the 1991 hit "Boyz n the Hood," a film that helped reintroduced black themed films to audiences. More recently, she produced "Hustle & Flow," the story of an aspiring rap artist. She's encouraged by the strong crop of potential nominees this year, which includes Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson for "Dreamgirls," Forest Whitaker for "The Last King of Scotland," and Will Smith for the "Pursuit of Happyness."

Ms. ALLAIN: When you start to see things where the same year, the best actor and the best supporting actor are black or the best actor or the best actress are black, it starts to feel like the tables are turning a little bit.

MASTERS: There is progress, but it is limited. Some veteran Oscar watchers think the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences may have an unconscious quota system, and that no more than two black actors will be nominated in a single category. They suspect that a film with an all black cast, like "Dreamgirls," could be at a disadvantage for best picture.

John Pavlik is spokesman for the Academy and he doesn't think such suspicions are justified.

Mr. JOHN PAVLIK (Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences): I've heard that issue come up, but I don't think it is possible or I hypothesize about it.

MASTERS: Pavlik says a group with more than 5,000 members does not speak with one voice. And, he says, the Academy's track record has improved in recent years. Stephanie Allain says last year's Oscar for the song from "Hustle & Flow" supports this point.

Ms. ALLAIN: How did the Academy vote for "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp?" There must be some changes going on.

(Soundbite of song, "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp")

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) I'm trying to have things, but it's hard for a pimp. Well, I'm praying and I'm hoping to God I don't slip, yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) You know, it's hard out here for a pimp.

MASTERS: But Allain says more change is needed. Agent Charles King, whose clients include Terrence Howard and Tyler Perry says too often, black actors are still restricted to formulaic films about ghetto life.

Mr. CHARLES KING (Agent): They're in one dimensional roles. And so if you're in a one dimensional role, how are you going to sign and get attention?

MASTERS: And Stephanie Allain says studios have fixed ideas about how much money movies featuring black actors can earn.

Ms. ALLAIN: Listen, it's a challenge to get movies made with black actors in them. It's just, it is. Foreign territories don't want to see black faces. I mean that's something I've heard more than once.

MASTERS: Since most of a film's revenue comes from foreign countries, that assumption about the overseas market is a huge obstacle. It limits how much money a studio will spend to make and market a film.

But Charles King says the studios are out of date and missing a chance to connect with the young audience that they covet most. Black American culture, he says, is an influence all over the world.

Mr. KING: I just refuse to believe that those kids will wear the clothes and they'll listen to the music but they will not watch characters that are also of the fabric of that experience. But they won't go watch it on the big screen. I just - it's impossible to believe that.

MASTERS: King says he's encouraged by the overseas success of one black actor, who has also done pretty well in the U.S.

Mr. KING: The fact that Will Smith is the biggest movie star not only here in the States, but around the world, to me is a very positive sign.

MASTERS: King is not exaggerating when he calls Smith, who is not his client, the biggest movie star in the world. One key to Smith's success is that he and his team have cultivated foreign audiences ever since Smith starred in the 1995 film "Bad Boys."

Mr. KING: They'll do research. They'll go meet with politicians. They'll meet people from the entertainment community. Will Smith will perform. And so every year, he built a new marketplace that adds to his worldwide fan base.

MASTERS: King hopes other actors will get the chance to imitate that model. Stephanie Allain says this year's potential award winners will keep the momentum going in the right direction.

Ms. ALLAIN: We're getting opportunities to practice our craft. We're getting good. And those performances are being recognized when actors are placed in roles that are dynamic and Academy worthy.

MASTERS: Given the chance, she says, black actors will become as much of a force as black athletes did in baseball when they got to compete on a level playing field.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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