LIANE HANSEN, host:
The number of African-Americans in the movie business is shockingly low. Here's one statistic: more than 500 movies came out last year - nine of them had black directors. Or try this number: last summer, there were only two Hollywood movies with a black male star at the top of the marquee. They were "The Karate Kid," played by 12-year-old Jaden Smith, and "Lottery Ticket," starring former kid rapper Bow Wow.
These statistics weren't news to Donnell Alexander, but this year he tried breaking into the business anyway.
Mr. DONNELL ALEXANDER (Author, "Ghetto Celebrity: Searching for My Father in Me"): I've co-produced a true story short movie about a pitcher who threw a no-hitter while tripping on acid. The thing's gone viral and is something very cool, according to both the Internet and the film festival circuit.
I want to make it into a movie that as many people as possible can see. So, I've begun peddling it around Hollywood. Feedback has boiled down to: kid, don't bet on it. The hitch, I'm told, is my protagonist. He's a black guy - and not a standard-issue big movie black guy. A project like mine is a long-shot, and that says something about the movie industry. But what?
I don't have enough miles on my odometer to know, so I thought I'd ask other, more veteran filmmakers.
Mr. BARRY JENKINS (Director): These conversations always comes back to, you know, the "Booty Call-Rosewood" conversation.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Indie director Barry Jenkins has a theory, one I'd heard before, which goes back to '97. Picture John Singleton, still riding high off "Boyz in the Hood," decided to do his prestige picture - a movie-movie capable of showing that black films could do big business.
Mr. JENKINS: Hollywood put up the money and John Singleton made "Rosewood," which is a pretty good film, you know.
(Soundbite of movie trailer)
Unidentified Man: In 1923, the black town of Rosewood was a land of opportunity.
Mr. JENKINS: And the movie came out, this big-budget black Hollywood epic.
(Soundbite of movie, "Rosewood")
Mr. JON VOIGHT (Actor): (as John Wright) Tell me the truth, was it true that a colored done this to you?
Mr. JENKINS: And absolutely tanked. You know, no one went out and supported that film. And the very next weekend, "Booty Call" came out.
(Soundbite of movie, "Booty Call")
Mr. JAMIE FOXX (Actor): (as Bunz) Boy, if you don't get - what is this? Hey.
Ms. TAMALA JONES (Actress): (as Lysterine) Leave Killer alone. He does live here and you are just visiting, Bunz.
Mr. FOXX: Well, if we was really in China I'd have his ass honey-roasted.
Mr. JENKINS: A fraction of the budget, and absolutely - I mean, not to bash anybody who made "Booty Call" - but nowhere near as meritous as Rosewood, as a cultural endeavor.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Thing is, "Booty Call" totally makes me laugh - and not just because of the name. Jamie Foxx turns into a movie star right before your eyes.
Mr. JENKINS: Made tons of money - made more money than "Rosewood." I think when you look at those two weekends back-to-back - and that was over a decade ago -I think it really is one of the first steps in what's gotten us to this point that you and I are having this conversation right now.
Mr. ALEXANDER: What lessons did the film industry take away from those consecutive weekends? That the blacks we put on screen will have to be broadly funny - or flatly evil - if we plan to recoup our investment.
Aside from the occasional drama backed by a superstar like Oprah Winfrey, the thoughtful Hollywood film about and by black people went out with mobile pagers.
Writer-producer Michael Elliott has been making a living in Hollywood and says studio executives believe they can't sell tickets when they take a black movie overseas.
Mr. MICHAEL ELLIOTT (Writer, Producer): There's a whole, huge stream of revenue that studios feel like they don't get to taste because the project's black. There is no foreign market for this and we've been told this forever.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Elliott's made his way in the industry by producing modestly budgeted romantic comedies with black people in front of and usually behind the cameras. His latest, "Just Wright," did okay in theaters and as a DVD.
(Soundbite of movie, "Just Wright")
QUEEN LATIFAH (Actress, Singer): (as Leslie) When am I going to meet that one guy who thinks I'm the one woman he can't live without?
Mr. ALEXANDER: The success of "Just Wright" was based on having Queen Latifah, a bankable star which is to say, capable of bringing in an audience on opening weekend. The list Hollywood keeps of bankable black female leads has two names.
Mr. ELLIOTT: The list is like, it's really, really, really, really, really small. There's moments where Halle Berry is on that list and Queen Latifah's on that list and that's where it stops. On the male side, there is actors who are really not on the list because they have such a mainstream and foreign appeal, a la Will Smith, Denzel Washington. Those men aren't really considered black actors.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Hold the phone. Denzel and Will aren't black? You lost me.
Mr. ELLIOTT: Meaning that they have such crossover appeal to white people, that white people don't really view them as, like, black. They view Will Smith as Will Smith. They don't really see him - they don't see color.
Mr. ALEXANDER: Whatever. My man with the "Booty Call" theory knew he couldn't get Will Smith for his movie. It's a low-budget sleeper called "Medicine for Melancholy." In it, two strangers bike and dance around San Francisco in the wake of drunken-stranger party sex.
(Soundbite of movie, "Medicine for Melancholy")
Ms. TRACEY HEGGINS (Actress): (as Jo) It seems like the city just pisses you off.
Mr. WYATT CENAC (Actor) (as Micah) Nah, I love this city. I hate this city, but I love this city. San Francisco's beautiful. You shouldn't have to be upper-middle class to be a part of that.
Mr. ALEXANDER: "Medicine for Melancholy" screened in just three American cities - one at a time - and then Barry Jenkins took it onto the international festival circuit.
Mr. JENKINS: I went to Krakow, Poland; Toronto; Buenos Aires; Mar del Plata, to Paris, London, and the reaction was always absolutely amazing. Literally, I had people say to me, in many different languages, we've never seen black people like this before. And I was like, well, they exist in pretty much every city.
Mr. ALEXANDER: I want to do what Barry Jenkins did: make a picture about compelling people in situations that captivate - characters our complicated racial past has kept at bay. But I want to make money.
The closest the industry has have come to this in recent history is with "Precious." That one made money, both at home and abroad. The project also happened to have the Tyler Perry and Oprah brands behind it. Even so, "Precious" wasn't made by Hollywood. It came up through the festival circuit.
Mr. JENKINS: It was an example of a film that began at Sundance and then went to Toronto and then, in the marketplace, tracked. When these movies are allowed to actually perform and they're supported properly, I think a lot of these urban legends or these Hollywood legends, (unintelligible) talk about, they're disproven.
Mr. ALEXANDER: It's important not to take the urban legends too personally. In the film history "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," Peter Biskind wrote: Because movies are expensive and time consuming to make, Hollywood is always the last to know, the slowest to respond.
In times of economic austerity, it's not the obvious move to make more big black films. But who knows, maybe some other filmmaker will create a hit with a black point of view and characters borne of it, and it'll do boffo box office all over and I'll get a meaningful studio meeting. But I'm fully prepared to book a flight to Krakow. Word is that the Poles dig films about complicated black Americans.
HANSEN: Donnell Alexander is the author of the book "Ghetto Celebrity: Searching for My Father in Me."