Lifestyles & Trends: Obama As Pop Culture Icon? The current issue of Entertainment Weekly announces on the cover that "Obama Is Changing Pop Culture Forever." Newsweek correspondent and News & Notes co-host, Allison Samuels, sat down with Sean Smith, the Los Angeles Bureau Chief of Entertainment Weekly, for a conversation about how he thinks this change is coming.
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Lifestyles & Trends: Obama As Pop Culture Icon?

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Lifestyles & Trends: Obama As Pop Culture Icon?

Lifestyles & Trends: Obama As Pop Culture Icon?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/100065175/100065156" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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TONY COX, host:

Every other Friday here on the show, we bring in Newsweek magazine's Allison Samuels to bring us up to speed on the latest in entertainment news. I know you've heard her. But now, you will actually be hearing a whole lot more of Allison. She's going to be joining us on the show until March 20th far more frequently and with a new twist: She'll be asking the questions instead of giving the answers. Allison, look at you smiling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: How are you feeling about this new role here on News & Notes? We are excited about having you here.

ALLISON SAMUELS: I'm excited, too. It gives me more time to do, you know, more interesting stories, stories that I can't always do at Newsweek and, you know, just more time to spend with you guys.

COX: OK. Well, you know, we love that, and I understand, to get this thing rolling, that this next segment was inspired by something that you actually saw as you were driving down the street here in Los Angeles. What was that?

SAMUELS: As I was driving down the street, I kept seeing billboards for "He's Just Not That Into You." And I was really struck by the billboards being so non-diverse. Everyone on the billboard was, you know, Drew Barrymore or Jennifer Aniston, but no people of color. And it started me to thinking of, in the day of Obama, is it politically correct to have movies like that? And interestingly enough, Entertainment Weekly announced on the cover of its current issue, quote, Obama's changing pop culture forever, end quote. So, I sat down with Sean Smith, the Los Angeles bureau chief of Entertainment Weekly, about how he thinks this change is coming. I started up by asking him about the casting and the marketing of "He's Just Not That Into You."

Mr. SEAN SMITH (Los Angeles Bureau Chief, Entertainment Weekly): Yeah, it's ultra-white, that cast. It looks like it was cast in Wisconsin. But yeah, I think it is going to change, and it's going to change, I think, for several reasons. Among them, Hollywood has to think about what is - reaching the younger audience and being popular. And the world that "He's Just Not That Into You" exists in is not the world that an 18-year old in America lives in now. Also, you look at those crowds on election night in Grant Park and on Inauguration Day, and that's what America looks like.

SAMUELS: Right, right.

Mr. SMITH: And when you have that kind of popularity for a president or any sort of cultural figure, it automatically shifts. And I think that the studios start to look at that and go, OK, how do we reach that audience? How do we reach those people? And how we do tap into that enthusiasm? That's their job, to figure out how to do it. I think you'll probably see it first in television before you see it in film, but - I think it will be a longer process for film, yeah.

SAMUELS: Because when you think about that movie, a movie about love and relationships, a minority could have easily been weaved into that. I mean, that has no color line. So, even before Obama, why would you think they'd make a movie like that, that just didn't recognize the fact that love is sort of universal?

Mr. SMITH: People always say there's not overt racism in Hollywood, but it's everywhere, which is that it - it's this kind of passive thing, where they just aren't - I honestly think, in a situation like that, they just weren't thinking about it in that respect, or a script goes out to all of these agencies, and they give it to all of their top talent. All their top talent - with the exception of people like Will Smith - happens to be white. And so, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that way. Unless someone steps outside and says, hey, wait a minute, maybe we should actually have a little pigment in this movie...

SAMUELS: Right.

Mr. SMITH: It doesn't happen automatically.

SAMUELS: In your current spread of Entertainment Weekly - and the quote is Obama's crew - you have all of these people who have a lot of power, you know, Tom Hanks, Michael Lynton from Sony, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Do you think these people will have any impact on how things change in Hollywood? I mean, you know, they have the power, right, to make a difference.

Mr. SMITH: They absolutely do have the power, and I think it will. I mean, here's what's sort of - here's what has been fascinating to me. You've got a situation now, Oprah's the most powerful women in television; Will Smith is the most powerful actor in film - in fact, he is kind of the only movie star we have that's consistently bankable; you've got Barack Obama who's president of the United States. And yet, there's hasn't - there really has not been the kind of trickle-down effect you would expect.

I think Barack has an incredibly huge impact on that, though, because A, he is so charismatic; he is not just another president. He has become, really, the first 21st-century global pop icon. And that has a huge impact because it changes the idea of what power looks like, of what intelligence looks like, about what sexy looks like, all of those things. Michelle Obama does the same thing. And so, that cannot help but began to permeate into the culture, and yes, these people, these really powerful people, like the Geffens and Katzenbergs and Oprahs and all of those people, really can have a huge impact on how African-Americans are cast and people of color cast in film and television.

SAMUELS: You have Tyler Perry, who makes many movies, two or three year, but what does the Obama effect have on his kind of movies? Because his movies are sort of a little brown, some ways. Obama being the sort of powerful, sort of very intelligent, good-looking man - does that change the type of movies Hollywood does in terms of just sort of the nuances of them, do you think?

Mr. SMITH: I think so. I mean, Tyler Perry is speaking to a very specific demographic, and I don't know that that's going to change. And he is, in fact, sort of operating outside of the big studio system. His movies are released through Lions Gate, and he's not - so, he's not really dealing with a major studio. I don't know that's going to change his. What will - the problem has been is that he's been one of the very few - especially for African-American women - he's been one of the very few places where African-American women characters are seen on screen. And I think what's going to change here is that you're going to see the diversity of roles begin to expand in all kinds of movies. So, I think that's - but I don't know if that's going to change the humor of it. I mean, it is shocking, I think, in some ways. You talk about the billboard thing. You drive around Los Angeles, and you see that billboard for "He's Just Not That into You." And right next to it is the billboard from "Madea Goes to Jail."

SAMUELS: Right, right.

Mr. SMITH: And that contrast...

SAMUELS: Is amazing.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, it is.

SAMUELS: Jarring. It's very jarring. And I mean, and that's would got me. I'm just sort of like - I don't really want to see either one of them, in some ways. I'm just sort of going, well, is it there a middle ground here that we can get to? Now, at Sundance, "Push" was a huge hit.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, huge.

SAMUELS: It's a bleak story about a morbidly obese, pregnant teenager. The critics loved it, but what kind of box-office draw do you think it will actually get?

Mr. SMITH: It's a hard sell for a box-office draw just naturally. What - but if it gets the kind of critical support it needs, you can have a situation like with "Monster's Ball" or "Monster," where you don't - I mean, look, no one want to go - most people don't want to go see a really somber, really depressing, upsetting movie like that. It's really bleak, that movie.

SAMUELS: Yes, it is.

Mr. SMITH: But if you start hearing buzz about Mo'Nique getting a best- supporting actress nomination, if you get - if there's that kind of critical support and it gets an Oscar push, then I think you'll see a sort of - but I don't imagine that that movie will ever gross more than $25 million.

SAMUELS: Well, this offers us a wonderful segue into the Oscar category, because you have two African-American women that are nominated...

Mr. SMITH: Mm-hmm, yep.

SAMUELS: Taraji Henson and Viola Davis. Any predictions?

Mr. SMITH: I think it's going to go to Viola.

SAMUELS: Really?

Mr. SMITH: And what's exciting me about that is because up until the - because they put Kate Winslet's performance for "The Reader" in lead, it puts her up against Meryl Streep as opposed to up against Viola Davis, which is what she was going to be. And it really helps Viola's chances, I think.

SAMUELS: OK.

Mr. SMITH: Taraji is fantastic, but it's a much more subtle performance, I think. Viola has that one amazing scene with Meryl Streep, standing there in the cold with the tears running down her cheeks and it's just a - and it's also - that's such a lived-in performance. You feel - in one scene, you sense that that is a life that has been lived by that woman. So, I have a feeling it's going to go to Viola. That's my prediction.

SAMUELS: Thank you very much, Sean.

Mr. SMITH: My pleasure. Thanks.

SAMUELS: That was Entertainment Weekly's Los Angeles bureau chief, Sean Smith. He joined us in our studios of NPR West in Culver City, California.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's News & Notes.

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