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Does Hollywood discriminate against young black actors?

March 4, 2011 |  3:25 pm

Shortly after the Oscars ended Sunday, Samuel L. Jackson sent an e-mail to a Times reporter wondering why no black men had been chosen to present awards on the film world's biggest stage.

"It's obvious there's not ONE Black male actor in Hollywood that's able to read a teleprompter, or that's 'hip enuf,' for the new academy demographic!" Jackson wrote. "In the Hollywood I saw tonite, I don't exist nor does Denzel, Eddie, Will, Jamie, or even a young comer like Anthony Mackie!"

Jackson may be on to something, at least when it comes to the young comers.

There is still a sizable number of black actors in Hollywood with box-office clout and meaty roles, a point that will be underscored when the NAACP hands out its annual Image Awards in Los Angeles Friday night. Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world, a title he's held now for several years, and Denzel Washington remains at the peak of his box-office powers.

But most of the prominent male black stars sit on the other side of 40. The best known of the next generation -- say, Derek Luke (36), Chiwetel Eijofor (33), Idris Elba (39) and Mackie (31) -- are not only less influential, they're not nearly as popular in their 30s as the previous crop was at their age. (Washington, for instance, had already won an Oscar and made "Glory," "Malcolm X" and "Philadelphia" before he hit the big 4-0.)

That's not because any of these actors aren't capable of pulling off a "Malcolm X" or a "Philadelphia," of course. It's because they're not given the chance. Mackie has one of the more substantive studio roles for a younger black actor in a while as Matt Damon's guardian angel in this weekend's "The Adjustment Bureau." But it's hardly the role of a lifetime.

"It's frustrating that the movies I want to make I haven't been able to make," Mackie told 24 Frames. "Orlando Bloom was given 15 opportunities after 'Lord of the Rings.' Black men are given no opportunities."

Race in Hollywood is a subject close to Mackie's heart. He's studiously avoided the "Who's Your Caddys" and "Big Momma's Houses" of the film world, going instead to indies such as "The Hurt Locker" and, almost as frequently, to the stage.

"In the  early 1990's, every black actor you know now was starting out and making movies. They were  making more movies under Daddy Bush than we are under Obama, which is ridiculous," Mackie said.

The scarcity of black roles in 2011 is partly a function of fewer movies being made, and certainly fewer serious-minded movies at the studios. When Washington and Smith were coming up, there were routinely chances to make those types of films. (Smith made "Six Degrees of Separation" with MGM when he was 24 and in the middle of shooting a network sitcom.) Now you need to go indie or wait for lightning to strike at a studio.

The growth of the black-comedy niche may also have, paradoxically, resulted in fewer opportunities, as black actors get cordoned off in the land of "Soul Plane."

But while some studio executives will privately say they're simply reacting to the marketplace realities when it comes to casting younger black actors in lead roles of mainstream films, the actors don't buy it. "They say there's not an audience for black stars, but that's because you're not feeding [audiences] them," Mackie said.

Actors can take a long time to develop their talents and establish a relationship with an audience. The dearth of young black actors may be obscured in 2011, with Washington and Smith -- not to mention Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker and others -- still making movies. But one wonders what type of entertainment world we'll be occupying when these stars are in their 50s and 60s and Hollywood has cultivated almost no one to take their place.

--Steven Zeitchik



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Photo: Anthony Mackie, left, John Slattery and others in "The Adjustment Bureau." Credit: Universal Pictures 

Comments () | Archives (114)

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The world is what is it. This little article can't change it. Hollywood and the movie industry is what it is. If black actors want to be in more films then black producers, screenwriters, and financial backers need to set up to the plate and make it happen. Stop looking for an "equal" playing field this is America the land of the almighty dollar. Money talks and all the rest walks.

I don't watch TV because no one who looks like me or that I am remotely interested in appears there. The same with movies, I refuse to pay to watch the same people tell essentially the same stories over and over again. So if blacks want more opportunity, they need to bring the dollars and talent and make it happen. Stop whining and do something about it.

Black actors don't translate well into foreign box office. Black films make nothing overseas. This is a huge factor as the foreign BO becomes a greater % with each passing year.

I think this article touches on a bigger issue in-a lack of diversity in Hollywood. Actors of color, in general, are not given the same kind of opportunities as their white peers.

White Men Can't Jump was written by a White MAN.

Thank you so much for giving Anthony a forum to say what i and some of my acting colleagues talk about daily. Im consistently perplexed at how little work there is for "us" in film/tv. How did we go from the late '80's and having the #1 show(The Cosbys) and plenty of AA based content, to 2011 and zero AA themed shows on network tv? We progressed to having a black president, how did we regress in the entertainment field? Black people are not without partial blame, we wont support a network show with positive images of AA people(Undercovers), yet we will pay subscription fees to watch 'The Game'(BET's reboot of the once promising Upn/WB show)? We need to show advertisers and studios that we will support non-buffoonish content and then i think we'll see the" kwan".

The Times should not allow anonymous posting. It only encourages the foaming-at-the-mouth racism and homophobia found in "comments" sections 24/7.

One obstacle for new young male black actors may be the hiphop culture. People are so used to hearing "black" talk from young men (bad grammar, bad English, limited vocabulary), and since that way of talking is not consistent with most leading movie roles, many new black actors are met with suspicion and unfairly held back.

I'm sad that racism still exists in Hollywood. It was a feeling of revolution and fresh air when black actors finally broke into mainstream movies, but did it last? Good, experienced black actors still have to fight for good parts because those parts are too often labeled according to skin color. "Mother and child" are one of the few films where any role could actually have been played by people of any race.

As a Black person I am sometimes embarrassed by the complaints of Black actors. If you decide you want to be an actor then you have to realize that for the majority of your career you will be unemployed!!! That is the norm for ANY actor. That is the nature of the business. The producers want to make money. That is the bottom line. And they want to make money without taking chances on unknown actors or any new or different stories.

These days Tyler Perry makes movies that make money. If Mr. Mackie looks down his nose at being in a Tyler Perry movie and he only wants to be in "white people movies" then that's his problem. But there are roles out there that he can do to hone his craft and get better. But, no matter how good he becomes, it is highly unlikely he will ever be as big as Will or Denzel. So, whatever, stop complaining. People in Hollywood have no obligation to cater to a minority, whether Black, Asian or Hispanic. Of course, this could be the reason nobody is paying to see movies these days but then, that's another story right there.

P.S.: I cannot speak to what Mr. Jackson said about the Oscars since I have not watched the Oscar presentation since somewhere around 1985. I decided long ago that time was too previous to waste three hours of it watching that drivel!!

I don't see any Asian person either.

I think its more so a matter of time, not a lack of "replacements". Its not about replacing, but rather the timing of when new stars come onto the scene. "Hollywood" can only do so much in cultivating actors. I don't believe they raise stars...as much as give newer and established actors -added attention.
The up and coming actors you named are great but i feel they are in the middle ground (that gets no attention) right before taking off. [they are not new enough or seasoned enough by the "big collars" calling shots]

Its not the spotlight that makes you good,its people paying attention to your hard work all of a sudden.

Great read, I really enjoyed this article well articulated and to the point.

Even Black actors with an MFA , who are talented, can't even get the same opportunities. Degrees don't matter. Hollywood is still about the outside as opposed to the inside.

Re: Hollywood: When Spike Lee can't get a James Brown Biopic made now, something is wrong. When he did not get recognized as a director for Malcolm X by the Academy..something is wrong. When he struggled to even make Malcolm X , something is wrong.

There are ramblings now of Scott Rudin, etc..doing a Martin Luther King Biopic. Jeffrey Wright did the HBO version of playing Dr King in "Boycott". Why hasn't MLK been represented on the BIG Screen, until now?

Hollywood is blind. Hollywood isn't a depiction of real life..and the many cultures in it. The Media has conditioned America over the years.

All an article like this does is stir up peoples "private" opinions on injustice. I am a black man, who is trying to become successful in hollywood. Behind the Hollywood facade of what we see on tv is nothing but gay and Jewish people. It's been this way for years. Are minorities misrepresented in Hollywood? Yes. But why? TV is made for middle America. Who populates that area most? White people. You have to make tv to cater to them, who watch it most. Also, BET, and Spanish speaking channels don't put a DENT in cable tv. Yeah there is no, white entertainment television because EVERY channel besides BET and telemundo is WTV. Vh1 didn't play a black video until really late into there existence (except prince, or Michael, but black music didn't start with them.) I try not to complain about misrepresentation because it is what it is. People are ignorant in this country and that won't change. For those of you who think racism is dead, or will ever die, GROW UP. What amazes me is the people who say, "blacks are all over tv" because you see 1 or 2 out of ALL the white people you see on tv. I guess that's enough right? Haha. "Friends" was on for all those years, and you can probably count how many black people were on the show (including EXTRAS) on both hands. Thats just how it is, and how it's going to be. Middle America wants to see what looks like them. They see enough black in political news. They don't want to watch them on tv. You think they watch Tyler Perry in the Dakotas? Well nobody watches Tyler Perry. I'm black and I sure don't.

cant we all just get along?
short answer, no.........
If 'moviemakeing' is to quantitize casting there should be more representives fm: prison, homeless, hetrosexual, older, ilegalalien, christian, conservative, uneducated, confused, fashionimpaired communities and people with tourettes syndrome.
Fook hollywood anyway, who the hell made them the decider in anything except marketing???
Carlos Estevez is a product of his environment, & god bless Carlos!

I do believe that Hollywood is so sold out to Obama that they do not want to show any other black male as strong - positive - successful - Hollywood will never high light someone like Bill Cosby - Clarance Thomas - Dr. Walter E. Williams - these are men who have done it on their own - Obama wants all people to depend on the government.

Issue as a whole is valid, but I think Samuel L.'s comments about the Oscars are a little off. Only so many dead people can be in-memoriam-ed; only so many worthy artists nominated in each category; and only so many people (very few, really) presenting.

Every year, when people debate "snubs", it amazes me that a little simple math is never part of their argument.

To the people complaining about Latino talent..STOP IT! There's a TON of Latinos working in TV and film. Just because they may not "look" it or have an ethnic last name doesn't mean they're not. Research. There's a crop of young Latinos...Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Victoria Justice making big moves. The biggest actress of the last few years imo Zoe Saldana is a Latina

Asians are still underrepresented, but things are looking up. Maggie Q, Hawaii 5-0 . I found several articles like this about Asians in Hollywood.

It's clear then, that Hollywood is racist. Most of the studio heads and grand poobahs are, to paraphrase President 0bama's own words, 'typical white persons'.

I am white. I tried to get into the acting game around 1996 when I just came out of high school- I took theather classes vioce lessens and it was all a BIG WASTE of time. Today you have two things impeading any actor from success: #1 The Economy is real bad and everyonee wants to be an actor; you've got to be the best of the best and even then you got to know people in show biz. people who'll beatThier own carrer on yours. #2 Actors usally get thier start on Television shows and with Reality T.V. there are less jobs.

In this enviorment: how can Jackson say "'It's obvious there's not ONE Black male actor in Hollywood that's able to read a teleprompter, or that's 'hip enuf,' for the new academy demographic!"

If you star in a movie with a part that is good enough to be nominated you will win; it's just that simple. The academy would fall all over themselves to give their award to a black man or woman. Complaints should be directed to the writers who have a lot to do with what kind of characters make up their stories.

blacks especially HALF blacks were overSOLD over represented. where r all the hispanic actors YO whats up w/ that.

people r sick of STUFF shoved up their NOSES & down their throats. BLaCK movies, where r the WHITE movies. BLACKS attend in huge numbers stories related 2 their experince. it's a prejudice THAT population finds acceptable. RUNNING the numbers is crap, the market decides by ur DOLLARS,

quit bitchIN

Most Hollywood films are written, produced, and funded by white/Jewish people. It is only natural that the stories revolve around these groups. Writers, after all, write about what they know. A Jewish or white guy from a distinct cultural background does not know about black culture enough to tell about it, and to stereotype them will only make matters worse. You also have to take into account that many films are historical, and most of American history is about white people (since white people made up its majority, and still do -- around 60-65% or so). In the international arena, African and Native American history did without a written language and records up until recent times, so Hollywood really only has American, European, And Asian history to chose from. Not much is known about the other civilizations. Asian films touch on Asian history, so Hollywood -- centered in a Western country, with Western culture -- deals with Western (i.e. white) history. Thus there will be more roles for whites. Furthermore, as someone else has said, blacks don't sell in overseas markets well. For some reason, non-white foreigners like to see white actors. The stats prove this. The only place blacks sell is ironically in white nations -- which is why Will Smith and Sam Jackson are some of the highest grossing actors in American film. Thus, backers are more willing to bankroll movies with white actors than blacks ones.

So if blacks want to get more parts, they need to encourage more black writers producers, as well as get wealthy blacks to support their products. Hollywood is a business at its root. It really only cares about making money, and in the global market, whites make them more money than blacks.

As far as Hispanics go, they are not a race, so it's kind of hard to be "racist" towards them in regards to film. There are white Hispanics like Penelope Cruz, Arab Hispanics like Selma Hayek, blacks ones like Zoe Zaldana, Native Americans like Danny Trejo, and mixed ones like Michele Rodriguez.

I am personally mixed race (Italian, German and Japanese), but I think it is highly hypocritical for people to push for quotas in film, when they make no such complaint in other areas -- where they are predominant. It's really all about selfishness. They don't care about discrimination, they only care when THEY are the ones being discriminated against. If you are going to rail about Hollywood for its lack of diversity, then don't exclude organizations, industries, and businesses that allow the dominance of other specific groups (i.e. the NBA).

Because "my people" did not want them. Why were none of "my people" not in the building at the BET HIP HOP AWARDS??

Dear Steven Zeitchik: Thank you for posting this article. I was wondering about this subject as I painfully watched the ceremonies from home. ..Not so picture perfect from my perspective either. I'm no produce, but I think I could have developed a much more entertaining and less offensive evening. Unfortunately, Hollywood's Oscar committee was so busy discriminating against the 55 and older population they forgot to include the underrepresented African and Latino male actors to the night's circus and kiddie show...see, now I'm discriminating...It's a disease i tell you. One thing the underrepresented or nonexistent , if you will, box office draws need to do next year is boycott the red carpet charade. MR. SAMUEL JACKSON, I don't know if you will read this post...since "us coloreds don't knows how ta read oh anyding." Perhaps, one of your overrepresented blockbuster counterparts may communicate my support to you and your brilliant work, film after film, through this writing. Don't let it go. Brng your sons and daughters to the red carpet gathering 2012, and as soon the teenage, ..I mean, hosts come on stage, get up very slowly, and leave that auditorium like it was "Rush Hour" on Wall Street..(I've never been to Hollywood so I am unfamiliar with the downtown district jargon). In fact, I may never visit your "fair" city. The streets are too narrow. Oh pardon me, did I say narrow, I meant to say narrow minded. This is just another example of Wham Bam....thank you for helping me to sell the billions of box office tickets, over the decades....."Man." C'mon Screen Actors Guild, do your "part"...rally the troops and secure enough roles for actors of color. Stop the disgrace in Hollywood; film capital if the world.

...don't want to be on YOUR list.
at least Hitler didn't kill Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus...it's attitudes of apathy that promote racism and prohibit progress in human relations.

Thing that this implies is that a 'white' audience (I guess that is defined as non black?) won't go to see a 'black' actor? Are they kidding? Why delineate then?

Denzel Washington, et al weren't just popular in the African American community, but across the board. I've always found it curious and ridiculous how stereotypical Hollywood is. They talk a good liberal line, but in practice, all we seem to see are stereotypes.

What it really comes down to is giving African Americans a chance with non-sterotypical roles, casting people as a character, not as an image. When they do it, it works and is popular. But they never seem to be aware of what they're doing so they revert back to caution.

Ridiculous. A good actor is a good actor and the public will pay to see them regardless of gender or ethnicity. Bring them and we'll come. As long as I'm talking to them, could you also bag the idea of sequels, prequels and remakes? Give us some new material. That goes to the music industry, too.

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