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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Will Barack Obama make Hollywood more colorblind?

If Washington only had more hotel space, all of Hollywood would've happily hurried back East this week to be a part of the Obama inaugural festivities, not just the lucky, deep-pocketed few like Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg (and others) who got some of those highly sought-after inaugural tickets in return for a hefty $50,000 donation. Even though Obama carefully kept his distance from showbiz during the presidential campaign, he's easily Hollywood's favorite politician in years, perhaps even more than Bill Clinton, who was pretty hot stuff himself, at least until he started acting like a rock star with a hotel room full of groupies.

Theobamas_2 But will America's embrace of the son of a white mother and a black father inspire Hollywood to be less rigid about dividing the world into convenient black and white demographics? That's a harder question to answer. Novelist Susan Straight, who happens to be a favorite writer of mine, wrestled with the issue in a provocative essay in the Sunday Calendar that wonders if a mixed-race president could help end the persistent segregation in our nation's creative storytelling. It's no secret in Hollywood that films aimed at an African American audience are seen as black-only movies. To get greenlit, they have to be made on budgets far lower than the average movie, since Hollywood believes, based on past experience, that those films won't attract many white moviegoers.

Straight views this as a culture-wide issue. As she puts it:

"Maybe the presence of a president who looks like Obama, who looks like millions of people of mixed race, will loosen up the rigid constructions that rule movies, novels and visual art. 'Black movies' appeal only to black audiences, the current wisdom seems, and the 'African American' sections of bookstores are places where white readers seldom browse.... With Obama having his face become commonplace as a symbol of America, maybe American movies and literature can have fewer black sidekicks who exist only to further white characters' motives, plans and lives. Because [of] Michele Obama ... maybe a black woman could actually be the lead in an action movie ... and maybe she could have a white girlfriend who plays a very small part, has to do a lot of patient supporting and doesn't get a guy."   

Straight has a great point. With Michele Obama appearing on magazine covers and TV shows everywhere, is it possible that someone in Hollywood might wonder--could we actually make a movie with a black woman in the lead? It's easy to point to Will Smith and say that if a black man can be the industry's top box-office attraction, then audiences are more color-blind today than they've ever been. But for all his talent, Smith has become a star by living in a white man's world--if you watch his most successful movies, it's hard not to notice that he is largely surrounded by white faces.

Black actresses have it even harder, since when they are cast in relationship films or romantic comedies, they are almost always playing opposite a black man, not a white or Asian or Latino. Some of the best and biggest parts given to African American actresses in recent years have been in musicals, like "Dreamgirls," "Ray" and "Cadillac Records," since that is viewed in Hollywood as an acceptable, audience-pleasing role to play.

In years past, the arts, led by music and theater (with Hollywood usually lagging behind), have broken all sorts of cultural barriers. The big bands of the late 1930s and 1940s, for example, were integrated long before Washington got around to passing any civil rights legislation. With the arrival of the Obamas, Washington now has a leading man and woman of color, setting a new cultural agenda. I'd say the ball is in Hollywood's court. If Hollywood really wants to show some respect for the Obama revolution, it's time for the movie business to break some ground of its own. 

 Photo of Barack and Michele Obama by Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images

 
Comments () | Archives (15)

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Maybe some of the racial hypocrisy will also be exposed. Black movies and black sitcoms rarely, if ever, have any Caucasian actors. In fact, to expose the hypocrisy and double standard even further, when a Black and White actor are cast in the same movie, sitcom, or commercial, the White man is always, always, always depicted as inept, stupid, floundering social graces, and totally lacking equal manhood. This is never spoken about and this one-way mentality that has gripped the Nation is a suspension of disbelief. Black people act like until TODAY, they have had no opportunities or equal rights. That is not even close to accurate. In fact, so many 'social programs' have been put into action in the last 30 years, it is difficult to understand what the fuss is all about. Obama may be the first Black President, but no one has stopped or prevented any Black politician before him from running. Let's get some balance to reality of it all. Passions based on hype and hysteria serve no one. We all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America. Maybe some should see the glass as 'half full' instead of 'half empty' every time they look.

The news of an American election has never received so much news coverage around the world. Here in the UK all the news-based shows on TV and Radio are either continually talking about the inauguration or broadcasting live from Washington. Tonight news was about the 32,000 people involved with the security operation of tomorrows event and the surge to buy products in shops with the Stars and stripes logo printed for the American parties happening around the Country. (Just found a site with some stock left : http://www.birthdaypartyheliumballoondelivery.co.uk

I guess you didn't see WILD WILD WEST where Will Smith was lead and girlfriend was black.
And his WHITE partner was STUPID!

Michelle Obama's name is spelled with 2 Ls not one.

Obama is America's "black friend". He being President will make other racism ok becaue "I'm not racist, I voted for Obama". The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Your comments are very short-sighted. The US isn't divided into black and white, but rather multiple ethnicities, and that should be reflected in the movies rather than what you are stating. Remember that on a country-wide basis, 13% of the US population is african-american and over 14% is hispanic. If you look at the percentage of the top 100 entertainers' ethnicities, you will find that over 13 of them are african american. Stop harping on a single ethnicity, and start focusing on all the other ethnicities as well, for african americans are over represented in Hollywood to the detriment of Hispanics, South Asians, Pacific Asians and others. Get off your high horse, and start generating real insights and questions, not the flavor of the month..

Don't forget, colorblindness is a disability. Hollywood should be telling us good stories, not engaging in social engineering.

omaba i cant belive your our new president

Good post. I always thought it disingenuous, to say the least, when Hollywood trumpeted the racial barriers breaking with the Oscar wins of Halle Berry and Denzel Washington a few years back.

Regular folks weren't holding back actors of color all these years ... it was Hollywood. The public already voted on behalf of movie stars like Denzel and Will Smith with their ticket dollars ... Hollywood was being racially insensitive with its voting patterns.

As for Obama's impact on Hollywood, I'm skeptical. It would be nice to see Hollywood change to meet the times, though. We can always ... hope.

@ banderman: Based on your post you are projecting your on short sightedness about Hollywood films starring black and white actors. I can't recall too many films where the white co-lead was portrayed as inept or lacking social graces. I tried and I couldn't come up with anything. As for the tv shows I'm sure you know that most of the executive producers, producers and writers on said black shows are actually white. Your seems like it would be with them.

Regarding the glass is "half empty" comment I highly recommend that you watch Being Black in America, there is a segment where about 3 white employers state that they would
higher a white man with a conviction in his past than a educted, black man. I work in corporate America and I have been successful in my field but I also know that there are some official rules that I happen to fall into to be considered "non-threatening" or "relatable". Hhere is what I'm certain of...we can only speak from our own experience. I believe (and I am not assuming) that you are commenting without the benefit of speaking honestly and directly with an african american person, Hollywood aside.

I know it might be difficult to connect with another races struggle. You may even feel that you are somehow being placed in a bad light for being a white man (if you are white or a man or both) but there are definite facts about history that can't be denied. Unfortunately, the pursuit of life, happiness, liberty and love have been denied to many in America soley based on thier race. It's documented in history books, one example, it was less than 40 years ago that some schools were were STILL be forced to segregate. So yes, there is a sigh of relief from "Black people" about what our new President represents. Maybe now it will be easier to see the glass as "half full."

I do agree with you, Hollywood should reflect all walks of life within in any race.

 
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