24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Race

'Think Like a Man': Is this a watershed moment for black films?

April 23, 2012 |  7:30 am

"Think Like a Man," starring Kevin Hart and Meagan Good, won the box office this weekend; the black-oriented romantic comedy took down "The Hunger Games"By most box-office standards, "Think Like a Man" didn't hit any milestones this weekend. In fact, the movie didn't even break any records within the more limited world of black-oriented films. The biggest opening weekends in the category still belong to the likes of "Norbit" and Tyler Perry's "Madea Goes to Jail," which each topped "Man's" $33 million.

But Screen Gems' "Think Like a Man," the ensemble romantic comedy based on Steve Harvey's bestseller, proved a subtly true point as it took down "The Hunger Games." The Tim Story film joined the ranks of the top-earning black movies despite not being a broad comedy, a la "Norbit" and "Madea." Instead, it's a sweet romantic comedy, a genre regarded as marginal within the realm of black films. "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and "Brown Sugar," two reasonably high-profile efforts, were each considered successful -- and they opened to far less than "Man," both by average and total.

For years, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood has been that, outside of broad comedies, black audiences can't drive a big hit. That probably should have been debunked long ago, but if you look at how often mainstream development slates ignore black stories -- and how little even those that pay attention spend on those movies (see under: the modest budgets for Screen Gems' and Lionsgate's films in this realm) -- it hasn't really been debunked at all.

"Man" offers inarguable proof against all that. Not only did the movie win the weekend, but it thrashed a similar offering aimed at whites: Nicholas Sparks' adaptation "The Lucky One" -- which is also a romance, also from a famous author, and also with some star power. Yet it grossed barely two-thirds of the total of "Man" (and on nearly 1,000 more screens).

Naysayers will argue that "Think Like a Man" racked up the dollars by copying the template of white-oriented romcoms such as "Valentine's Day" and "He’s Just Not That Into you." Those movies also used big ensemble casts, interlocking stories, happy endings and pre-awareness of one form or another to drive box office. But the fact of such mimicry kind of proves the point. Black and white audiences, long seen as so different, increasingly want some of the same things.

"Think Like a Man" also smartly threw in plenty of screen time for the men, making the movie more palatable to boyfriends and husbands. It's easy to wince at the clueless bumbling of some of these male characters. But then, there's barely a white romantic comedy without these types.

One film does not a trend make, and not every movie will have the bestseller cachet (or LeBron James support) of "Think Like a Man." Still, it’s clear from this weekend that a glass ceiling has begun to be broken. The question is which studios will poke their heads through.


Movie review: Gender wars entertain in "Think Like a Man"

"Think Like A Man's" Will Packer: Hollywood's new buzz king

Box Office: "Think Like a Man" rakes in surprising $33 million

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Meagan Good in "Think Like A Man." Credit: Screen Gems

President Obama to introduce 'To Kill a Mockingbird' on TV

April 3, 2012 | 12:42 pm

President Obama will introduce a new restoration of the 1962 courtroom drama "To Kill a Mockingbird" on April 7 on the USA Network
President Obama will introduce a new restoration of the 1962 courtroom drama "To Kill a Mockingbird" on April 7 on the USA Network.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, "To Kill a Mockingbird" tells the story of white Southern lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), who defends a black man accused of rape, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters).

The airing on USA marks the first national broadcast of the movie since it was digitally remastered and restored by Universal Pictures and the American Film Institute in conjunction with Universal's centennial this year.

"I'm deeply honored that President Obama will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by introducing it to a national audience," Lee said in a statement. "I believe it remains the best translation of a book to film ever made, and I'm proud to know that Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch lives on -- in a world that needs him now more than ever."

USA is broadcasting "To Kill a Mockingbird" as part of its "Characters Unite" public-service campaign, a bid to combat discrimination through on-air programming, digital content and events.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" won Peck an Academy Award for best actor. The film also won Oscars for adapted screenplay and art direction.


Kim Novak to be honored at 2012 TCM Classic Film Fest 

Sundance 2012: Spike Lee's co-writer enters the race conversation

TCM Classic Film Festival: Warren Beatty on sex, politics and being "a delicate flower"

-- Rebecca Keegan

Photo: Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Credit: Universal Pictures

Oscars 2012: Despite Halle and Denzel, gold mostly eludes nonwhites

February 24, 2012 |  5:01 pm

Hattie McDaniel

A decade ago, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington made history when they became the first African American performers to win the top acting Oscars in the same year, for "Monster's Ball" (Berry) and "Training Day" (Washington). A third black actor, Will Smith, also was nominated that year, and Sidney Poitier took home a lifetime achievement award. 

"This moment is so much bigger than me," Berry said at the time. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll.... This is for every faceless woman who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

But in the decade since, Berry's prediction has been slow to materialize, and a new UCLA study explores some of the underlying reasons why.

Oscars 2012: Cheat Sheet | Key Scenes | Pundit's picks | Ballot

Titled "Not Quite a Breakthrough: The Oscars and Actors of Color, 2002-2012," the study was sponsored by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, UC Berkeley School of Law and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.Oscar voters study

Drawing a parallel between 2002 and 2012, the report notes in its opening paragraph that this year's Oscar nominees include two black women, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as well as the Mexican actor Demián Bichir. The authors go on to observe that from 2002 through 2012, "almost 20 percent of nominees were people of color," a "notable increase" over the 9% of Oscar nominees in the top categories who were people of color between 1990 and 2000.

That's the good news. However, the study further observes that:

• All lead actress winners since 2002 have been white.
• No winner in any acting category during the last 10 years has been Latino, Asian
American or Native American.
• Oscar winners and nominees of color make fewer movies per year after their
nominations than their white peers do.
• Oscar winners and nominees of color are more likely than their white peers to
work in television, which is considered lower-status work.
• Oscar winners and nominees of color are less likely than their white peers to
receive subsequent nominations.

It's questionable whether television still is regarded as "lower-status work" than film, given the critical praise that's been heaped on ambitious, high-quality TV series such as "The Wire," "Treme" and "The Sopranos."

More complex is the question of why Oscar distribution tends to favor white over nonwhite actors. As a recent L.A. Times story documented, the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is indeed overwhelmingly white (94%) and male (77%). But the poor showing of nonwhite actors during Oscar season also simply reflects the under-representation of nonwhite actors in Hollywood films as a whole.

As L.A.Times reporter Lorenza Munoz wrote in a prescient March 2002 story about Washington and Berry's Oscar triumph, when individual nonwhite actors win Oscars they're unlikely to open doors for other nonwhites. That's because today's bottom-line-driven Hollywood studio industry is increasingly reliant on the international market, "where having minorities and women in starring roles is considered a detriment, particularly in action blockbusters," Munoz wrote.

Munoz's story went on to quote James Ulmer, author of "James Ulmer's Hollywood Hot List," which tracks actors' global marketability. "None of this is going to change the fact that you cannot package or sell [a movie] to the world market today with a black woman," Ulmer said of Berry and Washington's achievement. "I don't see [the Oscar win] as changing an industry where white male actors drive the train of the international marketplace." Those comments seem just as applicable, or more, today.

But, as the UCLA study's authors also observe, the issue isn't just the infrequency of nonwhite actors earning Oscar nominations and wins. It's also the limited types of roles for which nonwhite actors do  get nominated for Oscars. For example, they write, the Oscars still tend to reward black females not for playing women like Berry's tough, complex, erotically charged character in "Monster's Ball," but for roles that conform to old Hollywood racial stereotypes of black women "who are sassy, full-figured, maternal, or non-sexual."

"In short," the report asserts, "Hollywood has required black female Oscar nominees and winners to resemble Hattie McDaniel more than Halle Berry."


After the Big Night, is change realistic?

Oscar voters overwhelmingly white, male

Oscar voters aren't always who you might think

-- Reed Johnson

Photo: Hattie McDaniel became the first African American female to win the supporting actress Oscar, playing Scarlett O'Hara's Mammy in "Gone With the Wind." Credit: Marc Wanamaker / Bison Archives

Sundance 2012: Spike Lee's co-writer joins the race conversation

January 26, 2012 | 12:21 pm


Spike Lee caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival this week when he said Hollywood studios "know nothing about black people." Now, James McBride, the co-writer  and co-producer on his latest film "Red Hook Summer," is adding his voice to the discussion.

In an open letter posted Thursday on Lee's 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks website, McBride draws a line from President Obama's State of the Union address, to the Oscar nominations for African Americans Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (playing maids in "The Help"), and back to Lee's comments.

He concludes: "Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller, writer, musician, filmmaker. Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in 'Driving Miss Daisy,' except it’s a kind of TV series lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you’re a kind of cultural maid."

PHOTOS: Spike Lee's controversial quotes

The full letter is below. Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Continue reading »

Will color return to this year's Oscar season?

September 21, 2011 |  8:31 am


When Oscar nominations were announced earlier this year, it was impossible to avoid this unsubtle fact: All of the major nominees were white. And when the presenters had all taken their turn on the Kodak Theatre stage, not a single black man was among them, a fact that Samuel Jackson noted tartly in an email to a Times reporter.

It was a sharp turn from the 2009-10 season, when “Precious” and "The Blind Side" drew numerous accolades, and there were black nominees for best director, best picture and best actress (and black winners for best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay).

For anyone concerned about which way the Oscars could go this year, there's reason to take heart. As a new season gets underway, there are signs the Oscars could return to the diversity of two years ago. In fact, the show this year could match and even surpass those landmark events -- and not only because Eddie Murphy is presiding (the first black host since Chris Rock in 2004) or because Oprah Winfrey will be given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award,  the academy's honorary Oscar. It's the potential nominees themselves who offer the prospect of a more diverse Oscars.

And it could happen, notably, on the basis of more than just  one or two films -- and without the help of Oscar stalwarts such as Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Halle Berry or Will Smith, none of whom have new movies this year.

Driving the expectations, of course, is the Southern drama "The Help." Oscar handicappers are already predicting a best actress nomination for Viola Davis, while Octavia Spencer could be in the mix too, likely in the supporting category.

There's also T.J. Martin, co-director of the documentary "The Undefeated,” which was a hit at the South by Southwest festival in March and wowed crowds at the Toronto Film Festival last week. A football documentary about a black high school in Memphis, Tenn., the movie is getting a release from Weinstein Co. and has a solid shot at a doc nomination. Martin would be only the second black director ever to be nominated in the documentary category.

But it's hardly just those films, or even race-themed movies in general, that could color in the Oscars. Steve McQueen, director of "Shame" (about a sex addict and dysfunctional sibling relationship, not about race at all), generated buzz at early fall film festivals and is shaping up as a strong contender this season. If the sophomore filmmaker lands the nomination, he would become only the third black director to ever be nominated.

(Asked about the subject of race and the Oscars in an interview with 24 Frames, McQueen said he wanted to think about it a little more before answering and would get back to us later in the season. The BAFTA winner did note that he believed racism, both in the entertainment business and society at large, was far worse in his native Britain than the United States.)

Joining these Oscar hopefuls is director Dee Rees and the actors of "Pariah," a favorite from this past year's Sundance Film Festival that features an almost entirely black cast and deals as much with themes of sexuality as with race. Focus Features is releasing the micro-indie and is expected to give it an awards push.

Davis may also have a shot at a supporting actress nomination with her part in Stephen Daldry's much-anticipated (though so far unseen) 9/11-themed literary adaptation "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."

At a time when black actors say there's a dearth of meaty parts, it's hard not to find at least some encouragement in all of this. A new class of black actors is getting a bit more of a toehold in prestige movies -- witness Davis springboarding to these parts from her role in "Doubt" a few years back.

Hollywood still makes fewer serious movies than it has in a long time, and minorities struggle to land parts in those films. But the early indications, at least, are that the Oscars this year look a little less like the rest of Hollywood and a bit more like the real world.


'Shame' director surprised by controversy

Does Hollywood discriminate against young black actors?

'The Help' is fine, but is Hollywood ignoring modern black life?

-- Steven Zeitchik


 Photo: Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help." Credit: DreamWorks

’The Help’? Fine, but is Hollywood ignoring modern black life?

August 17, 2011 | 12:57 pm


It may seem odd, with "The Help" gobbling up box office dollars, to lament the lack of movies about African Americans.

But the announcement Tuesday that Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Steve McQueen would collaborate on a new film called "Twelve Years a Slave" brought to the fore an uncomfortable reality: It may be a very good moment for movies about black history, but it's a terrible time for movies about the contemporary black experience.

"The Help," which looks at the segregated South in the early 1960s, and "Twelve Years," a true story about a free black man who was kidnapped and enslaved in 1853, both hark back to an era when equality was a distant dream and racism the norm. These films follow a long line of dramas set amid the slavery of the 19th century and the segregation of the 20th: "Beloved," "Amistad," "Mississippi Burning" and "The Color Purple," to name a few.

And more historical films are on their way. Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is about an escaped slave (Jamie Foxx) who becomes a bounty hunter so he can free other slaves, while "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" gives a genre fillip to a story about the 16th president, his friendship with a slave and the general difficulties of being black in America circa the early 1860s.

What we don't have in all these explorations of blacks in America, however, are dramas that speak to a contemporary experience, a "Boyz n the Hood" or even a "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," both of which now seem to have come out very long ago (and, indeed, did -- 20 years ago for "Boyz" and and 13 for "Stella").

Continue reading »

LucasFilm's long-delayed 'Red Tails' coming in January [Trailer]

July 29, 2011 | 12:56 pm

It's been a long road for "Red Tails," the film about the Tuskegee Airmen from World War II that George Lucas produced and financed through his LucasFilm. Starring Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and a slew of young up-and-comers including David Oyelowo ("The Help") and Michael B. Jordan (best known for his role in the television show "Parenthood"), "Red Tails" began production in 2009 only to get slowed down in the edit bay.

The film required reshoots, and director Anthony Hemingway had to move off the project to resume his duties on the HBO series "Treme." As such Lucas and producer Richard McCullum oversaw the reshoots --with Hemingway's approval.

The film now has a release date: Jan. 20, 2012 -- the Friday following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday -- courtesy of 20th Century Fox, the studio that's released all of Lucas' films. Check out the trailer below.


From the L.A. Times archives: Lucas on 'Red Tails' in 1990

-- Nicole Sperling

Photo: George Lucas and the stormtroopers. Credit: Richard Lewis/EPA

'The Help' women talk film, civil rights and Hollywood

July 29, 2011 | 11:42 am

Gather actresses Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain in a room, and wait five minutes. You'll be destined to hear lots of laughs, some oohs and ahs, and likely some valuable insight. They are five strong, independent-minded actresses that clearly formed lasting relationships with one another while filming the adaptation of the best-selling novel "The Help" deep in Mississippi. Each one has a different perspective on her character, the movie, and what it's like being an actress today in Hollywood.

Directed by Tate Taylor, "The Help" bows on Aug. 10 and is a complex tale of white women and their relationships with the black maids who clean their houses and care for their children. Click here for our Sunday Calendar conversation with them, and here for exclusive online excerpts. 


2011 Movie Preview: 'The Help'

Kathryn Stockett gives Tate Taylor some 'Help'

Thumbs up or down for 'The Help' movie trailer?

--Nicole Sperling

Photo: Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in a scene from "The Help." Credit: Dale Robinette/Dreamworks

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



Anthony Mackie adjusts to film roles

Men in Black III pushed back again

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter star: Our movie will be educational

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


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