The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Will Barack Obama make Hollywood more colorblind?

January 19, 2009 |  2:29 pm

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