Black Hollywood Progress
There is an palpable trend of Black Hollywood Progress. More African-Americans/African-Brits, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans have become members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS), Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HPFA awards “Golden Globes”) and major Hollywood guilds (Screen Actor, Director, Writer, Producer).
Those new memberships help drive the artistic recognition of African-Americans and other people of color in Hollywood Cinema. In 2002, an African-American won Best Actor Oscar for the second time and Best Actress Oscar the first time. In 2009, a black writer won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. In 2014, a black director-producer co-won the Best Picture Oscar. In 2017, black producers won the Best Picture Oscar and a black writer won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. There have been Oscar winners in costume design, production design, original song, original score, sound mixing, animated feature, animated short, and documentary. The only major AMPAS categories yet to be won by an African-American/African-Brit are director, cinematography and film editing.
The the memberships are essential, most progress occurring because Hollywood respects big money-makers more than anything.
In 1980, Stir Crazy directed by Sidney Poitier and starring Richard Pryor became the first movie directed by an African-American to make $100 million (inflation adjusts to $305 million in 2018). It opened the door for 1980s comedy movies starring Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg that in turn, made over $100-300 million. The Cosbys show employed more black talent in front and behind the camera while becoming the #1 TV program attracting ad revenue for many years. The Cosbys success opened the door for Will Smith’s Fresh Prince TV career in 1990 and movie career later.
In 1990, Spike Lee received an AMPAS Best Director Nomination for Do The Right Thing. But given his penchant for making Hollywood insiders feel uncomfortable with racism, Spike’s apogee film, Malcolm X, was snubbed for a Best Picture and Best Director nominations in 1992. He remained a Hollywood outsider for decades afterwards.
Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman and others did award-worthy work from 1989-2001. The big break came in 2002, when the Screen Actors Guild, younger and more diverse than AMPAS membership, presented Halle Berry the Best Actress Award. It was followed by Best Actress Oscar to Halle Berry, Best Actor Oscar to Denzel Washington, and Lifetime Achievement Oscar to Sidney Poitier in March 2002.
Since then, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Halle Berry, Forest Whitaker, Idris Elba and Viola Davis have headlined many “A List” movies. More movie projects featuring black actors, writers, directors and producers got financing. More African-Americans starred in Drama, Sci-Fi, Action, Comedy and Musical movies and TV programs. Spike Lee, John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Tyler Perry, F. Gary Gray, Ryan Coogler, Tim Story and Lee Daniels directed movies that grossed over $100 million in box office or won Oscars & Golden Globes.
Since 1980, people of color population is growing faster than Anglo-American population. In a world where people have many alternatives to cinema, diversity talent is needed to better serve markets starving to see their stories authentically represented with high production values.
Then over 2013-17, Cheryl Boone Isaacs became the first African-American President of AMPAS and Paris Barclay became the first African-American to helm the Producers Guild of America. Since Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the wheel in 2013, more AMPAS women and people of color are becoming Oscar voters, quickening the pace of diversity. This is a multi-year initiative to double diversity voter numbers by 2020. “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition.”
As late as 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that AMPAS voters were 91% white and 76% male. Nevertheless, AMPAS is on pace to meet Cheryl Boone Isaacs goal in 2020 and member diversity will continue growing organically thereafter. Isaacs also launched fundraising for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, opening in late 2019. The $400 million museum will include exhibits honoring many actors of color whose opportunities were limited in earlier Hollywood.
We must also thank Shonda Rhimes for award-winning and money-making success producing Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, helped Channing Dungey become the first African-American president of ABC Entertainment Group. Dungey in turn, has green lighted more TV programming for people of color, the springboard for many careers in front and behind the camera. They have influenced TV and movie executives to hire more women and people of color in 3-dimensional dramatic, comedic and musical roles and now in big budget epics. More black talent is finding movie projects via Hollywood Studios, Streaming (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) and Cable TV. Since 2002 and excluding the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards “White-Out”, Oscar voters are growing more in line with Golden Globe voters, major guild voters, movie critics and the audience population.
Fortunately, Denzel Washington does not have to carry the weight of Black Hollywood, like Sidney Poitier did and tragically, Dorothy Dandridge was denied. Cicely Tyson, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Jamie Foxx, Laurence Fishburne, Viola Davis, Will Smith, Terence Howard, Idris Elba, Taraji P. Henson, Jennifer Hudson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Octavia Spencer, Djimon Hounsou, Sanaa Lathan, Queen Latifah, Don Cheadle, Mahershala Ali, Zoe Saldana, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Kaluuya, Sophie Okonedo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Jeffrey Wright, Regina Hall, Regina King, Morris Chestnut, Carmen Ejogo, Taye Diggs, Gabrielle Union, Gabourey Sidibe, Chadwick Boseman, Ruth Nega, Michael B. Jordan, Nate Parker and David Oyelowo have starred in movies that raked in awards, nominations and big revenue.
There are more black writers, cinematographers, production designers, costumers, film editors, sound editors, assistant directors and production assistants working than ever before. That virtuous cycle has led to a larger pool of good movies produced, written, directed and acted by people of color that attract more Golden Globe and Oscar nominations and sometimes, wins.
Earlier, I mentioned that Hollywood cares most about big money-makers. Hollywood likes Denzel Washington because his movies have generated $100-266 million in worldwide box office, plus substantial broadcast, cable, Blu-ray and DVD revenue, while costing a third as much to make.
Hollywood loved Will Smith even more because many of his movies earned $300-$820 million in worldwide box office from 1996-2008, plus significant broadcast, cable, Blu-ray and DVD revenue, while costing $100-150 million to make. That level of profit pays many movie studio salaries. If Disney Studios hadn’t seen Will Smith generate large international box office, they would not have spent an epic-scale budget to produce the cinematic magic of Black Panther.
Though Black Panther won 3 Oscars, its financial success is kicking more doors open in Hollywood. It made $1.35 billion total box office from a $200 million production budget, plus an estimated $75 million in marketing. Studios only spend that much marketing when they are a hit. Once cable, broadcast, streaming, DVD and Blu-ray revenue complete in 2019, Black Panther should generate over $1.6 billion revenue. Hollywood now has more than Will Smith proof that big budget movies starring black people can generate over $500 million box office and over $4 of revenue for every $1 of cost. Hollywood also has a proof point that epic movies starring black people can generate huge international box office too – $700 million for Black Panther. It gets better.
Movie producers often choose actors and pay them according to Q Ratings that measure how well consumers recall and like a given actor. That is an important movie-making process because cumulative Q Ratings for a movie help determine the probability of a movie to at least breakeven at the box office. Black Panther drove up the Q Ratings for every featured actor in the movie and raised the profile of writer-director Ryan Coogler. No wonder Disney Studios has two Black Panther sequels planned and everyone returns Ryan Coogler’s calls.
Spike Lee finally got some props in too. His 2019 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar is shared with Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz. That is really special for two reasons. Spike Lee and multi-award winning Bill Cosby, have opened Hollywood doors for more black folks than any others. Spike also proves that though he calls out Hollywood racism, he is not racist and works with any talent that gets the job done.