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.
In 2013, 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. “The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up,” said Cheryl Boone Isaacs. She backed it up with a multi-year initiative to double diversity voter numbers by 2020. As late as 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that AMPAS voters were still 91% white and 76% male. Though Isaacs left her leadership role in 2017, significantly more women and people of color are becoming registered Academy Award voters.
AMPAS is on pace to meet Cheryl Boone Isaacs goal in 2020 and member diversity will grow 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 people of color, including many whose opportunities were limited in earlier Hollywood.
Guild memberships, award nominations & wins are essential ingredients, but most progress is occurring because Hollywood studios bow to big money-makers.
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 calling out Hollywood for racism, Spike’s apogee film, Malcolm X, was snubbed for a Best Picture and Best Director nominations in 1992. Though he remained a Hollywood outsider for decades, he opened more doors for John Singleton, Carl Franklin, Bill Duke and others to direct Hollywood feature films.
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 movies 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 and 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, talented people of color are needed to better serve markets starving to see their stories represented with high production values.
We must also thank Shonda Rhimes for award-winning, 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, green-lighted more TV programming for people of color, the springboard for 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 (HBO, Showtime, OWN, TNT, TBS). Excluding the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards “White-Out”, since 2002, Oscar voters are growing more in line with Golden Globe voters, major guild voters, movie critics and movie-going population.
Fortunately, Denzel Washington does not have to carry the weight of Black Hollywood, like Sidney Poitier did and Dorothy Dandridge was tragically 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 guild nominations, guild awards and high profit ratios.
There are more black directors, 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 movies produced, written, directed and acted by people of color that attract more Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
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 produce and market.
Hollywood studios 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 size of profit pays many Hollywood salaries, including E TV channel and IMDB website which make money covering the Hollywood ecosystem. 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 the real story. From a $200 million production budget plus $75 million in marketing (est.), it made $1.35 billion total box office — including $700 million international box office. Once cable, broadcast, streaming, DVD and Blu-ray revenue are tallied in 2019, Black Panther should generate well over $1.6 billion revenue. Hollywood studios now has more than Will Smith proof that big budget movies starring black people can generate over $500 million box office and over $3 of revenue for every $1 of cost.
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 actors and movie genres 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. Two Creed movies costing that cost a combined $85 million yet tallied $360 million box office also raised the profile of writer-director-producer Ryan Coogler. No wonder Disney Studios has two Black Panther sequels planned and Hollywood phone calls to Ryan Cooler blew up.
It gets better. In 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out cost only $5 million to produce and a few million to market, yet made $255 million in box office and mostly likely, another $100 million in broadcast, cable, streaming, DVD and Blu-ray revenue. With an amazing profit ratio on his resume, writer-director-actor Peele had no problem raising a $20 million budget for his next film, Us — also a box office hit.
Spike Lee finally got some props too. His 2019 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar is shared with Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz. That is special for two reasons. Since Spike Lee opened more Hollywood feature film doors for black folks than anyone else, it was good to see him win on the “Big Stage.” Tangentially, it also thanks movie directors before him like Gordon Parks, Sidney Poitier, Charles Burnett, Michael Schultz, Euzhan Palcy and Kevin Hooks. Second, though he calls out Hollywood racism, Spike has proven many times that he successfully works with talent of any stripe to get the job done. By any measure, he is true Auteur.
Further progress is needed, particularly in black-on-black romance movies and female salaries. The big picture however, is that Hollywood trusts more black filmmakers in drama, comedy, sci-fi, horror, documentary and action films. Hollywood also trusts bio-pics anchored by black characters, whether directed by African-Americans or Anglo-Americans. We no longer have to be the noble servant, sacrificial death or superficial comic relief, while everyone else gets top billing, uplifting stories and makes real money.