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“The Crisis of the Black Leading Man” - Reader Submitted Op-ed

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 24, 2011 at 1:47AM

In case you weren't aware, we do accept reader-submitted pieces; in fact, we encourage it!
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In case you weren't aware, we do accept reader-submitted pieces; in fact, we encourage it!

Obviously, not everything received will be posted; in fact, I'd say that if you'd like to submit something, it'll probably be best if you contact me first, before spending time writing it, only to later be shocked and hurt that I won't post it!

All that said, good content is good content, so, if you've got something to say with respect to what we call "black cinema," and you can express yourself well, whether in written or video/audio form, don't be shy!

Today's submission comes from long-time reader of Shadow And Act, Mr Accidental Visitor (AV), whose writing I've featured on the site previously (the old Shadow And Act site); this time around, his focus is, as the title indicates, "the crisis of the black leading man."

If you've been reading this site long enough, you'll know how we love to inspire dialogue - good, healthy, informative conversation; I’m hoping this post will do just that - get you folks talking...

So, here ya go… it's quite long, but worth the read; and certainly share your thoughts with AV in the comments section below:

“The Crisis of the Black Leading Man”

By: AccidentalVisitor (Jonathan)

It would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Actually that’s not entirely true. The not-too-long-ago announcement that Tyler Perry would be playing Alex Cross, the central character of several best-selling novels by James Patterson, did pull a laugh out of me. When I first saw the headlines I thought it was a joke better suited for the Onion rather than a legitimate press release found in the Daily Variety. As far as I was concerned one of the few cinematic atrocities worse than Tyler Perry the writer/director is Tyler Perry the actor. Nevertheless the reality is that Perry will soon go before the cameras to take on what looks to be a prized role.

The improbability of all of this could make one’s head spin. Considered the actual choices individuals made to put such an odd package together. A studio had to attain the rights of one of the most popular book series on the market. The studio and producers would then initiate a process to find an actor to play the role of Dr. Cross, an intelligent forensic psychologist/former police detective/FBI agent who makes a career pursuing ruthless bad guys. To appease the large fan following of the crime books and to justify the studio’s expense, they had to consider doing a competent search for the man who could bring the right mix of sophistication, appeal (Cross is described as looking like a “young Muhammed Ali”), and physicality to the part; not to mention the correct amount of thespian seasoning. Finally after these studio bigshots weighed all of these issues and put their heads together to come up with the right person who would be the center of a potentially successful film franchise, they wound up offering the role to a guy whose onscreen credits primarily consisted of him wearing women’s clothing.

No one expected a Scarlet O’Hara –like casting search for the lead of the Alex Cross reboot. However one would hope the search would have been serious enough to come up with several candidates better than an actor whom had only found work in his very own film productions (meaningless Star Trek cameo excluded). Was Tyler Perry really the best they can do for the Alex Cross movie, even if their first or perhaps second choices fell through? If they thought Perry’s following could give a boost to the project at the box office, didn’t they also realize the legitimate possibility that that alone would not have been enough to offset the potential disinterest of white moviegoers, including the alienation of those who make up the bulk of the Alex Cross readership?

The decision to cast Perry was at best a curious one. But not just for the obvious reasons. Under the surface it represented a problem more disheartening and ongoing. His selection perfectly underscored Hollywood’s long indifference towards the concept of a black leading man. Even more it exposed how that indifference led to a point in which “Medea” himself was a serious contender in the first place. The most startling revelation to emerge from this fiasco may not be the questionable casting decision involving Perry, but instead just how severely limited the field of in-demand black actors is which studios must choose from.

The year 1970 is a very important factor when gauging the current state of black leading men. Anyone born in that year is at least forty years old. Typically in our society this age represents an unofficial cutoff point in which people stop being defined as young. When it comes to black male stars most of the well-known players reached that milestone awhile ago.

Denzel Washington – 56
Will Smith - 42
Don Cheadle - 46
Jamie Foxx – 43
Cuba Gooding, Jr – 43
Wesley Snipes - 48
Laurence Fishburne – 49
Djimon Hounsou - 47
Martin Lawrence – 45
Eddie Murphy – 50
Terrence Howard – 42
Jeffrey Wright – 45
Forest Whitaker - 49
Samuel L. Jackson - 62
Danny Glover - 64
Morgan Freeman - 73

The names above do not represent all of the current working black film actors, however they do make up the vast majority of black men who get leading and/or major roles in Hollywood films. Additionally they also account for almost every Academy Awards acting nominations for black males over the last two decades. Thus when it comes to the biggest household names for black male movie stars, these guys, a few exceptions not included, are it.

The numbers lined up next to them on the list represent their respective ages which surely youth-obsessed Hollywood is well aware of. Even Idris Elba, the industry’s current young black actor of choice, is “getting up there” at thirty-eight. This is not to say that being forty-something is old, or that fifty isn’t the new forty or that actors can’t have viable careers until their 60s or later. But in post-Twilight Hollywood, where the trend is to go younger in just about everything, the collective of the most in-demand black actors is actually graying. There appears to be a need for new blood, but when it comes to grooming a new generation of young black talent to take over the mantle, the industry is dragging its feet.

That is not a surprise. One outcome of Hollywood’s indifference to black leading men is that it isn’t invested in finding the next new black stars. When Tom Cruise was at his box office peak a repeated stated goal of Hollywood insiders was to find the next Tom Cruise. However despite his succession of Cruise as box office king, there hasn’t been a rush to find the next Will Smith. Hell, it can be argued Hollywood had little interest in finding the “first” Will Smith. German director Roland Emmerich had to fight tooth and nail with 20th Century Fox to get Smith a lead role in “Independence Day”. The studio was set against having Smith, fresh off the success of Bad Boys”, play the role of pilot Captain Steven Hiller. They wanted a white actor for the part. But Emmerich put his foot down and insisted that the part should go to Smith. Emmerich won and the rest of it is history. Smith’s ensuing rise to the top probably doesn’t happen without the huge lift he got from that film. Despite Smith’s success Hollywood’s reluctance to hand out highly sought after roles to young black actors has not changed. What’s worse for these actors is that there doesn’t appear to be directors like Emmerich out there willing to fight for them either.

As has been the case historically, the methods of moving up towards A-list status generally are placed out of reach for today’s up and coming black actors. There aren’t any career jumpstarts awaiting them via co-starring alongside veterans such as Denzel Washington in a movie like “Unstoppable” or Jeff Bridges in “Tron Legacy”. Nor are there measurable opportunities to get leads in surefire blockbusters such as comic books and fantastical epic novels adaptations. Not to mention that they are also have next to zero chance of being picked to be a romantic onscreen love interest of an established female star in a mainstream feature.

Career wise that last point spotlights a damaging limitation placed upon younger black men in the acting community. Being an onscreen suitor in a major motion picture alongside a popular actress can be a step to bigger things, particularly if the young actor enhances his box office clout by picking up new legions of female fans. However this particular path to success though has rarely been opened to black actors looking to make a name for themselves. The one modern exception of this rule was Taye Diggs’ turn with Angela Bassett in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” Fortunate for him his character in the film and the best-selling book it was based upon, was Jamaican. But if the need for a black male isn’t specified in the script, it is a sure bet black actors won’t be getting the parts regardless of whether the lead actress is Jennifer Aniston or Halle Berry.

America has never been sold on the idea of the romantic notions of black men because that would lead to dwelling on what it is even more uncomfortable with : black male sexuality. Mainstream Hollywood is no different. It has never intentionally attempted to create a black romantic leading man. Nor has it ever purposely tried to manufacture a black male teen idol, the type that girls across the country would post pictures of across their bedroom walls. The industry has no stake, no investment, in pushing forward a black actor like that because that type of status has all but been the exclusive domain of the white male. When it comes to Hollywood’s concept of a non-threatening black male one key characteristic is a lack of an overt physical appeal, which is why since its very beginning Hollywood has been more comfortable presenting an image of the comedic black man, the buffoon. The movie business has very little use for black guys with sex appeal.

Regarding sex appeal how can you tell if someone has “it”? For a male actor the answer to that could be simply if female moviegoers respond favorably to the idea (the fantasy) of sleeping with him or being whisked away in his arms. Some actors project such an aura through less conventional ways. A quick wit. Rough and rugged charm. Keen intellect. Noble bearing. However nothing over the ages had served an individual better than plain old fashioned good looks. That may seem shallow but it is reality. We love to take in the sights of beautiful people and that includes those we choose to gawk at on the big screen. Throughout the history of cinema it is these types of stars that have attracted the largest fan bases and most attention. And it is this breed of star that is the rarest amongst today’s most active black actors.

One who does have that type of widespread appeal, who does have “it”, is Denzel Washington. While Will Smith may be the bigger box office draw, Washington has been held up as the idealized black man. If there had been an annual poll for black women to choose the sexiest black male movie star, he would have probably won in a landslide for the past twenty years. Even amongst heterosexual males Washington is one of those guys that we’ll concede status to. We can understand why ladies would swoon over him.

Just like Billy Dee Williams before him, Washington has had the black matinee idol title all to himself (it is as if there is an unspoken law that there can only be one suave black leading man at a time). That may have been good for Washington’s career, but it wasn’t necessarily a good thing for black cinema. First of all with Washington at an age in which he should have already vacated that throne, there aren’t any apparent heirs to pick up the slack, demonstrating the absurdity of placing all eggs in one basket. Even more importantly it never seemed as if Washington ever had much use for his status as a sex symbol anyway. Unlike his predecessor Williams, Washington’s characters have tended to come across as asexual beings who have little interest in the opposite sex. And in all fairness to the film industry, this has often been at the insistence of Washington himself. To maximize one’s sex appeal, the possibility of sex must actually exist for one’s character. Yet Washington too often appeared to have gone out of his way to avoid such portrayals. It is quite a setback to any goal of advancing the idea of black men in cinema as sexually desirable when the lone black idol refuses to saddle up.

Obviously there’s a familiar pattern. Take for example that the Tyler Perry selection was not the first questionable casting of the Alex Cross role. Hardcore fans of the novels didn’t understand the choice to go with Morgan Freeman for that part in “Kiss the Girls”, the first of the Alex Cross films. They wondered why the makers of that film would pick someone who, while admittedly a great actor, was too old for the role. The Cross character in the novels was a relatively young man with an active love life. By casting Freeman, essentially America’s Grandfather, all that was thrown out the window and the Cross character had become neutered. The same thing occurred in the unnecessary remake of “Shaft”. Bringing in Samuel L Jackson to play “the private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” was a major blunder in itself. But the misguided step to subtract the sex machine element out of the equation (in the film we are told about Shaft’s rep, we don’t see it) was the equivalent of disregarding James Bond’s libido in a 007 flick. These decisions were consistent with the propensity of the motion pictures industry to frame the sex lives of black men as either feast or famine. Over the years there had been a tendency to present such men as sexual deviant or, as in these two above cases, celibate.

The original “Shaft” was amongst the most notable films of a genre born during the 1970s. This genre, blaxploitation, ushered in an era of American movies in which black masculinity was celebrated and put on full display. Although the quality of the films were, to be kind, mostly suspect, they presented a view of black men that truly hasn’t been seen since. These were alpha males rather than sidekicks, these were guys who carried a certain swagger, these were men who were “allowed” to have as healthy an onscreen sex life as white male stars (translation : love scenes) . Weirdly enough in what was just a few years following the Civil Rights struggle, blaxploitation films delivered a more bold presentation of black men’s sexual conquests than you will find in 2011. Today in mainstream entertainment the few chances black males get to be portrayed as lady killers typically comes when there is a 1970s slant to the characters. And even then it’s partly played for laughs. Whether it is the blaxploitation parody “Black Dynamite”, the Shaft-inspired comic book “Afrodisiac”, or the afro-wearing Tim Meadows as the Ladies Man, it would appear as the thought of black men and intercourse is a safe topic only when exhibited through the filter of a bygone period.

The blaxploitation days also offered audiences the first true glimpses of the black action hero. Virtually every one of those flicks had at least one tough guy who stood up to The Man and whipped up on street punks with his bare fists. Now those type of stars are all but gone too. I suppose Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fits the bill, but his physical appearance allows him a certain racial ambiguity on the big screen. Washington and Smith get their share of action flicks but they don’t play the type of tough characters I’m referring to. To be honest America doesn’t produce many actors of any stripe for such parts. Yet while Hollywood would search overseas to find foreign white actors from countries like Australia to fill the gap, It resorted to seeking out rappers when they wanted to hire a black person for a role. During the late 1990s and early 2000s this led to studios overlooking capable black performers, such as Michael Jai White who had the look and the martial arts training, in order to pursue hip hop artists whom they felt would bring a large following to the theaters.

One benefactor from this line of thinking was O’Shea Jackson, better known by his stage name, Ice Cube. But while…uh….Cube may have once lived the thug life and could freeze a furious scowl on his face as well as the next guy, he never looked the part of a kick-ass action hero. Especially when compared to such iconic names like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis who had raised the bar. Nonetheless despite his roly poly frame and his limited screen presence, he was offered lead roles in such films as “Dangerous Ground” (playing a native South African for God’s sake) and “xXx: State of the Union”. His worst showing came in “Ghosts of Mars” where the audience was supposed to buy him as Desolation Williams, a legendary, dangerous convict. It was a laughable miscast, especially since the blonde cop, Melanie Ballard, who was his primary antagonist, physically towered over him. Truthfully the movie probably couldn’t have been saved no matter who was cast as Desolation, but it would have been better for all involved if a guy like White had been chosen for such a character.

As out of place as Ice Cube appeared to be he was still practically John Wayne when compared to another rapper who also hit it big in Hollywood around this time. Believe it or not there were producers and executives who once went on record touting DMX as the next great screen star. That temporary bout of insanity would explain why they allowed him to skip to the front of the line by showering him with multiple film offers. Regrettably for them DMX, aka Earl Simmons, tended to come across as unlikeable on the big screen and had as much range as a pit bull. He also developed a reputation for being difficult and tardy on set. Only when his films hit a bad streak at the box office and he kept getting in trouble with the law, did industry insiders begin to rethink their position regarding his future prospects.

By that time Hollywood had already bypassed a new generation of black actors who were looking for the same chances given to particular rap artists. The size of the role didn’t matter either. Director John Singleton’s first choice for the part of Tej in “2 Fast 2 Furious” was denied by the studio bankrolling the production. Singleton wanted a young actor named Michael Ealy, the studio though preferred hip-hop artist Ludacris. Of course the forces for Ludacris won out, perfectly exhibiting the Bizarro Land attitudes for casting black performers compared to whites ones. Only with black people would a studio pass over a young, handsome and talented actor for a musician with barely any acting experience. Singleton may actually have had few qualms with the decision considering how frequently he himself relied on untested music artists to fill major roles, including Tyrese Gibson who was one of the leads in “2 Fast 2 Furious”. In retrospect it was all symptomatic of the lazy casting Hollywood fell back on when black faces were needed. In the 1970s that led to the industry’s choice of going with athletes, in the 80s it became comedians and for the following two decades gangsta rap artists started getting the nod. This led to films in which the white part of a cast would be represented exclusively by actual thespians working on their craft while their black counterparts would be made up primarily of music industry stars taking a break from their day jobs. Young black actors trying to make a living were already burdened with numerous disadvantages. Suddenly they had to settle for arbitrarily taking a backseat to a group of performers who bought more “street cred” than acting credibility to a film set.

When 2007 rolled around the collateral damage for this type of thinking may not have been readily apparent. Flooding the market for mainstream audiences was a stream of movies with black male leads. You had Denzel Washington in “American Gangster” and Will Smith in “I Am Legend”. There was the teaming up of Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the underappreciated “Talk To Me.” For “The Kingdom” Jamie Foxx led a team of FBI investigators into Saudi Arabia, while Terrence Howard was still on a roll when he got the co-lead for “The Brave One.” Morgan Freeman starred in “The Bucket List” while Derek Luke had one of the most important parts in “Lions for Lambs.” As an added bonus Washington had a second movie in which he shared scenes with another Academy Awards Best Actor winner, Forest Whitaker, in “The Great Debaters.” Even though the quality of the films varied, these 2007 releases presented arguably as great an output by Hollywood for black leading men in a single year. Yet this was not to be the dawn of something new, it was an anomaly. During the following years the winds shifted again and in their wake came a bit of a drought for black actors in high profile roles. On the subject of major parts, the only black males getting their names called regularly the past few years were Washington, Smith and possibly Freeman. But what else would one expect considering a decade or more had been lost developing the new talent of black male performers who could have joined those men’s ranks?

When I think about the careers of Ealy and Luke it feels as if they should be further along by now. Both of them are 37 and are not “new” anymore. Yet both had to fall back to television series to make a living. Their “Miracle at St. Anna” co-star, Laz Alonso, has also been generating his most attention as of late from a crappy television series (No “Avatar” bump for him). All three seem to have all the requirements to be leading men but if it did not happen for Blair Underwood or Cylk Cozart (IMBD him if you have to) or Leon, then this trio may be out of luck as well. Of course all of them could have gotten a career boost if a certain director of “Miracle at St. Anna” had concentrated on making a great film rather than picking fights with other directors. But that’s another story.

Terrence Howard has the looks and, despite what some detractors may say, the talent too. Other than “Iron Man” he has gotten critical acclaim for just about everything he’s been in, but his career appears to have stalled anyway. That though may have to do more with his “diarrhea of the mouth” than anything else. Nonetheless the potential remains. I can recall when former Washington Post critic, Stephen Hunter, reviewed that Singleton film “Four Brothers” and came away thinking that not only were Howard and co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor the best things about the movie, but that a film should be made with them as the leads. Funny then how in “Four Brothers” the two black guys with the more substantial roles were Tyrese and Andre 3000, further evidence of Singleton’s devotion to musicians. I particularly feel for Ejiofor, an actor so talented he became the first Othello to outshine Iago in a major stage production of “Othello” in about fifty years. With his theatrical pedigree, his reported affability and his British citizenship, you would think Hollywood would have rewarded him more. Instead seeing him being wasted in a bland film like “Salt” can break one’s heart. And while I’m at it, it is hard to believe that the Jamie Foxx that was nominated for two Oscars in 2005 is the same guy who went uncredited in the trailers for something as low brow as “Due Date”.

Even the loaded work schedules for the two busiest black actors can be deceiving. Idris Elba and Anthony Mackie are clearly in demand, but when you look more closely at their slate of upcoming films one thing that stands out is that they are not the lead guy in any of them except one. And that lone film, “Bolden!”, is an independent flick that went into production at least three years ago. Other than that they get stuck with supporting roles. In fact Mackie keeps ending up as the bridesmaid every time he and “Hurt Locker” co-star Jeremy Renner are up for the same part. He may want to call his buddy and ask him to stay home during the next round or two of auditions. George Nolfi, Mackie’s director for “The Adjustment Bureau”, claims that Mackie is going to be a star like Will Smith. That is nice of him to say but talk is cheap. Similar things have been written about Ejiofor and Elba. Guys like Smith and Washington however were getting lead roles regularly during this stage of their careers; Mackie and the others simply aren’t. Indeed these are such tough times for black male leads that for the first time in generations there isn’t a single black man dominant in the genre that Hollywood had always allowed greater entrance for them: comedies. With Eddie Murphy beyond his prime, with Chris Tucker eternally MIA and Martin Lawrence stuck in self-inflicted Big Mama purgatory, the biggest comedic hit movies have become lily white.

What good is talent to a black actor if he never gets that elusive chance at stardom? The last one handed out to such an actor caused an uproar from fans. When Smith picked a Karate Kid remake as a starring vehicle for his son, Jaden, he upset many people who didn’t like the idea of a beloved classic being remade (I felt the same way) and most of all didn’t care much for his display of nepotism. That was understandable. But what got lost was this remake also happened to be the only major motion picture in Hollywood history in which a black boy was the center of the story. Does such a thing FINALLY occur in the year 2010 without Will Smith’s influence? Absolutely not. Because of that and because of the critical and financial success of the film, Smith deserved credit, not scorn. I can’t say whether Jaden will ever make the transition from child star to adult actor, but with the “Karate Kid” he was given the best shot at a road to stardom that a black male has been since his dad was picked for ID4. It seems that the elder Smith at least learned well from Roland Emmerich.

The truest way to understand how bad it is, even more so than 50 Cent’s emerging acting career, is to pay attention when websites mention upcoming movie roles for black men. It doesn’t matter if it is a fictional piece or a biopic, the list of candidates posted by fans is depressing. Too much of the predictable, too much of the ridiculousness, too much of the same old thing, too much campaigning for guys who aren’t leading men. Whether it is Luke Cage or Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye or Django, the choices toss around tend to be as uninspiring as Hollywood’s selections. Recently there was a press release concerning Kimberly Pierce’s “The Knife” which is based upon a GQ article of an undercover black man who helped the FBI bring down some of the most notorious criminals in South Central. My interest piqued I tracked down the article and found it to be an amazing read. Two red flags concerned me. Almost the entire article concentrated on the black guy who went undercover, but Ms Pierce suggested in the press release that she saw the story as being equally about the white agent who was his handler. The other problem was the writer’s description of the black man whom his article was about. It made up the very first sentence: “A tall and strikingly handsome black man in his midthirties….”

Tall? Strikingly handsome? Who from the available number of working talent could play that role? Alonzo perhaps? I have a hard time figuring out who fits the description but I don’t have any problem coming up with names of actors who don’t. Yet I’m sure those same names will be batted around by those making the decisions. Knowing Hollywood’s track record they’ll cast the lead in “Thor” as the middle-aged white handler and then pick some short, average looking dude for the black guy. Could it go to Lil’ Wayne? Only if Tyler Perry is unavailable.

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