Something’s happened in 2013. It seems like all of a sudden, Hollywood is taking notice. Call it the Browning of Hollywood—gradually (to some degree) Hollywood is recognizing that Blacks can carry lead roles on the big and small screen. The changes didn’t happen overnight for Black Hollywood. The evolution is a slow burn, with a long way to go. Our struggle to become major players on the big and small screen is built on the backs of our thespian ancestors who, like their non-celebrity counterparts, struggled for equality, a voice and a seat at The Table.
Over in TV Land, Blacks had been struggling for marginal parts, and leading roles had been all but nonexistent for a long while. Until 2012, there hadn’t been a Black female lead in an hour-long network series since Teresa Graves in 1974’s Get Christie Love. Shonda Rhimes broke that mold by writing Scandal, starring Kerry Washington as political fixer Olivia Pope.
Rhimes’s show, set in a world of political intrigue, with sexy storylines befitting of the series name, immediately became a fan favorite. ABC took notice and quickly ordered a full season pickup of the show, proving that those complex characters, who just happen to be black, can carry a series. Such a pickup sends a strong message to the media, advertisers and the studios themselves that mainstream audiences will support TV shows and movies where Blacks are the lead roles.
It seems as if 2013, in the wake of the Scandal afterglow, is filled with these kinds of successes, but this was a long time coming. In the 2012-13 TV season, we finally had a Black woman starring in a lead role or part of an ensemble cast on every network: ABC’s Scandal; Taraji P. Henson in CBS’s Person of Interest; and Megan Good in NBC’s Deception (now cancelled). That’s all good, but remember, we had 39 years between Get Christie Love and Scandal. Even more appalling: according the TVGuide.com, there are 75 shows on prime time network TV, and still only a handful of “us” are represented in any fashion in the cast, be it in a lead or supporting role.
Theatrically, after years of decline of Black films even making it to the box office, 2013 is filled with an onslaught of “Black” box office success. Thus far, we’ve seen eight African-American films make it to the big screen, with six more scheduled to bow before the end of the year. This resurgence in Black cinema is largely predicated on the success of independent films like Jumping the Broom, The Help, Think Like a Man and Precious. After these movies collectively raked in nearly $500 million dollars in wide release, Hollywood finally stood up and took notice.
The common denominator isn’t that these movies and TV shows are “Black” stories per se. They’re character driven and/or human interest stories, helmed by writers and/or directors who are Black and cater primarily to a Black audience. These films prove that African-American audiences will support more than just comedies, faith-based movies and the traditional Tyler Perry film. It also proves that the American movie-going audience will support a good story, Black or white. Write it and they will come. They as in the audience, but also they as in the advertisers and movie studios.
In 2013, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the eight African-American studio films released this year have garnered $349,692,752. This number should be strong enough to satisfy the studios, especially when buttressed against the strong slate of African-American films we have coming from Black writers, starting with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the Oscar front-runner distributed in limited released this past Friday.
In order for this momentum to continue, we must have a seat at the proverbial Table. Shonda Rhimes was able to green light a show in which two of the main characters are Black, a show based on a real life Black “fixer,” simply because she has a proven track record with her own production company. Scandal was her third series at ABC. It has a domino effect in the media and with advertisers. This success makes it easier for people (read: mainstream America) to accept that Blacks can tell a story and star in one just like everyone else, because we are, to some degree, just like “everyone else.”
I’m not trying to marginalize the traditional Black film or imply that traditionally Black films and TV shows don’t have a place in our culture. Quite the opposite, these programs by, about and from the souls of Black people highlighting our nuanced selves mustn’t be overlooked. They remain integral parts of our fabric’s past, present and future, just as HBCUs remain important.
But just as Black students and Black culture assimilated into the mainstream, if we want to effectuate that change and really be part of the mainstream Hollywood fabric, our thought processes about what stories to tell must assimilate—at least to some degree. That was The Cosby Show’s recipe for success in the 1980s.
The success of The Butler underscores this same trend in film. Wil Haygood, the author of the book that served as the film’s inspiration, is a writer at the Washington Post. He found a good story, used his platform and caught the attention of Sony Pictures, who initially optioned the film. When the film’s producer died three weeks before filming began, director Lee Daniels and other Hollywood notables came together to gather financing for the film. In all, 26 investors (including BET’s Sheila Johnson and a Chinese investor) invested in the film. The Weinstein Company came on with distribution and finishing funds. This movie happened because it had a platform, and it had a good story that investors and ultimately Hollywood believed in.
Tyler Perry definitely has a seat at the Table, which allows him to write, produce and direct his own movies and gross over a half billion dollars. Perry can tell his stories his way because Hollywood recognizes his ability to draw in his niche audience. But notice the difference. Perry, with all of his success, can’t get a show on network television because the networks (which rely heavily on advertising dollars) aren’t having that. This isn’t a just a Black thing, it’s a niche thing.
Comedian Adam Sandler, who makes similarly silly films catered to White folks, doesn’t have a show on network TV either. Damon Wayans’s My Wife and Kids and Chris Rock’s Everybody Hates Chris, on the other hand, each ran for five years on network television because theirs were TV families everyone could relate to.
We need the successes of the Scandals, The Cosby Shows and Everybody Hates Chrises and films like The Butler, The Best Man and Jumping the Broom to show Hollywood that we’re not all that different than they are. Only then can we have that convergence, have Hollywood appreciate us for who we really are, and green light the stories we strive to tell. We’ve come a long way baby, but we still have even further to go.
Lisa Bonner is an entertainment lawyer with offices in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @lisabonner.