My Photo


Stats & Etc.

  • All written content (c) 2005-2021 Billy Mernit, all rights reserved.

« Billy and Tater's Excellent French Adventure | Main | Romantic Comedy Classics #6: »



Hmm. Back a decade or so when I was writing scripts, I remember being told that Denzel Washington didn't want anything where he would kiss a white woman, reason being that it would piss off his black female fan base. Haven't followed his career closely enough to know that it was true, just that in PELICAN BRIEF at least, an obvious romantic link was gone.

Slightly OT, but still Disney. Caught PETER PAN on ABC last night, one of my faves as a kid, watched it endlessly. Now? Peter Pan was a dick! And every female was a misogynist's fantasy come true. I sympathize with friends who complain about what to watch with their kids a bit more now.

Christian Howell

Hmmm, very interesting. I've been hearing a lot about black actors and actresses not getting "plum" roles together.

I won't say it's a conspiracy, but it is strange. I, personally, don't care who's in the movie. I care more about the character.

Admittedly, though, most black writers don't write positive stories about black couples, so what is to be expected.

If the movie is to illicit general feelings, it needs to appeal generally.

If all full cast black movies show people getting shot and they don't want that, they will move the location, swap a race, et voila. Non-threatening, non-violent movie featuring black stars.

Now I can realize that Chinese people weren't slaves or whatever but they get ZERO roles in blockbusters except as comic relief and funny cameos.

Perhaps it's time for black filmmakers to put up or shut up. Make the movies yourself and take the chance. If it works, studios will jump on the bandwagon.

P.S. I am available for all manner of positive role model stories (plus some really good destructive arcs). Visit my blog for more info. I am currently working on my director "credentials," so you get a one size fits all writer.

Walter Biggins

Hi Billy, thanks for the shout-out, though I honestly don't know what to add just yet, which won't stop me from rambling here.

We've clearly progressed, in that producers are now accepting the idea of a black-man/white-woman pairing (Hancock) in a major blockbuster, whereas in 1991's Jungle Fever (budgeted on a smaller scale, with at-the-time relatively unknown faces) the subject was still taboo and apparently worth spending an entire movie deconstructing. That was less than two decades ago. At the same time, roles for black actresses are atrophing as a result, and they were already small to begin with. With Hancock and Hitch, race doesn't seem to be the issue so much as marketing to all the bases. The trouble with this is that, by attempting to market-test universality, real-life as it's experienced isn't put onscreen, which makes nobody happy. Jennifer Hudson, as luminous as she is in Sex and the City, seemed more like a token bid to nab black women viewers more than it did a credible casting choice. Eva Mendes alongside Smith (Hitch) and Washington (Out of Time) seemed likewise for Hispanic audiences, though at least in the latter the (estranged) couple had a backstory that deepened the characters. The point is this: nonwhite actors across the board are picked, to a large degree, on their "marketability" factor rather than their talents. And if that's true for male actors, it's even more true for actresses. This, I think, is a reflection of mainstream (i.e., white) Hollywood as a whole: How often does a white woman over 50 get asked to "lead" a movie, after all? And the range of roles for white women under 50 is limited, anyway.

So, what's depressing is not Hollywood--it's business as usual there. Here's where I'll disagree slightly with Christian Howell: The major frustration for me is that the so-called independent movement doesn't seem interested in nurturing black talent, either. Tyler Perry is, right now, the only go-to filmmaker for luminous, talented actresses such as Gabrielle Union, Theresa Randle, Angela Bassett, and Regina King to get steady work in lead roles. Perry's fine but this means the sort of roles these women will get is extremely circumscribed in terms of subject matter, tone, and exposure. There is a relatively strong group of black indie (or indie-minded) directors and produceres at work: Spike Lee, Charles Burnett, Charles Stone III, Kasi Lemmons, Darnell Martin, Ice Cube, Tyler Perry. With the exception of Martin (who makes a movie every decade or so) and Burnett (half-decade...), where are the complex women roles from these directors? (Sure, Lee casts lots of black women, but then he often doesn't know what to do with them.) Perry puts black women front and center in his movies. Great: I just wish the movies were better.

(Incidentally, one director who will always, always, always have interesting roles for nonwhite actresses is John Sayles. Unfortunately, his movies don't get a tenth of the exposure of Sex and the City.)

So, it's not enough to say black folks should be doing it for themselves. They already are. Instead, what needs to change is the idea that a black-led film doesn't have resonance to white audiences. As Ellison says at the end of Invisible Man, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" Hollywood and indie-dom could both stand to learn from that.

Christian M. Howell

Hi Walt, I don't doubt that there are some black filmmakers making movies but the last five "black" movies I saw ALL had an arc based on a shooting.

Tyler Perry has made one mainstream movie and that was "Why Did I Get Married."

Angela Bassett's last movie was of a single mother with a son who I believe gets involved in drugs and an ex-athlete "comes to the rescue."

Wow, what a concept. I can see that in Brooklyn.

I believe that black movies should have resonance with white audiences as we all live in America.

Pursuit of happyness is along the lines of the type of movie I mean.

Would you want to see a movie about a normal black family that has to deal with an accidental drowning leading up to a class action or a story of a welfare family that has to deal with a shooting that leads to another?

Besides, there are plenty of other minorities that never even see a lead role.

E.C. Henry

Great thought provoking post, Billy. Totally caught me off guard last night. Had to think about my repsonce.

"Is our supposed progress on the issue of race in America perilously gender-lopsided?"

E.C.'s responce: Not at all. There are more opportunites than ever before. I think the real issue is there are NO BLACK MEG RYAN'S out there. You wanna cast black women? Well-p, you need bankable stars. Right now, I think that only Beyonce Knowles and Haley Barry ARE capable of carrying a film opposite a black hunk like Denzel Washington, or Will Smith. Gabrielle Union is getting there...

"Are we generally less progressed than we like to think?"

E.C.'s responce: No, I think race is now a non-issue. What's lacking is black female actresses who are capable of capturing a person's imagination. For my money the only black actress who has such charm is Beyonce Knowles. She's a music star, she's in commericals so her visiblity is high, and it doesn't hurt that she's an absolute nock-out! Beyonce seams poised to go to the top of the ladder. The question is, will she?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Walter Biggins

Provoking thoughts from everyone. Christian, I think we may be shouting from the same side of the aisle without realizing it. I too want a varied sense of black experience onscreen. What I was trying to say is that even BLACK filmmakers are limiting the scope of their themes to the tried-and-true (gang violence, poverty, slavery), and as a by-product are limiting the range of roles that they can give to black women. Lord knows I, too, would like to see more movies about the black middle- and upper-classes, or black-themed movies of sci-fi, mythology, or black romantic comedies that have the panache and stylistic verve & experimentation of the best screwball comedies. But I don't think THIS CHRISTMAS, MEET DAVE, COLLEGE ROAD TRIP, or WELCOME HOME, ROSCOE JENKINS (to name some recent black-themed or black-led movies off the top of my head) dealt with the aforementioned stereotypical subjects at all, much less had story arcs based on black violence. And yet, and yet... these are all melodramas and imitations of white Hollywood formulas--except for MEET DAVE, which is weirder and better than most critics gave it credit for; see Armond White's review in NEW YORK PRESS--and so simply replicate mainstream Hollywood's casting decisions. As a result, black women get the short shrift again.

E.C., sorry but I think you're wrong here. Gabrielle Union and Nia Long already could be the black Meg Ryans, and it's not their lack of talent or looks that's holding them back. The assumption you're making here, and which I think you're dead wrong about, is that a star's bankability, marketability, and popularity is more-or-less pre-determined. Instead, it's clearly (sorry to get wonky here) a constructed identity. Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan--to cite two examples of hugely popular white actresses who do nothing for me, and of whom I don't hear much enthusiasm in black communities--are all over talk shows, photo shoots, blockbusters, posters, commercials, PEOPLE MAGAZINE. Gabrielle Union is not, at least not to nearly as high a degree. So her face isn't as well-known, and thus she gets passed over for blockbusters, and thus doesn't appear in the aforementioned media promoting said blockbusters, and around and around we go. Union's not a "bankable star" except in movies marketed specifically to black people (where she IS a major star), but that's hardly because she's not charming, beautiful, or talented.

The overarching problem here, as evidenced in E.C.'s response, is the idea the white mainstream is "normal" while blackness is "other." Not to be mean but, oh okay, to be a little mean: Union, Long, Thandie Newton, HALLE (not HALEY) Berry, Sanaa Lathan, Kimberly Elise, and others already DO "capture my imagination"--and I'm a "people," too. And, if marketed effectively and allowed to star in high-profile films, they'd capture the imaginations of white audiences, too.

Let's face it: "capturing the imagination" and "resonance with white audiences" are both trickier things that we're letting on here. It's expected that nonwhite audiences will go to see ENCHANTED, KNOCKED UP, and JUNO (three recent romantic comedies that Billy likes... in the case of the last two, substantially more than I did, but that's an argument for another time). As viewers, we should be accustomed to emphatizing with the characters and situations onscreen, if said situations are well-constructed. As Christian states, "we all live in America." And yet whites often aren't flipping this around to see movies concentrating on blacks or other nonwhite characters. The customary thing I hear from well-meaning whites is a variation of the following: "Well, I thought about watching THE WIRE, but it just doesn't seem like it would resonate with my experience." This same sort of person, however, helped make CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON a smash ($128 million domestically), even though that movie's dialogue is in Chinese, features exclusively Chinese characters, focuses on elements of Chinese mythology and history, and is set in the distant past. In short, there's nothing intrinsic about the movie that links it to the average white--or nonwhite, for that matter-American's experience. And yet we went to see it, and HERO, and various Bollywood spectacles, etc. I'm not sure how the average black woman's experience onscreen is less emotionally or intellectually resonant to a white viewer than to Zhang Ziyi in period dress.

The point is this: "Relevance to the audience" is dodging the issue at stake. Black actresses are getting the shaft because of Hollywood's market PERCEPTIONS about their marketability, not because of anything intrinsic with the actresses' appeal or talent.

Final note: OF COURSE Hispanic and Asian actresses have it worse off than black actresses. I took that for granted, Christian, but focused on black actresses since that was the focus of Billy's post.

Christian Howell

Hi Walt,
Thx for the reply. I didn't mean to sound combative, I just consider myself a true cinema aficionado and don't respond well to what I feel are "thrown together movies."

Movies should always be about the quintessential character and hopefully a positive force in the "film space."

I agree that there have been a few good (read:positive) movies from black filmmakers (I hate the term black movie), but for every one there are five that follow the aforementioned "negative arc."

I only bought up the other minorities to show that we aren't talking about "specific to blacks" actions.

It's not even regarding race. It's all a matter of economies of scale. Whites are the majority so most movies will try to attract that larger audience.

I mean, it's impossible to break $70M if the largest population doesn't show up in numbers.

In my one year of being serious about screenwriting I have found that the best movies make no mention of culture except American culture which does indeed transcend race.

I just can't say that I want white writers to concentrate on black cinematic fare. Just write good movies and any actor can play the role. That's the way I do it.

regardign the Wire, most people didn't realize that it was a true "melting pot" show where McNulty ( an alcoholic Irish cop) s the center of the world and all the drama revolves around him.
In that sense it was one of te best teleplays I've ever seen, even though it did harp on negative role models. The thing was it did so from the view of McNulty - the quintessential detective.

I just hope that one day soon I can make the films I want to see. I think they will resonate with all audiences as I try to relate things we all have experience with as Americans.

Great talking with you. Visit my blog for some really intense stuff.

Laura Reyna

It's tough for women and minorites in HW... no doubt about that.

I've recently noticed an extremely talented actress, Taraji Henson. Very impressive. Hope she continues getting good parts in good movies.

Thanks for the interesting post & comments!


What may happen is a star gets huge and filmmakers think "okay NOW, I can show this person in a mixed race relationship without offending everyone". I may have it backwards but I think sometimes it's a misplaced attempt to promote color blindness.


dsl: Evidently Denzel's changed his mind over time. Disney movies of our youth are always a danger to re-view; there was a time that I thought SON OF FLUBBER was the funniest thing I'd ever seen...

Walter & Christian (and EC): There's actually nothing I can add to what has to be one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking comment discussions we've ever had on Living RomCom. Thank you for really getting into this with us!

Laura: Have to confess I've yet to become familiar with Ms. Henson's work, but I'll look out for her now.

MaryAn: That certainly sounds like a big part of the reasoning to me.

Christian M. Howell

My pleasure. I believe it's really important to understand the mentality of the box office.

Perhaps in some ways, AUDIENCES could be more accepting but in reality movies that don't harp on culture and race do the best.

Look at the Rush Hour movies. The third one was criticized for being "culturally offensive" and didn't do very well while the first two were almost boffo.

I bring that one up because it starred a black man and an oriental man (buffoonish though they were at times - but hey that's cop comedies) and was rather well accepted by mainstream audiences.

There are other cases where this is true. It all depends on the goals of the filmmakers. Audiences aren't attracted to sub-cultures generally so quintessential American (really human) ideals will always sell.

But back to the post title, perhaps black filmmakers should be held to the same standard so that we don't promote negative stereotypes.


Wow. Christian Howell doesn't even know how racist/culturally ignorant he really is.

So sad.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Billy's Books

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2005