Why Black Male Stars Are Sizzling in Hollywood

Article excerpt

Hollywood's newest leading men are increasingly named Morgan, Denzel, Samuel and Wesley, not necessarily Mel, Tom and Sly.

No longer relegated to second-tier roles, Black male actors are now the main course for moviegoers, not just the side dishes.

In recent months, Black actors held the lead roles in many top mainstream movies - Denzel Washington in The Preacher's Wife, Will Smith in Independence Day, Samuel L. Jackson in The Long Kiss Goodnight, A Time to Kill and Pulp Fiction, and Morgan Freeman in Chain Reaction and Seven. In addition to these box office leaders, Hollywood has been bedazzled in recent months by Laurence Fishburne in Othello and Fled, Keenen Ivory Wayans in The Glimmer Man, Delroy Lindo in Ransom and Get Shorty, Danny Glover in Gone Fishin', Ving Rhames in Mission: Impossible and Mario Van Peebles in Solo.

"I've been in Hollywood for more than 20 years," says Reuben Cannon, casting director and producer of Get On the Bus. "For a long time when you thought of a Black male star, it was Sidney Poitier, Sidney Poitier, Sidney Poitier. Now we have Morgan, Danny, Laurence Fishburne, Denzel and Wesley. That is indeed progress."

Neither flukes nor tokens, these Black male actors are man for man among the best actors of this generation. Nobody, critics say, has surpassed Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy or The Shawshank Redemption, Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Al Freeman Jr. in Malcolm X or Lindo's gangster in anything.

So what's behind Hollywood's strange new fascination with Black male stars? "It's our turn," says veteran actor Al Freeman Jr. Now chairman of Howard University's Theater Arts Department, Freeman says that Hollywood's new love affair with great Black male actors is not entirely altruistic. "It's all so cyclical, you know. Hollywood, being the commercial enterprise that it is, has finally found a formula that makes some money."

And if indeed, as the old adage goes, "money talks," the African-American moviegoing public is "loud-talking" in Hollywood. Freeman and others note that Blacks make up at least 25 percent of the domestic box office, a projected $1.5 billion this year, and an even larger percentage of the key urban markets, which give productions bragging rights for the best opening or the highest-grossing weekend.

Black actors starred in three of the seven top-grossing films of last summer, and each of these films grossed over $100 million. Will Smith's Independence Day led the pack by grossing an incredible $300 million, making it the top hit of the summer season. Eddie Murphy's The Nutty Professor grossed $125 million, and Jackson's A Time to Kill raked in $110 million.

These and other Black male actors are not only styling in Hollywood - they are also asking for and getting big bucks. Entertainment industry sources say at least three Black male actors - Murphy at $12 million a picture and Washington and Snipes at $10 million a picture - are on the Hollywood "A" list. Not far behind are Morgan Freeman, who has been called the most undervalued star in Hollywood and who reportedly is in the $5 million asking range, and jackson, who is in the $4.5-million range. Also undervalued, according to these figures is Glover, who reportedly asks for $2, million per picture. Moving up fast are Laurence Fishburne, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.

"In the end, what it makes clear is that the business is always about money," says Elvis Mitchell, film critic for National Public Radio. "But there's still a persistent myopia when it comes to dealing with Black talent."

With major White male stars beginning to price themselves out of the market, these talented Black men are an incredible value, agents say. "I recently read that Stallone has priced himself very dearly, so Wesley Snipes is getting some of those roles, and then this picture Solo that [Melvin] Van Peeples' son is in is also a Stallone-type film," Freeman says. …