Hollywood’s Condescension On Race, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 30 2012 @ 1:39pm

A reader with ties to the industry writes:

I enjoyed the Beast TV roundtable, thanks for Tumblr_lxqpz8wO571qey5y8those angry and somewhat resentful comments by readers. However, some don’t know as much as they seem to think they do.

Viola Davis has never had a multi-million-dollar role. Even with her role in The Help, I’m guessing she’s far from rich. She’s been a NY-based stage actress; she comes from a poor home; she didn’t make a lot of money young. Her husband is an actor, and not a particularly successful one. They’re raising three children. She has become famous, but I’m guessing her finances are still squarely middle class. Probably upper-middle-class now, after the last couple of movie gigs, but still middle class. Her chance to become financially secure comes if she gets a succession of major parts in well-funded movies, but those roles are scarce for 40-something African-American women. Honestly, if she really wants the nice house and expensive car and other material trappings of success, her best chance is probably to get a long running TV series, not look for movie roles.

Which brings us back to the topic of the roundtable. Viola Davis is beautiful, likable, and incredibly talented. (Disclosure: I’ve interviewed her and we know each other well enough to say hi when we see each other every couple of years. And yes, as Charlize Theron said, Viola is "hot as shit.") Yet the American commercial movie industry, a.k.a. "Hollywood," doesn’t have much use for her, because Hollywood is not in the "good movie" business.

It’s in the "tentpole" and "franchise" business. Unless she can play a superheroine or star in grossout comedies, she’s going to be chasing roles offering relatively modest compensation on pictures with very modest budgets, or bit parts in big budget movies, like Angela Bassett’s slightly embarrassing little part in Green Lantern.

As for Tyler Perry, well, one of the frequent topics of conversation in my office is the miracle that he pulls off with each movie. His operation is fiercely, aggressively independent. His company is in Atlanta. As far as I can discover, he doesn’t even keep offices in Los Angeles, much less shoot here. He’s not working with the studios or networks. He has a distribution deal with a mini-major, Lionsgate, but he shuns this town. To cite Tyler Perry as an example of how "Hollywood" works is like citing Porsche as an example of how "Detroit" works. It’s flat wrong, and cringe-worthy.

Another agrees that Perry is a "horrible example":

For starters, his only acting job outside his own projects is his cameo in Star Trek. This is a man who as a producer on the urban theatre circuit sold "more than $100 million in tickets, $30 million in videos of his shows and an estimated $20 million in merchandise", according to Forbes, and yet still had to fund half of the his first movie's $5 million dollar budget out of his own pocket. He's an entirely self-made creature – hell, the title of the Forbes profile on him is "Who Needs Hollywood to Become a Star?"

To quote your reader:

Now admittedly, the data doesn't tell you anything about the quality of the roles, but the notion that African Americans only play maids and drug dealers is based on notions that longer withstand even casual scrutiny. (If anyone has a right to complain about being typecast as baddies, it's white Englishmen over 40.)

It's all about quality of roles. I think most black people would be comfortable being slightly underrepresented in the overall casting percentages if African Americans in lead roles more accurately reflected that 12.6%. Last year, with Will Smith and Denzel Washington on hiatus, I'm pretty sure only Martin Lawrence headed a big budget mainstream picture – the horrific Big Mommas House 3, which still somehow turned a profit. People only complain about being typecast as "baddies" when there are no "good guys" to counter the negative.

(More images of parody movie posters featuring the "30 Rock" star here)