Blacks in Hollywood are coming into a spectacular period of prominence, led by a vanguard group of African-Americans taking Tinseltown by storm. Familiar names such as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Will Smith have traditionally driven successful films featuring diverse casts marketed to wide audiences. But the African-American movies filling theater seats right now are the spawn of culture creators you may not know. There is a new black Hollywood power structure evolving, and its shot callers are making some very impressive moves.
Producer Will Packer has been working in film for over 15 years, but his name is likely unknown to the fans of his projects. With the success of Think Like a Man (2012), which grossed over $60 million in its first ten days in theaters, his star has risen considerably. The blockbuster is Packer’s 14th movie, but the first to crown him a Hollywood kingpin.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call Will Packer of Rainforest Films a ‘new’ power player,” Wilson Morales, editor of BlackFilm.com told theGrio. “It just took Hollywood longer than expected to recognize his success. Think Like a Man is his fourth film to open at number one at the box office.”
In fact, recent box office triumphs such as Think Like a Man have been created by many influential African-American producers, directors, casting agents and more who have spent years working under the radar — some in television or independent film. With their fresh successes, the “new” black Hollywood has just become more conspicuous. And more powerful.
“There are a team of us behind the scenes,” veteran casting agent Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd said of African-Americans coming to the forefront. “All kinds of grips, assistant directors, lighting people, second assistant directors and all kinds of techs. They’ve been at it at for many, many years,” she explained. ”[Things] are just coming to fruition.”
Crowd-pleasers such as Think Like a Man and Jumping the Broom (2011) were authored by these specialists, who pooled their talents to create films with dazzling ensemble casts. By working together, they have generated the wattage required to consistently get money-making films greenlit — an influence formerly held by a handful of black superstars.
“Mara Brok Akil and Tracey Edmonds and Glendon Palmer and Will Packer and Tim Story — these directors and producers have been around for years. People seem to put actors in the forefront. But it is a concerted effort. Team work makes the dream work,” Byrd told theGrio. “It’s beautiful and wonderful and fabulous to walk on a set and see people that look like you. I’m part of a lot of winning teams right now.”
Indeed, Byrd has worked with husband and wife production duo Salim and Mara Brock Akil in tandem with Sony Pictures executive DeVon Franklin on two films: Jumping the Broom (2011) and the much-anticipated Sparkle (2012).
“Mara and Salim have been successful for a very long time,” Byrd revealed. “Mara created the show Girlfriends. Salim was the showrunner of Soul Food. Will Packer has been an incredibly successful producer for a very long time. And with Think Like a Man, it’s fantastic. Now the world is seeing the fruits of his hard labor. I feel as though Jumping the Broom was a part of this. Think Like a Man’s numbers are amazing and through the roof, but I do think that Jumping the Broom, which I made with producers Tracey Edmonds and DeVon Franklin, jump-started some things.”
As the Vice President of Production for Sony Pictures, Devon Franklin works with both black-themed and other entertainment, yet takes tremendous pride in stewarding African-American works.
“My goal is to make great films. As an executive of color I certainly want to make great movies that star people of color that can go around the world,” Franklin told theGrio. “Making black movies is a great thing! It’s a huge opportunity. The movie Sparkle that I have coming out in August will show people again: there are so many different ways to display [our] culture on screen that are universal and exciting.”
Franklin stressed that the success of African-American filmmakers today is a direct outgrowth of his predecessors’ accomplishments in the ‘90s, what many see as a golden era.
“Back in the early nineties you had Mario Van Peebles, you had John Singleton, you had the Hughes brothers… They were all making mainstream movies,” Franklin said of directors of that period. “Potentially there will be a resurgence back to a time like that. There were a tremendous amount of black films being made[.]”
Franklin feels that, “with the success of Think Like a Man, the success of Tyler Perry, and the success of the films we’re doing here at Sony, there is momentum towards getting back there.”
Franklin credits Tyler Perry with making this movement possible.
“Tyler is incredible and super-talented,” he said of the progenitor of this phase of black Hollywood achievement. ”[He] has actually opened up the doors for more films to get made. With the films that are now coming out and with the success of those films, I think that Tyler gets a lot of credit for keeping people of color in the mainstream, and showing that if you program for the audience, the audience will show up.”And of course, Franklin’s recently-announced engagement to Think Like a Man star Meagan Good heralds the minting of a new black Hollywood power couple. “It’s really exciting. It is one of the most exciting periods in my life,” Franklin told theGrio. “I did not think that this was how everything was going to work out. But God certainly has a plan. I’m blessed that we’ve been able to find each other, and excited about what God is doing in our lives now, and very, very excited about the future. I’m just a huge, huge supporter of Meagan, and so proud of her success[.]”
The crossover success of Think Like a Man and similar films has re-branded African-American movies as potential cash cows with tremendous profitability. But this evolution might come at a cost.
“In this business, it’s about the returns. Think Like a Man was made for less than $20 million,” BlackFilm.com’s Morales noted in relation to its mammoth gross of three times that sum. Margins like that grant black producers like Packer with gilded cachet.
“Tyler Perry has had a success rate with most of his films because the costs are low and his films make a profit,” Morales continued. Yet, “Earlier this year, 20th Century Fox released the Tuskegee airmen film Red Tails (2012), which was produced by George Lucas for over $50 million dollars. While Fox made an effort with its advertising, the film didn’t do numbers at the box office.”
The relative failure of Red Tails could put a damper on the variety of black films born in this burgeoning age. While the mass appeal of Think Like a Man is being applauded, its success “could limit the scope of future productions,” Morales cautioned. “The theory at times is to use the same formula, but at a lower cost. There have been plenty of black romantic comedies released over the years, but unfortunately those films didn’t have the print and advertising money that Think Like a Man had, or the higher theater count.”
As marketing is everything in the movie business, the success of the new black Hollywood nobility might ironically shackle future filmmakers who are uninterested in recreating the comedies most likely to receive advertising boosts.
Yet, Morales has faith this won’t be the net result.
“Think Like a Man wouldn’t have gotten this far without the marketing money Screen Gems gave them,” Morales said. “At the same time… black power players can still get their films done independently. That will involve more work on the marketing side for the film to achieve financial success. Plenty of independent films have found critical success, but that hasn’t translated into financial success.”
Pariah is one of those features. It made less than $760,000 in theaters, but its real value might be better measured in artistic accolades. Pariah has earned six awards and dozens of nominations. The film’s success has granted Dee Rees, its writer and director, the currency to develop an HBO series starring Viola Davis, now in the works. Crediting film festivals and creative labs with helping her team gain access to a major Hollywood distributor, Rees related the barriers faced while seeking to portray her nuanced version of the black experience on film.
“As we were seeking financing, there was definitely resistance to it,” Rees told theGrio about Pariah’s storyline, which features a black lesbian protagonist. “People were assuming this was a story that people weren’t going to want to see, or that it’s too niche, too small and specific. We got pressure to make the casting more diverse, and we just stuck to our guns.”
The great performances and universal themes of Pariah are credited with making the film accessible despite its uniqueness — and even its blackness. The ability to make African-American stories universal stories might be the secret of these leading-edge black film elites. Wilson agrees that the resonance of universal storytelling is the key underlying these black power players’ successes.
“Will Packer’s 2009 film Takers also landed at number one, and had a lot of crossover appeal, because of the storyline,” the respected black film blogger noted. “If the story is universal, then it’s more marketable, where ever you take it.”
If African-American filmmakers of projects large and small can maintain accessibility along with authenticity, we might experience that golden age rivaling the ‘90s that Franklin hopes for.
“It’s an exciting time. I’m very excited to be a major part of it. Wait until you see, Sparkle,” Byrd said of her latest casting project starring the late Whitney Houston. “Young people are going to love it who don’t know the original, and older people who do know the original are going to love it as well. Everyone has their moment and their time to shine.”
Franklin, also a producer of the awaited remake, sees the new black Hollywood as working towards integrated goals.
“There are so many great filmmakers, writers and producers that will be inspired by the success that’s happening now,” Franklin said of this time. “My hope for the future is that there’s more growth and diversity. At the end of the day, we all are able to benefit because we’re in a position to allow new voices to be discovered and ultimately to affect the world.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb