*The following story appears in the upcoming issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands now. It’s written by Pamela McClintock, Tim Appelo.
When Kenneth Branagh cast Idris Elba as Heimdall in the upcoming summer tentpole Thor, a furious debate erupted among fanboys, with some insisting it was wrong for a black man to play a Nordic god.
But the London-born actor has no patience for the debate. “It’s so ridiculous,” he said Feb. 24 at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.
“We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley.”
Beyond that artistic defense, though, there is an even more basic reason black actors welcome colorblind casting: There is a ceiling on the amount of business black-themed movies can achieve, so the opportunities for black actors and actresses remain limited unless they can also claim parts in mainstream entertainment.
Black-themed movies have established a niche where they can do significant business at the domestic box office, but because they don’t travel well overseas, there’s a limited number of them.
Tyler Perry has ushered in a new era of black genre pics and provided exposure for numerous African-American stars. His movies have been a boon for Lionsgate, but they also demonstrate the math. Perry’s films have grossed a combined $469 million domestically, with an average gross of $52 million.
Other companies such as Fox Searchlight and Screen Gems have also entered that market. Most recently, Fox successfully relaunched the Martin Lawrence Big Momma franchise, casting newcomer Brandon T. Jackson opposite Lawrence.
Screen Gems’ Obsessed, in which Elba starred opposite Beyonce and white actress Ali Larter, succeeded in playing to black and white audiences, but — like other genre movies — it hit a ceiling in terms of total gross, earning $68.3 million domestically, and $5.6 million overseas.
Not long after Obsessed, Screen Gems teamed with Chris Rock to remake the British comedy Death at a Funeral — but with a mostly black cast. The film also starred James Marsden and Luke Wilson, upping its chances of crossing over. Still, Funeral did only so-so business, grossing $42.7 million domestically and $6.3 million overseas, mostly in the U.K.
But even though they can turn to such genre films for employment, black actors have been losing ground. In the early 2000s, blacks played 15% of roles in film and TV. Today, it has fallen to 13%, according to SAG. And black directors make up only 4% of the DGA.
“Were there any black Academy Award nominees this year? No, zero. Who do you point to and get mad at? It’s hard to pin down.” — Don Cheadle
This year’s Academy Awards offered a stark reminder of the lack of diversity in the movie business; the nominees, both above and below the line, were almost uniformly white. And though 13 black actors have won Oscars in the ceremomy’s 83-year history, only two directors have been nominated: John Singleton for 1991’s Boyz N the Hood and Lee Daniels last year for Precious.
“I mean, were there any black Academy Award nominees this year? No, zero,” says Don Cheadle, who was nominated for best actor for 2004’s Hotel Rwanda. “Is there really a dearth of talent? Who decided that? Who do you point to and get mad at? It’s hard to pin down.”
People were so desperate for any sign of color at the Feb. 27 ceremony that many media outlets, including the Boston Globe, accepted as fact the rumor that True Grit nominee Hailee Steinfeld’s mother is part African-American. (Steinfeld’s rep told THR that the claim, spread on the Internet in recent days, is erroneous.)
It isn’t lost on black actors, though, that Steinfeld, because of her debut performance in the Coen brothers’ Western, is already on the list of hot emerging stars that’s being closely monitored by power brokers throughout Hollywood. It’s harder, and takes longer, for emerging black actors to get on the same roster. Being cast in movies made primarily for white audiences can help exponentially.
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