Film: Black Gold

Are African-American actors globally viable at the box office?

Jan 31, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Fox Searchlight

The Last King of Scotland's Forest Whitaker (left) leads a strong group of Oscar nominated African-American actors.

With the announcement of the 79th Annual Academy Award nominees Jan. 23, globalization seemingly emerged as the signature issue spurring voting members of the Academy.

Past Oscar nominee Salma Hayek, who along with Academy President Sid Ganis made the announcements, could barely contain her excitement during the reading of the major nominees as The Three Amigos — Alejandro González Inarritu (Babel), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) — found their films among the final five in several categories.

As she stated, "If each one of them got nominated on their own, that would be great, but the fact that they all did — that's just too much for one little girl this early in the morning."

That sentiment could also be attributed to any member of Black Hollywood based on the number of African-American nominees this year. Double nominees in the categories of Best Actor (Will Smith, Forest Whitaker) and Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy, Djimon Hounsou), along with a nod for first-timer Jennifer Hudson in Best Supporting Actress, packs the field and offers serious possibilities for double wins for Best Actor and Supporting Actress if the overwhelming critical hosannas and various Guild awards hold true.

But do the nominations, or even wins, translate into future opportunities and, more importantly, box-office clout at the end of the season? Black Oscar Gold seemingly guarantees a transcontinental ride in cargo class, surely the global ghetto of the film industry.

Following the 2001 breakout at the Academy Awards for black actors —wins in the top categories by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry — very little changed for black performers. While promoting a variety of projects, actors such as Delroy Lindo (The Core) and Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us From Eva) discussed the limited impact those wins had on their individual prospects and those of other black performers. The bottom line was that the wins were good for the winners and the winners alone.

But how good was the gold for them?

Black films, commonly labeled "urban" comedies or dramas by studios, rarely get released outside the United States. Even prior to his win for Training Day, Washington was the rare black actor considered to have any mainstream crossover potential, a position he has steadily and carefully developed over the course of his career.

Post-Oscar, Washington's films (John Q, Out of Time, The Manchurian Candidate, Man on Fire and Dejá Vu) were able to gross at least a third of their cumulative box-office from the international market. Dejá Vu actually had a higher tally overseas ($90 million) than in the U.S. ($63 million), as did his most recent pairing with Spike Lee, Inside Man ($95 million international versus $88 million at home). The sole blemish on his record was his directing effort, Antwone Fisher, which made $21 million here and less than $2.5 million abroad.

Berry also seems to be an exception to the rule. Post-Monster's Ball, the box-office take for three of her projects (Die Another Day, Gothika and Catwoman) showed stronger international ticket sales than domestic, and the two X-Men sequels garnered close to equal matches among domestic and foreign sales.

Yet, unlike Washington, Berry's films offer a clue to overcoming the global box-office dilemma of most black actors. She has been able to align herself with franchise projects where her name adds to an already proven powerhouse. Only with Gothika and Catwoman did Berry have to carry the movie on her own right, although in those cases she proved to have the muscle to shoulder weaker material when necessary.

On the heels of his win for Ray, Jamie Foxx picked up on this cue riding the waves with high-profile pieces like Collateral and Miami Vice to glory abroad. Jarhead's wartime subject matter certainly contributed to its less-than-stellar international earnings. Elsewhere, Foxx held on to his urban cred with Breakin' All the Rules, which never reached beyond its base.

Beyond the Oscar winners, though, the secret to greater exposure on the global market is the right high-concept hook-up. An urban box-office success like Tyler Perry (Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion) barely makes a dent outside our borders (about $80,000 for Diary and less than $20,000 for Madea), which means that there's little chance that his latest, Daddy's Little Girl, will even see the light on day on foreign soil.

Yet for every modest homegrown success by an international underperformer like Akeelah and the Bee or Waist Deep, there's an example like The Fast and the Furious that Hollywood certainly highlights as a counterclaim against racism. The first F&F, with lead Vin Diesel, made $144 million in the U.S. and another $62 million overseas. The next installment sporting Tyrese as the anti-hero garnered $127 million U.S. versus a stout $108 million abroad. The final frame, Tokyo Drift, saw ever-diminishing returns over here ($62 million, matching the initial foreign take of the first) but a better foreign tally ($95 million).

It seems, however, that in light of the emergence of Hip Hop as a cultural factor on the global market and television shows like 24, which has featured not one but two black presidents dealing with the specter of international terrorism, it should be high time for Hollywood to launch an initiative to develop this period into a renaissance for black actors that could carry over to writers, directors and producers waiting to take flight.

There's no reason why this gold rush can't turn into lush, green pastures for everybody. Black Hollywood shouldn't be left holding the door with hat in hand while the rest of the world passes through the gates into box-office glory. ©