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Authors: Henry Louis Gates

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BOOK: America Behind the Color Line
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We need to produce our own films. Black money is not widely known for going into an artistic endeavor, especially a film. Film’s a crapshoot. Films can be made for varying amounts of money, and there are a lot of black people with a lot of money that won’t invest in a movie but they’ll buy stock that might die tomorrow. You can put that money in a movie and you can get a constant return, because the movie’s going to make X amount of dollars when it goes to video; it’s going to make X amount of dollars when it goes foreign. It’s going to make more money then, depending on who’s in it, because your foreign cachet is an important part of actors getting paid. If you don’t have foreign cachet, it ain’t happening.

I go to Europe as often as I can, or Asia, so people can see me and see that I’m concerned about my fans and I care about them liking the film I’m in and liking me. They used to say, we can’t cast you because you won’t play in Japan, but that’s not true. I’ve counteracted that. In fact, I was walking down the street with this guy from a studio in Japan and I was asking him about black actors in Japan. He goes, well, they only know Sidney Poitier, Eddie Murphy, and Will Smith. And as we were walking—it was rush hour—all these people were looking at us and pointing at me and talking to each other. So I asked him, what are they saying? And he’s like, oh, they know you. It just so happened that
Die Hard
had been out and was the highest-grossing film in Japan that year. It was the highest-grossing film worldwide. People knew who I was. People in Paris were camped outside the hotel. It’s crazy. I was like, oh, okay, so I’m getting somewhere with this.

We need to own our own theaters in addition to producing our own films. The more theaters we own, the sooner we can have our own distribution chain. So when you can’t get in that distributor thing that goes on out there and you’ve got nowhere to play your movie, we would have our own network of theaters. I learned when
Star Wars
was about to come out how many screens there are in America. You always think in terms of maybe 10,000 or 12,000 theaters. But there’s more cities than that, and you find out there’s over 35,000 screens. So you look and you say, with
Star Wars
on most of the screens, how many are left? They’ve got all the screens. It’s a matter of us having that kind of network, so when we do make small films that we want to distribute to a specific group of people or to a wider audience, we’re able to do it.
Caveman’s Valentine
was never in more than fifty theaters because they didn’t know what to do with it. And Spike Lee was never able to compete with the big films.
Do the Right Thing
and all the Spike Lee films could never be number one at the box office because they were never in enough theaters to compete with the big films that were out at the time. The big films always have the highest per-screen average. That translates to only so many screens that could show Spike’s films, so people had to line up and wait to see them. All kinds of things dictate how much money a film makes: the length of the film, how many screens it’s on, how many times you can play it during the day, how many prints you have out there, and the advertising budget so people are aware of that particular film.

I’m sure I can do what I’m doing for a long time. It’s not like digging ditches. I don’t need my back that much. I can act in a wheelchair. I can act until I drop over. I started late, and maybe that’s part of the reason I tend to work a lot. I wish I could have been doing this when I was twenty years old, but hey, I had to do what I had to do to get here, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I think it’s great that some people are going to have forty-year careers—not a lot, but some people start out at twenty. I’ve had a twenty- to thirty-year career, and I’m closing in on a hundred movies. So I’m doing okay. I also know that I need to work so the people around me can take care of themselves and their responsibilities. I care about them and their families. I haven’t changed in that way, because I care about people. I want to be able to produce films for friends of mine who haven’t had the opportunity to be seen in the way I’ve been seen. They’re good at what they do, and they deserve an opportunity to be seen by a greater public.

I continue to try to find things that allow me to grow as an actor and as a person. I’m not as political as I used to be. I don’t espouse my political positions to the masses or even to people who listen to me. I do still feel very responsible to a lot of people, especially people who are around me and who work with me. I know I make an enormous amount of money that allows me not to work in ways that most people do, but the people I love and care about, who do things for me, work like normal people. So when people say to me, why do you work all the time, well, I work because I have a work ethic. I grew up in a house full of people that went to work every day, and they had two weeks of vacation a year, maybe, and that’s how I know people go to work. And when I was doing theater, that’s how I worked. I was rehearsing a play, doing a play, and auditioning for a play all the time. People who work for me can go work for other people when I’m not working, but I’d rather have them around me because I enjoy their company, and hopefully they enjoy mine.

My tastes in certain things have changed. I still like fried chicken and turnip greens, but I like caviar too. I know what a blini is now; it’s a little buckwheat pancake served with smoked salmon or sour cream and caviar. I still like to dress well. My mom taught me how to take care of my clothes when I was growing up. I tend to wear fine clothes now, finer clothes, and I take care of them. When I get tired of them, I give them to my friends; they like them too. But I like to think of myself as the same guy. I have the same friends I had when I was jumping the turnstile in New York because I couldn’t afford to ride the subway to get to work. We pooled our money and bought one sandwich or four glazed papaya hot dogs. I still have those same friends. I play golf with those guys. I take care of their kids and they take care of mine, and we get together and eat and talk and ride together. We are the same group of people who were actors together in New York and who just happened to relocate out here.

When I go back to New York, I still hook up with those same people. I still tend to gravitate to Narcotics Anonymous meetings uptown, because that’s where I got clean and that’s where I found out I was not what I used to refer to as chronically unique. That’s where I found out there were people who had bigger addictive habits than I did, who were in worse-off condition than I was, who did things I would never dream of doing, and who made me believe that I never had to use again and that I could still be a human being and have fun in my life. I tend to go back to those places and recharge my battery when I’m in New York. It helps me make sure my feet are still on the ground, and that what people there said is real, about being able to stay clean and have a life after what you thought you were doing when you were using was having a good time and having a life. When I got there, I had no time in the program clean, and they had ten years. Now they have twenty-two years and I have twelve, so it means a lot to me to be able to go back in there and see those people and know that they’re taking care of themselves the way I’m taking care of myself.

Changing Minds, Breaking Even

“It could be there is an assumption that Hollywood is closed to the black community,” producer Arnon Milchan said to me, “and the assumption could be wrong. Maybe the club door is closed, but not by conspiracy. Maybe it’s by disassociation socially . . . unless you get into that room, you don’t have access. But if we hang out, we talk, and if we talk, we do business.”

In a good company—one that stays alive—maybe three out of ten films are profitable, maybe three or four break even, and three or four lose money. That’s what you need to stay alive and build. If you have a better track record than that, better than three out of ten, you’re a genius for a day. And if you have less, you’re dead. It’s almost impossible to really be profitable. It’s like real estate. You have to build and build. You have to recycle whatever you make into your next movie, and the production keeps growing up and up and up.

Let’s say you want to do an art movie. If you also own
Star Wars
you can get the right theaters. You can say to the theater owners, if you want
Star Wars
you have to also accommodate this movie. You have to do a kind of trade-off with the guys who own the theaters. Otherwise, you can have a great movie and then sit there and wait for word of mouth to advertise it. And you can get wiped out in two weeks.

Of the white actors in Hollywood, there are a few guys and a couple of girls—probably five or six actors—that are on the A-list, if we define that as anyone who makes over $10 million on a film: Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, Cameron Diaz, and Julia Roberts. Certain actors or actresses have become highly bankable not only because they are stars, but because their choices of what to do, when they take their $20 million, are smart commercially. Tom Hanks will put himself in what looks like a risky thing—he would do
or he would do
and he’s great, but he’s the guy next door. He’s very smart about how he picks his roles and marries them with a director—with the right director. Julia Roberts is very smart. If you call smart being a star. Some people don’t care. Brad Pitt doesn’t care. He wants to do what he wants to do, and he tries not to be a star. I think Leonardo DiCaprio is looking for challenges. Among the black superstars, I think Denzel Washington is not looking for the easy way. With some of his choices, like the last one, he won the Academy Award. Denzel is in a position where he can take almost anything he wants. He turned me down a few times.

Out of those who make $20 million, I would say probably 5 percent, 10 percent, are really superstars. The black film superstars are Denzel, Whoopi Goldberg, Will Smith, Sam Jackson, Halle Berry, Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock. Oprah Winfrey
a superstar. How come there are only two superstar girls? There are more African-American stars than women stars combined. We don’t hate women in Hollywood, but somehow more stories are written for men. The women ask why; maybe it’s because men write them. I’ve done so many movies with women, from
City of Angels
to just now
Life, Or Something Like It,
but I’m in a minority in that way, because most studios want the guy movies—blow up some buildings and cars and do hocus-pocus and special effects. So black women have the feeling that there is both a thing against women here and a racial thing against them.

I guess all combined, there are maybe ten people, twelve people, that I would say yes to anything they want. Will Smith is one of them. I have a story about Will. Many years ago, a movie was presented to us with Debra Winger, and I think they wanted Jack Nicholson at the time. It was about artificial insemination, and I said, hmm, interesting. A girl wants to know who her father is ’cause her mom tells her she was conceived through artificial insemination. I thought it would be cool to do that with an African-American woman and a white guy. And we called Whoopi Goldberg and did a movie called
Made in America.
There was a kid in it called Will Smith. I had met him when he was doing a scene from
Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,
with Quincy Jones. I walked over to Will and I said, God, I like you—I don’t know you, but I like you. And I said, you’re gonna be a movie star one day. A few months later, Fred Schepisi called me and said, there is a movie I wanna do so badly—it’s a play I just saw, called
Six Degrees of Separation
. And I said, on one condition—Will Smith is gonna star; otherwise, we’re gonna lose money. He said, who is Will Smith? I said, I’m gonna introduce you. But you should know before, I’m not writing a check unless Will is in the movie. And Will established right off the bat that he can act. He was fantastic. After that, he could do
Independence Day
Men in Black
and anything he wants. But I didn’t think to myself, oh, I’m talking to an African-American actor. For me it was, oh, I like this guy. Most people I know think this way in our business—they think about the part before they think about whether someone is white or black.

For example, with
Made in America,
I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if a black girl finds that her father is white, and wouldn’t it be funny if the mother said, what? Like, white? I don’t want white like we see in the movies. Like,
white? So it was so funny; cool. I did a movie called
Power of One
against apartheid and a movie I’m very proud of with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, called
High Crimes
. They’d probably never allow this one in South Africa, but it’s okay. We had to make the decision should it be a black guy or a white guy? No, we thought; it’s about who is a good actor, who could be a good cool thing to be with Ashley.

I was going to do a movie called
The Negotiator
. So we get the screenplay, and Sylvester Stallone is attached. We liked F. Gary Gray. I think he did only two movies before that. Anyway, we liked Gary and Stallone. Stallone wanted the other guy, the negotiator, to be a girl, and didn’t like the director, and I thought, hmm, we have to make a decision. We decided instead of Stallone to hire Samuel Jackson, and instead of the girl to hire Kevin Spacey, and Gary Gray directed it.

To my surprise, at the outset there was friction between Sam and Gary Gray. And I said, I can’t believe it. It’s two African Americans. One is directing and one is acting. What’s wrong with them? So I tell them, the other day two friends of mine were fighting on a tennis court and they’re both Israelis, and I said, what are you doing? What a bleeping Israeli thing you’re doing to me. So I went to Samuel Jackson and I said, what’s going on here? He said, oh, he doesn’t listen to me, he’s too da-da-da. And I went to Gary and said, what’s going on? Is that like a black thing you’re doing, or a Jewish thing, or what is going on? It’s a territorial thing. Now, the territorial thing was between actors; it wasn’t about black and white. One was Jackson and one was just getting his way, was not asking for advice. So even when I was playful, it never dawned on me, there was never a thought of black and white. Never a thought. When I did
A Time to Kill,
with Sam Jackson, it wasn’t just about a black man; it was about a father who wants to avenge the rape of his daughter. The movie was shot because it was written by John Grisham and it had an African-American background. So again, it wasn’t a racial thing. In that scene in court at the end—five minutes of twenty years of my work—there’s the line “Do they deserve to die?” And Carl Lee Hailey, Sam’s character, says, “Yes, they deserve to die. I hope they burn in hell!” That was the highlight of my product reel.

Many black people say Hollywood is racist, but why is it that when we did
Power of One
, which is a very good movie, it didn’t do well in this country and it did some good business in other countries? Someone said, oh, the Americans. They only care about the blacks in their country; they couldn’t care less what happened in Africa; the African Americans in America are racist against blah, blah, blah. The movie tested fantastic in America, but I couldn’t get anybody to come to the theaters.

I’m not defending Hollywood. But I found a lot of French actors who say that Hollywood is racist because practically no Frenchman can get a part on account of their accent. I’ve found that, with the exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, nobody with a German accent can get a part. It’s an endless thing. But how far do we want to take this? Isn’t Dick Parsons the head of the greatest conglo, AOL Time Warner? Isn’t Colin Powell secretary of state? I think when people are upset that they’re not doing well, they find a million reasons. Do I think that socially there is no discrimination? No. I think there is. Of course there is racial discrimination. I am Jewish; I know there are problems.

When Sam Jackson was cast in the leading role of
The Negotiator,
I was thinking of him first as an actor, not as a black man. When Morgan Freeman was cast in the lead in
High Crimes,
I wasn’t thinking of him as a black man. And the great Whoopi Goldberg actually fell in love and went to bed with Ted Danson, not only in
Made in America
but in real life. I’m not saying there is no racism. I’m not even the man, but I think it’s not a black and white thing; there are a lot of gray areas. The issue is not so much worrying about audience perception and racism; it’s worrying about the credibility of the story.

Here’s an example. We’re doing a movie called
Runaway Jury
. Will Smith was disapproved by Grisham. A lot of people say, well, Grisham is racist. No, Grisham is the same guy who wrote
A Time to Kill
. He’s not racist at all, but what he said was, if you put Will Smith in that role, you would open an undertone of association, of what the writer’s intentions were about the man against the big corporation. You would think, oh, it’s the black guy, or the African-American little guy who’s screwed by the corporation. And then the interpretation would be all because he’s not white. And the thing is, no, it’s not white or black, it’s because he is just a guy and they are the big corporation. So the reason not every lead goes to bed with his leading lady is because when we get a screenplay that is finished, the writer has already boxed us in to a story. It’s not like I’m saying, okay, we’re having a nice day, I’m writing a story. If I wrote it, believe me, everybody would be sleeping with everybody.

In art, if somebody looks like a star, I don’t care if they’re white or black, I’ll go, come here; I have a contract for you. Well, thank you; I’ll sign mine in a little bit. We all like the scent of what might be a big market. We did a movie with Martin Lawrence called
Black Knight,
where we’re making fun of the Middle Ages. But when it comes to the accountants, to the chief financial officers, to the people who are sitting on the cash machine, that’s where the problem is. The Hollywood business community is white; the moguls and the people with the yachts and the G4s are white. I think you would find very few Hollywood executives who are African American. I feel the studio execs kind of look at me like
a foreigner.

I go to France a lot, and they ask me about American movies and what is this invasion of the French culture with American movies and American wine. I’m sitting there saying, how are we going to invade the French culture? Why don’t you think you can ship as much French wine to America? You know what, your people want to see American movies and your people want to drink red wine. If you want to compete with Napa Valley, they’re trying their best to make better wine than da-da-da. What I was saying is that it’s all about what consumers want, and where the consumption is.

I’m building a company that does movies, does television, does sports. We own Puma, so I see this young girl, Serena Williams, and meet her father, Richard, and we build a whole agenda around Puma sponsoring her clothing. We built this thing around a young black girl who’s just rising, and we backed her up. She went to play at the French Open in the colors of the Cameroon team. Now she’s on the cover of
magazine. She’s a superstar. The Williams sisters are cool girls, and their father is very interesting and very educated. That sounds racist, and I don’t mean it that way at all—saying the Williams are very educated, and like, why not? But when I used the word “educated,” I was thinking of the stereotype for athletes, for young tennis players. The Williams girls study and they write poems and they’re multilingual. Oh, they’re phenomenal girls. I can sit there and talk to these girls and it’s beautiful.

Some people talk like Oliver Stone, as if there’s a conspiracy. They say the studio system is a closed white boys’ club. But it’s actually about money. Someone is making $200 million if they can afford to pay Denzel or Chris Tucker $20 million, so who wants to share that? I would say, first of all, people are too selfish here, so they don’t have time to have a conspiracy. They’re too arrogant for a conspiracy. It’s not like they’re meeting to share anything, so the arrogance is key.

I can refer to a meeting I had many years ago with Robert Redford. I was young, and Redford said to me, I’m not getting any scripts, and I said, really? You? No kidding. Height of his career. And I found out most people assumed that Redford is so busy, why even bother. We would always talk about movies without even thinking about him. I’m not saying that race is as simple, but it could be there is an assumption that Hollywood is closed to the black community, and the assumption could be wrong. Maybe the club door is closed, but not by conspiracy. Maybe it’s by disassociation socially. Maybe it’s about African Americans and whites not hanging out in the evenings, so maybe that dinner, or that party at the beach, or a long weekend where you’d kind of drink and watch the Lakers or something, is very white or very black, or very whatever. Like Wall Street used to be. And it’s possible that last Sunday, when we were a bunch of white guys watching the Lakers’ Sacramento game, what we were talking about businesswise were the opportunities between white people. And it’s true: unless you get into that room, you don’t have access. But if we hang out, we talk, and if we talk, we do business.

BOOK: America Behind the Color Line
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