[From USA Today]

Berry widens window for black actresses

LOS ANGELES — When a sobbing Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a best-actress Academy Award, she accepted on behalf of "every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

A year later, the door is far from wide open, but black actresses say they can see a glimmer of light shining through. Up against the door, however, are stacks of scripts filled with prostitutes, drug addicts and jive-talkin' characters. Some say real change will not come until stereotypical roles are routinely replaced with three-dimensional characters, such as the ones offered to white actresses in films such as The Hours and Far From Heaven

But there are bright spots for black women in Hollywood:

  • Capitalizing on her Oscar win, Berry possesses unprecedented clout. Not only is she producing feature films, but she also is able to green-light them.
  • Queen Latifah, red-hot after Chicago, is being wooed by studios. She also is producing and in some cases can get a film made based on her presence.
  • Younger black actresses such as Gabrielle Union, 29, have been in movies that have made money, so they are considered less risky to cast.
  • Some actresses say they are getting meetings for roles not specifically written for black women, although they are rarely winning those parts.

"Change is slow," Berry says. "When it's real change, it takes time."

With her Oscar win for Monster's Ball, Berry is in demand. She's in serious talks to play Catwoman, and she's getting her own James Bond spinoff, reprising her role as Jinx from Die Another Day.

But it's her credentials as a producer that give her even more leeway in choosing roles and having a say over scripts.

Latifah, 33, who executive-produced the hit Bringing Down the House, has seen firsthand the difference that being a producer can make.

Race and class are key issues in the comedy, and Latifah felt that a black voice was needed.

After testing before audiences, some scenes were cut or edited. For example, as originally shot, Latifah listened while a racist heiress (Joan Plowright) sang a mock Negro "spiritual" with the words, "Massa gon' sell us tomorrow."

"We all watched it," Latifah said. "I said there's no (expletive) way a black woman is going to stand here and listen to this whole song. (The director and other producers) understood that."

The scene was altered to have Latifah come out of the kitchen with a knife as if ready to stab Plowright. "I came up with that," Latifah says proudly.

MGM vice chairman Chris McGurk agrees that actresses who add producer to their résumé can bring about change.

"(If) nine out of 10 scripts they see have these stereotypical, exploitative characters," he says, "(producing) gives them an opportunity to develop the characters themselves and avoid that issue."

Berry is one of the black actresses MGM is banking on. She'll produce and star in MGM's Foxy Brown, which still needs a director and could begin production in the fall. MGM also has Out of Time, starring Sanaa Lathan and Denzel Washington, opening in the fall, and Barbershop II, featuring Eve in a larger role.

There has been talk of Latifah starring in MGM's Beauty Shop, which will be located next door to the barbershop.

Latifah is meeting with studio executives and contemplating her next project. She recently sold a pitch for a romantic comedy to Disney, which made House.

"There's been a solid step forward for black actors, both male and female, in the last year," McGurk says.

According to director/writer Gary Hardwick, the situation for black actresses has improved from two years ago, when he shopped Deliver Us From Eva to studio executives. Even though the title character was female, studios were more concerned about the male lead.

"Finding (Eva) wasn't enough to get the movie going," says Hardwick, who cast Union and LL Cool J in the romantic comedy that opened last month.

If he shopped the same movie today, he says, studios would be less focused on having a big-name male lead because younger black actresses are making profitable movies.

McGurk says MGM is looking for projects for hip-hop artist Eve because of her following. Union's 10 films since 1999 have grossed a solid average of $30.7 million, including Bring It On at $68.4 million.

Hardwick says, "So when you go in and say, 'I've got Gabrielle Union, I've got Vivica Fox or Rosario Dawson,' nobody looks at you with that look like, 'Well, who are they, and how can they help us?' They go, 'Hmmmm. That's interesting. Maybe we can sell her.' "

Things are improving, but some black actresses think Hollywood still has a long way to go to level the playing field.

"It's as challenging now as it was before (Halle's) win," says Angela Bassett, 44, Oscar-nominated for her portrayal of Tina Turner in 1993's What's Love Got to Do With It. "It was a wonderful personal victory, and I wish it could translate on another level."

It's not so much that women are being denied roles. (In 2001, 15.2% of all women's film and TV roles went to black actresses, according to the Screen Actors Guild. Black women make up 12.7% of the total female U.S. population, according to the 2000 Census.) It's that the parts are sometimes demeaning.

"I pass on a lot of scripts because it's just not my cup of tea," Bassett says "I could be working all of the time. But to me, if you work at a certain level, you've got to stay there or exceed it. Your art, your belief, your integrity, your peace of mind is more important than money."

Michael Michele, who had supporting roles in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Dark Blue, says she has had four offers in the past two months for roles that were negative stereotypes. She's willing to wait, do television (she played Dr. Cleo Finch on ER) or take a small role, such as one of the wives in Will Smith's Ali, to work with a top director and cast.

"Black women today are more educated, and there are more middle-class women today than we've ever seen before," says Michele, 36. "Why is it such an anomaly when we see a positive role model in film or television that happens to be black?"

If a black woman does get such a role, it's seldom the lead. Also scarce are movies portraying more than one professional black woman. It has been almost eight years since Waiting to Exhale, which starred Bassett and Whitney Houston. It raked in $67.1 million.

Since then, you can count on one hand the number of widely released films starring black women: The Preacher's Wife, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Soul Food, which was made for $7.5 million and earned $43.4 million. Most movies targeted to black audiences are ensembles, an indication that studios do not have faith that one black woman can open a film like Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon can.

Asked why there aren't movies such as The Hours starring black women, MGM's McGurk says, "If the right script came across our desk right now, we would do it. You get Halle Berry, Sanaa, Eve and Queen Latifah — sign me up."

Why aren't screenwriters writing more quality roles for black women?

"Perhaps the black woman is still a mystery to writers," many of whom are white men, Bassett says.

One avenue that some black actresses are pursuing: going after roles not written for them.

That, Berry says, is her next hurdle. Her Oscar-winning role in Monster's Ball, along with her Emmy-winning turn in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, were written for black women. Die Another Day director Lee Tamahori says Berry's Jinx character was created with an ethnic woman in mind.

"Now I'm setting my sights on just being able to be a woman and not letting my color precede me and not having to be black in order to play the part," says Berry, 36.

Black actresses also lag far behind many white actors and actresses and black actors in pay. Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock are among black actors commanding $10 million to $20 million a picture, based on studios' confidence that their movies will make money.

Berry's asking price doubled last year, to $8 million. But with the additional exception of Latifah, "nobody is making a million dollars (a movie)," actress Nia Long says.

Black women in Hollywood say they'll have more clout if they work together. Now that Latifah can request a producing title with every project, she plans to help black actresses.

"If I don't network with Angela Bassett, Jada (Pinkett Smith), Vivica (Fox), Gabrielle Union and Nia Long, we're all stuck on getting ahead by ourselves, and then we're not going to make any advances," Latifah says.

There are those who wish all their peers would do the same. Long, 32, was once considered black Hollywood's "it" girl, starring in such movies at Boyz N the Hood, Soul Food and Big Momma's House. She took time off to give birth to her son, Massai, now 2, and wants to return to feature films in the right kind of role.

"When you talk to Halle," she says, "just say, 'Halle, you need to have a best friend, another black girlfriend in the next movie that you do. Because when you do material that is character-driven, you can pull in your sisters. Pull them in.' I think we have a sense of responsibility to each other and to ourselves."

Berry will produce an HBO film called Lackawanna Blues, which will star a black man. And she's developing projects for black women that she won't star in. With clout comes pressure, but Berry says she can only do so much.

"I've sort of released myself from trying to carry my entire community," she says. "That's really not my job. But I do feel pressure because I'm a driven person, and I always want to push, push, push, push, push. If that helps open a door, then I'm happy to be able to be the one to do it. But it's no longer necessarily for an entire group of people. That's just too much pressure for one person to carry on their shoulders."



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