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Big Names In Black Films Discuss Hollywood Experiences In New Series

Feb 7, 2020
Originally published on February 7, 2020 8:45 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

On Sunday, Hollywood will celebrate the year's best movies at the 92nd Academy Awards. But five years after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, only one person of color is nominated for one of the 20 awards that honor acting. "Harriet" star Cynthia Erivo is nominated for actress in a leading role. Photographer and filmmaker Simon Frederick says something has got to change.

SIMON FREDERICK: When you go to the Olympics, you have to be exceptional to win. But in the arena of film, there are some people putting out some really exceptional performances, and those performances are not being recognized.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the series "They've Got To Have Us," now available on Netflix, Frederick asks some of the biggest names in black film to talk openly of their experiences in Hollywood, and they do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK HOLLYWOOD: THEY'VE GOT TO HAVE US")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There was only one kind of story that would get made.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thug No. 2.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The slaves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Prostitute.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The hustler.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Illiterate basketball players.

MARTIN: What emerges are, quote, "rule-breaking, risk-taking black creative artists," according to Frederick, artists who fought to tell their stories, like Robert Townsend, who directed and starred in the 1987 comedy "Hollywood Shuffle."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK HOLLYWOOD: THEY'VE GOT TO HAVE US")

ROBERT TOWNSEND: I said, man, we can't let Hollywood tell our stories. We got to tell our own stories, dude. They'll make us do anything and everything. And these images travel around the world. So that's when we started to make a "Hollywood Shuffle."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Cut.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Could you tell him to be a little more...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah. Bobby, I need a little more black. You know what I'm saying? Like, bug the eyes. You know how to move, you know? Let's go again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) OK. Sorry. Sorry, Cindy (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And action.

FREDERICK: You could play that film today, and it's really a damning indictment of how little things have changed in the industry.

KING: And then there is Harry Belafonte, who talks about what life was like for him and Sidney Poitier, two black stars in an almost all-white landscape in the '50s and '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK HOLLYWOOD: THEY'VE GOT TO HAVE US")

HARRY BELAFONTE: We decided that our task would be to not just do the best we could with the platform that was offered us, but to make sure that we did not perpetuate the stereotypes that had been used by cinema so effectively and disastrously to the definition of who black people were and what they were.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ISLAND IN THE SUN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Do you still feel that anyone whose skin is different than yours is an enemy?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Do you think I do?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Or did they tell you that you shouldn't be seen with me, that I'm a dangerous man who should be watched carefully?

FREDERICK: These were filmmakers who broke the mold. They created new things that have lasted the test of time and have influence how we make films today.

KING: Filmmakers like Kasi Lemmons, who directed "Harriet," which is nominated for two Oscars. She sometimes feels despair, but also hope.

KASI LEMMONS: I said one day, there's going to be a spectrum, and we're going to have love stories, and we're going to have comedies, and we're going to have horror films, science fiction and dramas. And now I feel like it's getting real.

MARTIN: And, of course, there's the trailblazer. Some people criticized actress Hattie McDaniel for playing roles that pandered to stereotypes, but those were the only roles available. At the 12th Academy Awards back in 1939, she was the only black guest in the theater. She rose from her segregated seat to accept her Oscar for "Gone With The Wind." And then, as Frederick points out in the documentary series, McDaniel rejected the speech that had been written for her, saying this instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF 12TH ACADEMY AWARDS)

HATTIE MCDANIEL: This is one of the happiest moments of my life. And I want to thank each one of you. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. And may I say thank you, and God bless you.

(APPLAUSE)

KING: "They've Gotta Have Us" is available now on Netflix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.