One month ago, just after Will Smith helped open Independence Day to a record $85 million, one week after Eddie Murphy’s remake of The Nutty Professor grossed $25 million, and only days before Denzel Washington’s Courage Under Fire debuted, Brian Grazer, the producer of The Nutty Professor, picked up the phone and called his star. ”Hey!” he yelled excitedly when Murphy answered. ”This is the week for the brothers!”
To much of Hollywood, it appears to be a summer of such weeks. Smith and Washington are starring in roles written for actors of any color — Smith in a phenomenally successful popcorn movie, Washington in a $10 million turn that’s already being touted as Oscar-caliber. And Murphy, after a string of unexciting projects, has finally reconnected with his audience in a part originally made famous by Jerry Lewis.
”I think now people understand that blacks can just be actors and actresses,” says Jada Pinkett, Murphy’s Nutty Professor costar and Smith’s girlfriend. ”Like Will in Independence Day. He’s just a fighter pilot who happens to be black. It can be just a story, and be universal.”
Ironically, attitudes like these are being expressed only five months after the Academy was excoriated by Reverend Jesse Jackson and others for deeming only one African-American (Director Dianne Houston for Live Action Short Film) worthy of nomination. But the crush of black actors appearing in everything from art-house epics to mainstream nail-biters suggests — and the key word is suggests — that a change has finally come. In July, Laurence Fishburne costarred with Stephen Baldwin in Fled, and Samuel L. Jackson delivered a searing performance in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. This month, Wesley Snipes plays a baseball star stalked by Robert De Niro in The Fan, while Morgan Freeman teams up with Keanu Reeves in the thriller Chain Reaction; two other possible Oscar nominations follow with Jeffrey Wright in the biopic Basquiat, and veteran Harry Belafonte in Robert Altman’s Kansas City; and this fall, Delroy Lindo costars with Mel Gibson in Ron Howard’s thriller Ransom.
As more tangible portents of success, some point to Washington’s recent $12 million payday for his next movie, Fallen, and to Snipes’ $10 million turn in Executive Privilege, a project for which Bruce Willis was once considered. ”I’m very optimistic about the future,” says director John Singleton. ”I used to be very cynical, but I really think good things are happening now.”
But others who’ve heard such good news before are reserving judgment, braced for the buzz that’s been building around black actors to fade away by the end of summer. Even if that happens, the top tier of black actors will remain secure as hitmakers — or as secure as any actor in Hollywood can be. ”In reference to someone like Will Smith, it’s not really a racial issue,” says Ving Rhames (Striptease), who recently completed John Singleton’s Rosebud. Says Debra Martin Chase, who ran Washington’s production company, Mundy Lane, before leaving last year for Whitney Houston’s company, Houston Productions: ”The Denzels, the Whitneys, the Wesleys have proven that they can open a movie. That’s why studios are willing to bank on them.”