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Box-Ploitation: African-American Blockbusters

From ‘Scary Movie’ to ‘Big Momma’s House,’ this summer’s films are closing the race gap

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”I don’t want to bust your bubble,” says Keenen Ivory Wayans, berating a struggling black actor in 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle. ”But you ain’t never gonna make it at that actin’ thang.” Back then, Shuffle was a painfully funny blitz on the brick wall faced by African Americans in Hollywood. This summer, that wall has started to crumble.

Never before have so many films dominated by African-American talent enjoyed such a level of commercial clout. Scary Movie, directed by the same Wayans who scoffed at silver-screen dreams in Shuffle, earned $42.3 million its first weekend — a record for an R-rated flick. Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma’s House has ballooned into one of the year’s stealth monsters (at $113 million). Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft, the blaxploitation update directed by John Singleton, proved to be the box office machine with all the tickets, debuting at No. 1. Ditto for Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.

In a season of predictable plotlines, Tinseltown faces a long-awaited racial twist. Though studios have traditionally viewed minority leads as enormous (if unspoken) commercial risks, they must now bow to Gen Y — that 70-million-strong demo gold mine who grew up on hip-hop. Offers Singleton: ”I still don’t think they understand. But they understand money being made.” As a result, Hollywood is inking deals with everyone from Ice Cube to Charles Stone III (Mr. Whassuup!). Even indie Fox Searchlight has plans to greenlight more black and Latino films.

Of course, this was also a summer when the black sailor in The Perfect Storm was the only key character in the film without a back story, and Spike Lee attacked The Patriot‘s trivialization of slavery as ”a complete whitewashing of history.” Moreover, black women, other than Thandie, Janet, and Halle, are still woefully underrepresented in front of and behind the cameras. It’s when black dramas start making ”Jerry Maguire money,” says Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood, that ”we can say things have changed.”

Still, the cinematic future could create the widest generation gap since Easy Rider wheelied through theaters in 1969. For today’s youth, Chris Tucker may already be a bigger star than Harrison Ford. Which is why Tucker is banking $20 million for the sequel to Rush Hour — not bad for the jester from Friday. Next up? The comedian’s planned directorial debut, Mr. President, a film about, metaphorically, painting the White House black. Cowritten by African-American scribe Darryl Quarles (Big Momma’s House), the movie is clearly a sign of the times. Says Tucker, chuckling with pride: ”I’m playing the President of the United States.”