By Samantha Miller
April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

In March 1996 a PEOPLE special report described the movie industry’s “continued exclusion of African-Americans” as “a national disgrace.” The article ignited debates that raged from this magazine’s letters column to ABC’s Nightline. Rev. Jesse Jackson, citing PEOPLE’S observation that only one of that year’s Oscar nominees was black, urged a boycott of the telecast.

Five years later, as Oscar night approaches with one African-American (documentary producer Leelai Demoz) among 163 nominees, are things better for blacks in the movie business? A second investigation shows that the industry has taken some encouraging steps but still has a long way to go in welcoming the black community and illuminating their lives onscreen.

Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph remembers her own searing introduction to Hollywood nearly 20 years ago: “You’re beautiful and talented,” a producer told her, “but you’re black, so what do I do with you? Am I supposed to cast you in a movie as a romantic lead against Tom Cruise?”

Five years since she first shared that story, Ralph points to one particularly sweet symbol of progress. “Look at Tom Cruise. Who was he playing opposite in Mission: Impossible 2? A black girl [Thandie Newton], that’s who!” Still, to Ralph, the big picture is far from uniformly bright. Despite steady work on the UPN sitcom Moesha, Ralph, 45, has never been a leading lady in a major film. And in an industry whose “gatekeepers of power,” she says, are almost exclusively white, she and other African-Americans struggle to make movies that defy stereotypes. “Even though some things have changed,” she says, “I have to tell you there are some things that just don’t.”

Since 1996, PEOPLE’S reporting shows, African-American actors and blacks who work in some offscreen jobs have made encouraging gains. But many areas of the business remain as exclusionary as ever, and even top stars are frustrated by Hollywood decisionmakers’ reluctance to risk abandoning hidebound attitudes about race. “Every year it gets a little better,” says actor Chris Rock, 36, “but not as quick as you want it to. You still have to attain greatness to get the same thing white guys get just for being mediocre.”

The past five years have brought good news on several fronts. More black actors and directors have broken into the industry’s top ranks with hit movies that prove black stars and stories can score with all moviegoers. Last year three films with black directors or mostly black casts—including Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Big Momma’s House and Scary Movie, the top-grossing film ever made by a black director, Keenen Ivory Wayans—cracked the blockbuster barrier of $100 million in domestic grosses. Films such as 1997’s Soul Food and 2000’s Love & Basketball (the highest-grossing movie ever directed by a black woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood) have opened doors for stories outside the action and comedy genres. Meanwhile, as award-winning movies with African-American casts flourish on cable, a threatened NAACP boycott last year increased minority representation on-and offscreen on network TV—and spurred movie studios, which the NAACP may target next, to seek ways of diversifying their ranks. Behind the camera, Hollywood’s directors’ guild reports a small increase in work for black directors.

The bad news? Even with those increases, blacks, who make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population and 25 percent of moviegoers, are still severely underrepresented behind the scenes in Hollywood. Only 3.5 percent of screen-writers’ guild members are African-American, and just 5.4 percent of guild movie-directing jobs go to blacks. The figures are even lower for the notoriously discriminatory technical unions, which control access to jobs such as camera operator and sound technician. Black actresses have lost ground since 1996, with stars like Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett cooling off, and the likes of Halle Berry and Jada Pinkett Smith still unable to ascend to Hollywood’s A-list. “There isn’t a single black actress who the studios look at as being a leading lady” for a major film, says Tracey E. Edmonds, who coproduced Soul Food. And at the very top of the Hollywood food chain, the key number is also zero—the number of blacks among the dozen or so top studio executives who can approve, or “green-light,” spending the millions of dollars it takes to make a movie. “I’ve seen a lot more people of color in the executive ranks,” says Edmonds, who is black. ” [But] they still have to go up the hierarchy and convince the studio head to move forward.”

Studio heads, of course, are keenly sensitive to the color of money. In the last few years box-office bucks have propelled new names—such as Martin Lawrence (Big Momma’s House), Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) and Keenen Ivory Wayans (Scary Movie)—onto the short list of black stars and directors viewed as bankable. Studios “see that people want to see these stories. Now there are more directors they trust, more directors and writers who are able to do their own vision,” says Tucker, 29, who bagged $20 million for Rush Hour 2. Tucker next plans to direct and star in Mr. President, a comedy he wrote. “They’ll do what I want to do,” he says, “because there’s a market out there for me.”

That’s still a statement few black actors—and no black actresses—can make. “I’ve worked with white actresses who have their next three projects lined up, and they go, ‘What are you doing next?’ and I’m like, ‘Auditioning!’ ” says Soul Food’s Vivica A. Fox, 36, who stars in the upcoming comedy Kingdom Come. The dearth of stars whom studios are willing to bet on frustrates filmmakers. “When you write for a non-African-American lead, they’ll start at Harrison Ford and work their way down to Haley Joel Osment,” says Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote last year’s $116 million hit Remember the Titans, starring Denzel Washington. “They won’t keep going down the list with an African-American. If Will [Smith] passes, if Denzel passes, if Sam [Jackson] or Cuba [Gooding Jr.] passes, that’s it. And sometimes if just Will passes, that’s it.”

Even the biggest stars often find themselves steered toward stereotype-heavy shoot-’em-ups and comedies. Chris Rock recalls a 1997 experience he had as a rising star: “They want to meet me at Miramax, home of Pulp Fiction. I get there and they offer me a movie about a bunch of rappers on a bus going to make a video. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this? Ghettoized!’ ” Actors such as Laurence Fishburne and Halle Berry have headed to pay-cable channels like HBO, whose African-American dramas have won movie or miniseries Emmys for four years running. “We don’t have to worry about ratings,” says Colin Callender, president of original programming at HBO (which, like PEOPLE, is owned by AOL Time Warner). That “allows us to take risks. But also we can create new audiences because we create high-quality African-American product.” Twenty percent of subscribers to HBO and Cinemax are black.

What happens to black roles that break the mold? Sometimes they go to white actors. The movie Pay It Forward was based on a novel with a black main character; onscreen Kevin Spacey starred. Screenwriter John Ridley created the lead role in 1999’s Gulf War drama Three Kings with Samuel L. Jackson in mind, but the part was revised for George Clooney. “I feel very frustrated to be here and not be able to make a difference,” says Ridley, who is black.

Monetary inequalities also persist. Though at least four black actors—Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith and Chris Tucker—command $20 million a film (Hollywood top dollar), most black dramatic stars collect lower salaries than whites. “Sam Jackson, who audiences really like, commands a decent salary, but he’s not up there with the Travoltas,” says NYU’s Donald Bogle. Jackson made $10 million for 2000’s Shaft; Travolta makes at least $20 million a film. Some filmmakers complain that risk-averse executives allot lower budgets to black-themed dramas, making self-fulfilling their prophecy that black films earn less. “Most black filmmakers encounter the idea that we don’t do well overseas, which means that they push our budgets down or sometimes films don’t get made at all,” says director George Tillman Jr. He made last year’s Men of Honor, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro, for $32 million. “It should have been a $50 million movie,” he says.

Such decisions simply reflect financial realities, says 20th Century Fox studio chairman Tom Rothman. African-American family dramas like Soul Food are “too specific an American experience to be relatable to an international audience,” he says. “But that’s true with other genres too.” The increasingly diverse U.S. audience flocking to recent hits is prompting Hollywood to rethink some calculations. Weaned on rap, moviegoers aged 18 to 24—the heaviest ticket buyers—are “much more colorblind” than past generations, says MTV Productions president Van Toffler. Young whites, he says, are as receptive to movies like Save the Last Dance, the MTV-produced interracial romance that has earned $86 million, as to all-white films. “Those kids,” says Vivica A. Fox, “are not afraid of color.”

Five years after Jackson and fellow protesters picketed TV stations broadcasting the Academy Awards, most black moviemakers shrug off this year’s nomination near-shutout. (In 1997 two Oscar nominees were black; in 1998, four; in 1999, none; in 2000, three. One African American has won since ’96: Cuba Gooding Jr. as Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire.) Academy executive director Bruce Davis angrily rejects any allegations of racism among the 5,722 predominantly white voters. “At the cream of the art form, there just isn’t an enormous amount to choose from,” he says. Indeed, many blacks view the Oscars as a reflection of more pervasive problems. Instead of trying to influence Academy decisions, “what we need to do,” says Sidney Poitier, “is put that effort toward creating a level playing field for job opportunities so that we will have actors working with the degree of consistency that will produce the performances that cannot be denied.”

For blacks in off-camera professions, progress toward that level playing field can be measured in millimeters. Though black membership in the directors’ and writers’ guilds has risen since 1996, technical jobs remain largely white. (While some union locals claim not to track members by race, and others decline to divulge the numbers they do have, members report little change from years past.) The president of one large L.A. craft local, who estimates its membership at 2 to 4 percent black, says criticism has spurred his union to ease its Byzantine eligibility rules—joining unions requires work experience, but jobs are tough to get without union membership. But clubby “father-son” hiring practices still exclude minorities. “It’s the same as it ever was, it’s all contacts,” says the official.

What is Hollywood doing to break the pattern of business as usual? Most major movie studios and TV networks offer internships for minority students and have appointed executives to oversee efforts to increase diversity on and offscreen. In corporate corridors diversity once “was an afterthought,” says Mitsy Wilson, Fox’s senior vice president of diversity, but now “that commitment is there from the executives.” But there’s room for improvement, says Jaleesa Hazzard, executive director of L.A.’s Y.E.S. to Jobs, which placed 250 minority teens in summer jobs in entertainment companies nationwide last year (up from 175 in 1996). “I’d like for [film studios] to do more,” says Hazzard. “I’m constantly begging for money and begging for jobs.”

Some prominent African-Americans are fighting for change themselves. Bill Cosby funds two programs for aspiring minority film-makers at USC’s nationally recognized film school; Chris Rock founded a humor magazine at historically black Howard University to train comedy writers. Many blacks have started production companies. And several top directors, including Tillman, Spike Lee and John Singleton, insist on integrated crews for their sets. Singleton criticizes those who don’t make similar efforts. “There are a lot of black people in Hollywood who don’t exercise the clout they have,” he says.

One exercise of clout is still sending shock waves through Hollywood. Last February NAACP president Kweisi Mfume and leaders of other ethnic groups negotiated agreements with the four major TV networks, threatening a boycott if the numbers of minorities working in TV did not increase. Consequently 31 prime-time shows now feature racially mixed casts, up from 13 in 1995. NBC started a program that requires every show that reaches its second season to hire a new minority writer. Still, two months ago, Mfume castigated the networks for moving at “a snail’s pace” and said a boycott of one undisclosed network is “extremely likely.”

Might movies be his next target? Many Hollywood African-Americans say they would welcome a dose of his wrath. “I hope to meet with some studio heads very shortly,” he told PEOPLE. “If there is a way to broker an agreement, the NAACP will move to try to do that.”

Such a move would almost surely accelerate the pace of change in Hollywood. As for Sheryl Lee Ralph, she has founded a film festival to uncover new talents and plans to get into directing and producing. “Eventually Hollywood will become color-blind, and the only thing that will matter is good work, hard work and talent,” she says. “But I’m not the type to sit around and wait for it to happen.”

Samantha Miller

Elizabeth Leonard, Michael Fleeman, Cynthia Wang, Karen Grigsby Bates, Lyndon Stambler, Lorenzo Benet and Florence Nishida in Los Angeles and Steve Erwin and Amy Longsdorf in New York City