WASHINGTON WATCH: Getting More African-Americans Behind The Scenes In Hollywood And More Black Films On The Big Screen

If you watch awards shows, you’ve noticed that there’s not a whole lot of African-Americans winning awards for our work behind the scenes. That’s because our numbers behind the scenes are a little sparse.

Actor-producer-director Robert Townsend; actor-producer-director Bill Duke; and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood joined Roland Martin on Washington Watch to talk about how to get those numbers up, but also what do you deal with Hollywood and the whole notion of what is a “Black film.”

MR. MARTIN:  Welcome back to “Washington Watch,” our Hollywood edition.

If you watch awards shows, I’m sure you’ve noticed that there’s not a whole lot of us winning awards for our work behind the scenes.  That’s because our numbers behind the scenes are a little sparse.  Joining me now to talk about how to get those numbers up, but also what do you deal with when it comes to Hollywood and the whole notion of what is a, quote, “Black film,” [are] actor-producer-director Robert Townsend; actor-producer-director Bill Duke; and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood.

See?  All these Black folks gotta have multiple jobs to get the bills paid.

All right.  Wel- —


MR. MARTIN:  — welcome to “Washington Watch.”


MR. BILL DUKE:  Thank you.

MR. MARTIN:  It was very interesting when – all this stuff going on about “Red Tails” and George Lucas, and he talked about walking in and all the Hollywood studios saying, “Uh, we don’t really know how to market this film ’cause it has a[n] all-” – “all-Black cast.”

And he said, “I now saw for the first time what Black filmmakers have to go through.”


MR. MARTIN:  When you heard that story, did you go, “Well, thank you, George.  I’m sure glad you now know what it feels like”?

MS. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD:  I think it was more that – I mean, obviously, we’ve all been through [that], but I think finally someone, you know, shed a light on it.  It’s kind of been underneath the radar, and because he’s George Lucas, people finally paid attention.

MR. TOWNSEND:  Well, I think – I think it’s just sad – you know what I mean – because at this time in history, that it’s a – it’s a – a – a story – a history story, you know, that needs to be told; and we should celebrate it.  It shouldn’t be hard to market, but it just seems like we always get that one, little thing that goes, “We don’t know how to sell it.”

It’s a story of heroes, a story of courage.  It’s a story of men that did something that no one – no other men have done before.

MR. DUKE:  Um-hum.

MR. MARTIN:  Bill, I’m sitting here, reading Hallu- — [sic – phonetic] – Harry Belafonte’s book My Song:  A Memoir, and –

MR. DUKE:  Great.

MR. MARTIN:  — he is talking about “Carmen Jones,” and the exact conversation he’s writing about about “Carmen Jones” is the exact conversation we’ve been having about “Red Tails” and about any other movie that has an all-Black cast.

MR. DUKE:  I – not much has changed, and I don’t expect much to change unless we begin to think differently.  And I th- — when I say that, as a collective entity, and really examine distribution – and not only films, but the concept of brands and how do we leverage that and how do we use it.  But collectively – not just as individuals, but we have to come together.

MR. MARTIN:  One of the things that also – that – that jumps out at me when you have these conversations with directors and wi- — with producers [is] you have to deal with, “Well, do I make something I really want to make, that’s in my heart?  Or, do I need to make something that’s commercial, so I can go back to make what’s in my heart?”

Robert, how have you had to deal with that?

MR. TOWNSEND:  Well, you know, I mean the film I just finished called “In the Hive” – you know, it’s a[n] indie film, and I just love telling stories that speak to me.  You know what I mean?  And so you – you – you walk that line of, like, yeah, you want to do commercial stuff; but, then, it’s got to really speak to you.  I think, as a filmmaker, you live with a movie for two years, so you[’d] better be happy, and you[’d] better love it.  And so I – I’ve always said no to things that I knew I couldn’t be in that editing room; I couldn’t be –

MR. DUKE:  Um-hum.

MR. TOWNSEND:  — scoring and doin’ the whole thing if –

MR. MARTIN:  [Chuckles.]

MR. TOWNSEND:  — you don’t love every frame.

MR. MARTIN:  G- — Gina’s over there laughing, going, “I think I know how you feel.”

MS. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD:  Yeah, I mean my kind of template is I think about, “Am I going to be embarrassed to go to the premiere.”  And, you know, if the answer is “yes,” there’s no way I’m making that film.

MR. MARTIN:  Also, first of all, a- — as a woman, you deal with something that they don’t have to deal with.  And so take our viewers through that experience of, again, people making – or, having expectations by saying, “We-e-ell, we don’t really know [if] she might be able to handle this type of work.”

MS. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD:  Honestly, that happened early on, like with “Love and Basketball,” my first film.  Af- — but I just had to put that aside, I mean, because it’ll come at you from every angle; and if you buy into it, or give into it, it’s just going to crush you.  So, early on, I just decided not to even hear that at all; and it’s really just about what film do I want to make, what kind of story do I want to tell and just focus[ing] on that.

MR. MARTIN:  One – I was talking to some folks at a conference a couple of years ago.  We were talking about “Just Right.”  And what’s interesting [was] they said – here was this movie, and because Hollywood had a predetermined number and it didn’t hit it, all of a sudden you swear all – all romantic – romantic comedies infe- — [sic] – [in]volving Black people were just sort of wiped off the table.  And so it’s sort of like Jackie Robinson – to me, Jackie Robinson had come to the Major Leagues.  And, “Man, if that one brutha don’t do well, it’s gonna shut everything else down.”

MS. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD:  It’s really sad that – that, because Hollywood has us in this box of “Black film” as a genre, when there’s one failure it affects every, single Black film that comes out after that.  So, I mean I think we[’ve] got to kind of get away from that as a genre and really just focus on putting us in every other genre, like action ‘n’ romantic comedy.

MR. MARTIN:  So, Robert, what – what the hell is a “Black film”?  ’Cause you hear that, and it’s tossed around.  What does that even mean?

MR. TOWNSEND:  Well, I think, you know, anytime, you know, African-Americans are in the lead role, you know, I think – and, you know, they’re the hero, you know, I think that’s what people equate as a “Black movie,” because, you know, if we’re in supporting roles, like, you know – you know, “Captain, there’s a body over here” – that’s okay.  [Chuckles.]  You know what I mean?  But if you’re in the lead role, and you’re the captain, I think that’s when people go, like –

MR. MARTIN:  But here’s what I don’t understand, Bill.  You can have – 80 percent of White kids buy hip-hop.  If you said, “Who is the top star” – “top singer in the country?” they might say Beyoncé.  “Who is the biggest talk show host in the” – “in the country?”  They’ll say, “Oprah Winfrey.”  There’s a Black president.  So, I think it’s pretty clear White folks have accepted Black folks in these areas.

MR. DUKE:  Um-hum.

MR. MARTIN:  Yet, for some reason, Hollywood says, “Naw, we’re gonna still” – “still keep you in this racial box.”

MR. DUKE:  Well – and what – the way they put it is that it’s not a racial box.  It is that our sells – our films do not sell foreign.  We’re not perceived globally as an entity where people are going to buy our movies.  And so we’re limited to domestic sales, which means low budgets or no budgets, because we’re not financially viable.

MR. MARTIN:  But are they actually taking the movies internationally?  I’ll give you an example.  So, I was sitting here one day, and I was thinking about this question, and I said, “Let me take two” – “two movies where men are wearing dresses.”  And so I looked at “Big Momma’s House.”  I looked at “Madea.”  I looked at “Big Momma’s House” did nearly 50 percent of its total gross worldwide – international.  And I said, “Okay.  Black dude, mostly Black cast, a lot of money made internationally.”  I looked at “Madea.”  Fifty thousand dollars made internationally.  And I was sitting here going, “Mostly Black cla- — cast, dude in a dress, mostly Ba- — Black cast with Martin Lawrence – “Big Momma’s House” – dude in a dress.  But both were treated differently, so is part of the problem, frankly, how Hollywood chooses to market a certain film?  Because when I look at those two, I pretty much see largely Black people in all of the roles in the films.

MR. DUKE:  I – I –

MR. TOWNSEND:  We- — well –

MR. DUKE:  — I – it’s – it’s really –

MR. TOWNSEND:  — well, I’m about to –

MR. DUKE:  — about – [crosstalk]- —

MR. TOWNSEND:  — do a movie as a woman in a dress –

MR. MARTIN:  [Chuckles.]

MR. DUKE:  — it’s Robert’s – [crosstalk]- —

MR. TOWNSEND:  — so I – [crosstalk] –


MR. DUKE:  — [crosstalk] – a dress –


MR. TOWNSEND:  — not that – [crosstalk] –

MR. DUKE:  — I tried to get him to wear a dress.  He wouldn’t do it, so he ruined the whole thing, man.  We had investors and everything else.

MR. MARTIN:  [Chuckles.]

MR. DUKE:  And he had a pom-pom, too.


MR. TOWNSEND:  — [pounds the desk, chuckling.]  I don’t know what to say about that.  I mean I think – I – I – I don’t know.

I mean, Gina, what would you –


MR. TOWNSEND:  — say?

MS. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD:  — I think part of it’s marketing.  I mean “The Help” was not marketed as a – as a “Black film” –

MR. DUKE:  That’s right.

MS. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD:  — and look how much damn money it made.

MR. MARTIN:  Robert, Bill, Gina, we appreciate it.  Thanks a bunch.

MR. TOWNSEND:  Thank you –

MR. DUKE:  Thank you, sir.

MR. TOWNSEND:  — guys for having us.


MR. MARTIN:  All right.  Thanks a bunch.

MR. DUKE:  Thank you.  God bless you, man.