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Image: Will Smith, Jaden Smith
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Though Will Smith is a bankable star, he does few films in which a black character is integral, such as “The Pursuit of Happyness.” More often than not, his roles aren't race specific.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/4/2010 7:51:33 AM ET 2010-02-04T12:51:33

They are three of the biggest stars in Hollywood. They are also black.

Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Tyler Perry are money machines, although each is unique in operation. As bankable entertainers, there are few who can match them for consistent box-office clout. That probably isn’t something that could have been said 20 years ago — or even 10 years ago.

Has Hollywood become more tolerant, more accepting, more open-minded? Or is it simply that its obsession with green makes it color-blind when it comes to backing a project? And do Washington, Smith and Perry represent a breakthrough, or are they isolated cases who have defied the odds?

As Black History Month unfolds, the film industry sees the aforementioned titans standing tall on top of a pile of dough. Washington’s recent “The Book of Eli” grossed more than $32 million in its opening weekend ending Jan. 17 and has since amassed more than $63 million. Smith is  the only actor in history to have eight consecutive films released that grossed more than $100 million each. Perry, a writer-producer-director and playwright, has raked in more than $400 million with his works and is a one-man cottage industry.

“I think they’d be the first to tell you that African-American actors have made strides in terms of movies and Hollywood,” said Glenn Whipp, a film critic for the Los Angeles Times, Variety, MSN and others. “I think it’s much like when Obama was elected president, people don’t pay attention to color and are able to see past it.”

Racial consciousness
Yet Kara Keeling, assistant professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, said that, as far as Washington and Smith are concerned, some of their acceptance has to do with their parts.

History of blacks in film“It’s important to look at the kinds of roles they’re playing and the fact that — with the exception of Tyler Perry — they’re playing roles that don’t require any sort of racial consciousness,” she said. “They don’t bring a racial consciousness to bear on the story in a way that disturbs the audience.

“On the one hand it is surprising that now we can all sort of identify with the black leading character whereas before the assumption was that it was only the white character that audiences could identify with. That transformation is an important one. But at the same time the kinds of films that cause us to reflect and look more deeply at race relations, we’ve seen less of those.”

Washington and Smith have carved out extraordinary careers by playing roles that usually aren’t race specific, that could conceivably have been played by stars such as Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp or any number of others.

For every picture like “American Gangster,” “Antwone Fisher” or “The Hurricane,” in which being black is essential to the story, Washington does two or three others like “Inside Man,” “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” “The Bone Collector” or “Man on Fire.” Smith does even fewer films in which a black character is integral. “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Ali” represent two of the exceptions.

Perry’s approach is different. He has aimed his work at a predominately black audience and has become hugely successful by tapping into that niche market with such works as the “Madea” series of films and “Why Did I Get Married?” He also finances his own projects.

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That raises another issue when it comes to whether barriers have been broken in Hollywood: Where does the path begin for success in Hollywood by black actors, writers, directors, producers?

In general, the first steps are taken overseas.

Because it is imperative to studio executives and their bottom lines that a film or television show perform well internationally, that often limits the number of opportunities for blacks, primarily because of an old belief that black-themed projects don’t do well outside of the U.S.

Leah Aldridge, a Ph.D. student at USC’s film school who is studying the relationship between international distribution and domestic production in Hollywood, said it all starts outside the borders. “Because of Hollywood’s very intimate relationship with international distributors,” she said, “if the belief exists that black films don’t do well in foreign, then there is no incentive to increase black faces in television and film.”

Aldridge said Perry doesn’t do well internationally, but that his case is unique because he has such an ardent following in the U.S. Washington and Smith, she said, have circumvented the process because “their brand of blackness does very well in the international markets.”

Slideshow: Will Smith Smith is particularly adept at courting foreign money and audiences, she pointed out. “Will and Jim Lassiter (Smith’s producing partner) have been very smart and strategic in identifying which countries are rich for distribution,” she said. “They go to India, to China. They meet the local gatekeepers. Will takes the time to go on talk shows and shake hands and create relationships with foreign markets.

“In essence, he creates his own demand inside those foreign markets for his brand, which is brilliant.”

In the case of Perry, his stories don’t have the appeal overseas that they do in the U.S. But he has created enough of a filmmaking fiefdom that it almost doesn’t matter.

“Tyler Perry is able to do anything he wants,” said Whipp, the film critic. “He set up his own studio. He funds his own projects; Lionsgate just distributes them. He seized the machinery. And in the process he has given a lot of African-American actors some plum roles.”

Yet Perry’s projects represent a relatively small portion of Hollywood’s output. There are many artists like Mark Harris, a Chicago-based independent filmmaker, who are still struggling to break into the mainstream and tap into its revenue flow.

“It doesn’t matter what color a person is,” said the writer-director of “I Used To Love Her” and the upcoming “Black Butterfly.”

“If Hollywood can make money, they’ll put you in a movie.”

‘We have to elevate storytelling’
Harris said that black filmmakers need to do their part by coming up with better movies in order to open more doors. “As black directors, we have to elevate storytelling,” he said. “I don’t want to put the blame on Hollywood. We have to make stories that people can relate to.

Slideshow: Mr. Washington goes to the movies “There are great stories coming out of Japan, other Asian countries, Europe, from white directors in America. Many of them are telling really compelling stories. We have a few (quality black filmmakers), but we don’t have many.”

The success achieved by Washington, Smith and Perry, and to a lesser extent (at the box office) by actresses such as Halle Berry, might create the impression that racism no longer exists in the film and television business. That would be a serious error, suggested Aldridge.

“Let’s look at the primetime commercial networks,” she said. “Can you name a sitcom that has a predominately African-American cast on the major networks? There were more black sitcoms in the ‘70s and ‘80s than now. You can also say the same for cable and premium channels.”

She said although blacks have made many high-profile strides, Hollywood still has a lot of work to do when it comes to keeping doors open.

“Hollywood frequently attributes the box-office ‘failure’ of a black film to its black cast and black narrative, hence ‘Black doesn’t do well in foreign,’ therefore we must limit the number of black projects and label them as ‘high risk’ ventures,” Aldridge said.

“But when films like ‘New in Town’ (with Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr.) or ‘Surrogates’ (starring Bruce Willis) are whopping box-office failures, no one in Hollywood attributes it to its white cast. This is indicative of one of the ways racism operates in Hollywood.”

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Photos: Black women in film

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