Hollywood’s Black Movers and Shakers

Very few folks have the power to green-light a picture in Hollywood. None of them are black. But these power players are finding a way to make films on their own terms.

Tracey Edmonds (Getty Images Entertainment)
Tracey Edmonds (Getty Images Entertainment)

Blacks and film have been in the news quite a bit as of late. You’ve got the feud between Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, and the romantic comedy Jumping the Broom not only beating out mainstream romantic comedies but also coming in third behind monster hits Thor and Fast Five during opening weekend. One might wonder how a rom-com could become controversial, but Jumping the Broom did just that when CBS’s The Early Show left the “movie that could” out of its summer preview of movies about weddings.

Thor courted its share of controversy, with the filmmakers and Idris Elba — who was cast as Heimdall, a Norse god — being pummeled by right-wing zealots for “cross-casting.” And the complexity of being black and Muslim was examined, finally, in Sultan Sharrief’s Bilal’s Stand and Qasim Basir’s Mooz-lum.

Can we say that Ava DuVernay is “winning,” in our best Charlie Sheen voice, by using black film festivals to distribute her film I Will Follow? And did we mention that black and brown films took over Sundance this year, showcasing gems like Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Gun Hill Road, Dee Rees’ Pariah and Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda, which explores Christianity and Islam against the backdrop of 1994 Rwanda? Sundance 2011 had no fewer than 30 black filmmakers and films, prompting journalist Julie Walker to wonder aloud, “Is Sundance Becoming Blackdance?”

Can You Be Black and Green-Light a Film?

By hook or by crook, black films are getting made, mostly outside the Hollywood film industry. It is pretty much common knowledge that it is nearly impossible for anyone to green-light a film in Hollywood except for a handful of folks. Can you say “Brian Grazer”?

Being able to green-light a film means that one has the ability to concretely say, “This movie will be made.” For all the folks thinking “Tyler Perry” right now, the fact remains that even he, with all of his power, isn’t able to green-light a film at Lionsgate. Yes, he has a lot of control over his material, but ultimately it is an executive that gives the film the go-ahead.

If you’re confused, you should be. Green-lighting a film is a complicated process. What’s even more complicated is that there are no black folks in Hollywood who can green-light a film, except possibly Broderick Johnson, who is a partner in Alcon Entertainment. Johnson recently extended his production deal with Warner Bros.

You may not have heard of Johnson, but his films include the Academy Award-winning The Blind Side and, most recently, Something Borrowed. The moviegoing public often thinks that those who get the most mainstream press are the playmakers in Hollywood, when in fact, there are those, like Johnson, who go about the business of moving films forward with little to no fanfare outside of Hollywood.

Meet a Black Hollywood Heavy Hitter

Despite the uphill battle to get films made in Hollywood, black folks continue to face the challenge head on, choosing different paths and ultimately getting film projects to where they need to be so that they can make it to the big screen. We like to call the people who navigate the complicated and precarious Hollywood system to making-it-happen land “heavy hitters.”