As we gear up for the 2013 Academy Awards, airing Feb. 24, The Root is speaking with black Oscar winners and nominees — past and present — about the prestigious honor.
(The Root) — There's a chance that Django Unchained producer Reginald Hudlin could make Oscar history. His controversial Quentin Tarantino film, which premiered last Christmas, garnered five Academy Award nominations, including best picture, a nod that Hudlin shares with its two other producers. Even though Hudlin, 51, is the fourth African-American producer to be up for a best picture statuette, a win could make him the first to actually snag it.
This honor may be the Centreville, Ill., native's first by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but he's been a player for more than 20 years. In 1990, a few years after graduating from Harvard University, Hudlin teamed with his older brother, Warrington, who served as a producer, for his feature film directorial debut with the hit House Party, starring Kid 'n Play. Two years later, he followed up with another hit, Boomerang, starring Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry and Robin Givens. The movie's soundtrack launched singer Toni Braxton's career.
Since then, Hudlin's added an array of projects to his repertoire including directing episodes of hit TV shows such as The Office and Modern Family, as well as writing and producing for the Marvel Comics series Black Panther and its animated series. He also did a three-year stint as BET Networks president of entertainment and executive-produced this year's NAACP Image Awards. And Hudlin's not done yet. "I just took my coat off. I still have a lot of work to do," he jokes.
The Root caught up a busy Hudlin, who talked about Django Unchained's feedback, African Americans' depiction in the media and the criticism BET receives.
The Root: How has your life changed professionally since you were announced as an Oscar nominee?
Reginald Hudlin: Things are lot more intense. There's certainly a lot of excitement. There's a lot of opportunity. I think what's encouraging is that people look at me and my interests in a broader way. When you're fortunate to have early success, you kind of get typed in a certain way. So with the success of House Party and Boomerang, it's like, "Oh, he's a funny guy. He makes really classy funny movies." But obviously in the 20 years since then, I've done a lot things. I think Django has made people look at the whole body of work that I've done. People have taken a reassessment of who I am, saying, "Yes, we've been looking at you one way but now we have to reconsider you in a broader way." And that's great.
TR: Were you surprised by some of the feedback Django Unchained received?
RH: Well, you know, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive … People have seen it multiple times. Afeni Shakur — Tupac Shakur's mother — has seen it four times. Dick Gregory has seen it, I don't know, 16 times. [Laughs.] I get these emails that are so touching. This woman wrote me [saying] she had to get out of her seat and go into the lobby; she was crying because all her life she was taught that black men don't support their [black] women. And when she saw the film she just realized she had been told a lie, and she just had to compose herself and go back in and watch the rest of the film.
The tragedy is that there are a million movies about men going to save their women, going to save their wife. But I can't think of the past 10, maybe 20 years, where there's a story of a black man who's going in to help save his woman.
TR: For the number of people who really enjoyed this movie, there's a sizable group who did not — with many of the detractors citing the use of the n-word as reason. Does this surprise you?
RH: The fact is that the movie is very honest about the horrors of slavery, and the linguistic violence is the least of what's shocking and hurtful and provocative in this film. So when people latch on to that, I just presume that they haven't seen the movie, which means they don't know what they're talking about. And I can't be concerned with people who talk and don't know what they're talking about, because if you're talking about something that you don't know, then you're embarrassing yourself.
I feel that the film does a service to people because it recouples the word with its original intent, which was to belittle and demean black humanity. One of the reasons there's so much debate over the use of the word [in the film] is because there's so much debate over the word, period. And obviously there's a long legacy of hurt with the word. There's also a large movement of people who are about transforming or defanging the word. In the past generation, kind of from Richard Pryor up through hip-hop, [there's been debate between those who embrace its usage and those who oppose it], and both sides feel pretty strongly about their attitudes about it. And Django is yet another field of skirmish on a very longstanding battle within the black community over the use of a term.
TR: Louis Gossett Jr. told The Root that he lived in a time when the n-word was used for malice, and that the word still bothers him.
RH: It should disturb you. You should not feel comfortable — that was never the intent. It's a horrible word, and there's a horrible spirit behind it. That's very much the intent when you have a character like Calvin Candie played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who's very handsome, very charming, and at the same time you see the evil that that character's capable of. That's the lesson for all of us, because that's the world we live in.
TR: Some people feel Django Unchained was able to be made because a white man, Tarantino, told the story. Do you think a black man could have done a movie like this where the victimhood is taken out of slavery?
RH: Sure they could have. Look at the movie The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) with Fred Williamson. That's a movie I saw when I was kid, and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson is not a victim. He whooped ass all through that film. It's not a film on the same scale of Django Unchained, but he wanted to get it made, and he got it made. And it was successful enough to be made into a sequel — The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) — which they even had a quasi-sequel to that, Boss Nigger (1975). I have to note, if you may have noticed all three of those films have the word "nigger" in the title, yet somehow black people — who are really the only people who went to see those films — supported them enough for there to be three of them.
I guess some people would say we are more sensitive [today]; some people would say we're soft. I don't know. I think the point is that we are at a different place as a culture than where we were back then.
TR: How did your first film, House Party, contribute to the black cinematic landscape?
RH: It's a very important film because it was a genre film. That kind of teen comedy is a stable in Hollywood. And I grew up watching them myself, watching Animal House and watching American Graffiti, Risky Business and the John Hughes movies — The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Those movies had a huge impact on me growing up. And I didn't understand why we didn't have movies like that about our lives.
So when [House Party] came out, and it cost $2.5 million and it made $27 million at the box office — it made 10 times its money back. It was one of the most profitable independent films of that decade. It really sent a signal to Hollywood that wait a minute, these movies are just movies. We can make genre films from a black perspective, and audiences — black, white and otherwise — will embrace them. It was a very important milestone in contemporary black cinema.
TR: Despite your former employer BET's efforts to expand its programming beyond its BET: Uncut days, there are those who are holding a grudge against the network. Is this fair?
RH: I think there's a lot of frustration that black people have with their entertainment choices, period — not just BET, but at everything that's been made available to us in movies and in television. And that's an interesting contradiction. We have more black entertainment product available than ever before — more movies, more TV shows, more all of this stuff — yet people are not happy with what they are getting.
I think that speaks to a couple of different issues: One, we as an audience are more diverse than ever before, and you're not going to get the consensus that you used to be able to get in terms of what black people want other than everything. And I think there's also a challenge where there's still too much formulaic product out that feels like it's more pandering to an audience as opposed to being — and this may sound like a contradiction — both crowd-pleasing and artistically ambitious.
TR: One of the primary complaints against reality shows such as All My Babies' Mamas — which Oxygen scrapped after people petitioned it — is about the limited and unfavorable depictions of African Americans.
RH: For white audiences, they can watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Swamp People because they also have all of these doctor shows and lawyer shows that show what people presume is normal white households. Now, I don't know what is a normal white household. Maybe it's more like Honey Boo Boo than Modern Family. But there's a presumption from a media perspective that Honey Boo Boo is an outlier, but the presumption is the most extreme black behavior featured in reality shows is a normal, because we are not as well represented in scripted programming.
That's one of the reasons why people like a show like Scandal. First of all, it's a great show. Shonda Rhimes is great, Kerry Washington is great, the cast and ensemble are great. And those characters aren't perfect, but they're fascinating and wonderful, and we're completely engaged. And that's the example of "Hey, we want to have choices and options. And done at a certain quality level." And Scandal certainly does.
Previously in the Black Academy Awards Series:
'Malcolm X' Costume Designer Recalls Start
Lee Daniels Thanks God for Spike Lee
Oscar Champ Sounds Off on Image Awards
'Dreamgirls' Songwriter Talks Oscars, MJ
Louis Gossett Jr. on Post-Oscar Heartbreak