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Laughs That Track Across the Color Line

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page N03

If standup comedy has gone from crossover country to a sadly Balkanized federation of demographic niches, a funny -- and encouraging -- thing is happening with comedy at the movies.

When I started writing movie reviews 10 years ago, I noticed something strange at the multiplex. Although African Americans routinely flocked to the most execrable movies by, about and starring white people, it was impossible to get white viewers to see wonderful movies by, about and starring black people. But, over the past few years at least, it looks like that is finally changing, as movies that once would have been marketed only to blacks have found purchase beyond their presumptive audience.

With "Hitch," Will Smith again proved his crossover appeal. (Barry Wetcher -- Columbia Pictures)

It was "Waiting to Exhale" that first clued me in. The romantic comedy, starring Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon and Loretta Devine, was a chick flick of the first order, not brain food exactly, but a delicious little confection featuring some of Hollywood's most watchable actors and actresses. With its soapy romance, attractive cast and locales and happy endings, it easily could have appealed to fans of "While You Were Sleeping," the Sandra Bullock rom-com that also opened that year. And yet, "Sleeping" grossed more than $80 million, while "Waiting to Exhale" earned just more than $65 million -- a figure that surely would have rivaled "While You Were Sleeping" had white women seen "Exhale" as "their" movie.

Jump-cut to this year, when the following titles were among the top movies in the nation: "Hitch," "The Pacifier," "Are We There Yet?" and "Guess Who." All of them are comedies, starring either African Americans or, in the case of Vin Diesel, an actor of ambiguous ethnic identity. It just might be that, however segregated live comedy has become, at the movies we're at least getting together and laughing together.

It hasn't always been thus.

For every hit starring Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy -- black comedians whose work was firmly rooted in the black experience even as it transcended race -- there have been movies such as "Soul Food," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and "Love and Basketball." Good romantic comedies all, and none with the diverse audience it deserved.

Action movies and thrillers have long been doing well with stars such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson. But comedies starring black actors and, most important, set in the black community have been relatively ghettoized until a few years ago, when two movies broke out to become big crossover hits.

"Barbershop," starring Ice Cube and an ensemble of widely respected black actors, and "Drumline," a terrific first-time movie about marching bands in historically black colleges, both garnered integrated audiences that, according to their studios, were 40 percent "non-black." Compared with the reported 10 percent non-black audience for "Exhale," that's progress.

And, in a year when Jamie Foxx took home the Oscar for Best Actor, when the Oscars featured a record number of black nominees and when actors such as Will Smith, Ice Cube and Bernie Mac are packing 'em in, it looks like not just progress but a sea change may be afoot.

"There's definitely a renaissance going on," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box office tracking firm in Los Angeles. "But films like 'Are We There Yet?' and 'Hitch' are universal in their appeal and themes, and that's why they've done so well.

"They have the same constraints as any other movie," Dergarabedian continues. "They have to be well-marketed, they have to have some kind of buzz, they have to be movies that are good. . . . I think we're living in a meritocracy more than ever in terms of the work and how audiences respond to these films."

His point is backed up by the fact that the so-so "Beauty Shop," starring Queen Latifah, hasn't done nearly as well as its funnier "Barbershop" predecessors. And "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" seems to have become the year's biggest sleeper hit, mainly on the strength of its appeal to black audiences familiar with the plays on which it is based.

Still, Dergarabedian agrees that something of a perfect storm of marketing, buzz and quality is brewing.

"It may be that all these different factors have come together and have hit right here and right now," he says. "And it's been made obvious with all these No. 1 films starring African American actors. Seemingly the sky's the limit as far as the appeal of these actors; there are no boundaries now."

It looks like studios may finally be getting the message that it's time to get their marketing up to speed with a pop culture steeped in hip-hop and Tiger Woods. With luck, comedy represents merely the first, and maybe the easiest, frontier of a larger, and longer-term, crossover revolution.

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