A couple of years ago, the NAACP threatened a boycott of Hollywood to protest the lack of minorities in the motion picture industry, and the way they are portrayed when used on the screen. The action was headed off through an agreement worked out between several motion picture companies and the NAACP, but the question remained: What if the agreement failed?
Several studios made commitments to initiate and expand opportunities for minorities in the areas of employment and business development. So let's take a look and see how the agreement is going so far. All moviegoers have to do is check out the local marquees (but don't stop there) to see that some interesting changes are under way.
Let's start with "Beverly Hills Cop," in which Eddie Murphy plays a detective from Detroit who sets out to avenge the death of a friend killed by hit men from Beverly Hills. For the first time in his movie career, Murphy has a solo starring role and, to his credit, remains the kind of comedian that we can laugh with, and not a buffoon to be laughed at.
However, it seems that the time has come for Murphy to assume more of the affirmative-action burden. His lucrative contract with Paramount Pictures has enabled him to start his own production company. But beyond his own role, "Beverly Hills Cop" had only three or four blacks -- mostly in lackey roles. With Murphy's power and prestige, he should not settle for any less than the NAACP does.
Moving right along, how about "Brother From Another Planet?" Now here is one weird movie. Although I liked most of it, I had problems -- not with the portrayal of blacks, but with the way some whites were depicted. On the upside, we do get a brilliant performance by Joe Morton, the ex-soap opera star, who plays the part of a deaf escapee from an outer space slave colony.
But I found it hard to laugh at the slave masters who came to Earth looking for him. Supposedly there is this trend in the movies to give even the bad guys some redeeming qualities. But likable slave masters? Give me a break. Nevertheless, we get to see black people being themselves in this movie, with fewer stereotypes and racially insulting portrayals than usual.
Now, let's get heavy with "A Soldier's Story." This is my favorite, not just because it shows Hollywood taking a bold step in the production of a "predominately black" movie, but because it's so well done.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning, "A Soldier's Play," by Charles Fuller, this movie stars Howard Rollins Jr. as a young black military attorney who is called in to solve the murder of a black sergeant at an army base in a small Louisiana town. The film explores not only white racism but black racism and does so in such a thought-provoking and entertaining manner that I regard it as the best film of the year.
To his credit, Prince's production of the hit movie "Purple Rain" outshines most others in the employment and portrayal of black actors and actresses.
Last is the newly released "Cotton Club," about that famous Harlem night spot of the late '20s and early '30s. Unfortunately, it's not about black folk, but about white mobsters. While it stars Richard Gere, of "An Officer and a Gentleman," fame, it prominently features Gregory Hines and a host of "hoofers," who tap dance their way into the hearts of the audience. But what we end up with is a group of black dancers and singers acting as a backdrop to whites who do the real acting.
But "Roots," the television series, showed us that there is a wealth of black acting talent. There are still too few blacks working behind the cameras and on the scripts themselves. By some measurements, the meager crop of black faces now showing up on the screen is just another example of Hollywood creating a facade. Beginning this Sunday, Courtland Milloy's column will appear in the Metro Section each Sunday. His columns will continue in the District Weekly.