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Tipping point for minorities in movies?

Oscar wins for Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman, and the  nominations of others, may signal a  tipping point for popular culture — that moment when the still comparatively marginal status of minorities in motion pictures changed forever.
2005 was a watershed year for minority actors and moviegoers, highlighted by Oscar wins by Jamie Foxx, above, (best actor), Morgan Freeman (best supporting actor), and the nominations of several other actors and films portraying minority themes. Mark J. Terrill / AP
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Malcolm Gladwell's 2002 best-selling book “The Tipping Point” advanced the notion that small, seemingly incidental factors can make the difference between an idea withering in the face of public indifference and exploding into a wildfire of acceptance, embraced by the public as “the next big thing.”

Oscar victories for Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman on Sunday night, and the numerous nominations for other stars that night, may well be the long-contemplated, dreamed-about tipping point for popular culture — that moment when the still comparatively marginal status of minorities in motion pictures changed forever.

Sunday's triumphant night for African American actors and their legions of fans has been anticipated for weeks. The nominations of four black actors and five films devoted to African American characters or themes made Oscars 2005 something of a watershed for black moviegoers before the first statuettes were even handed out.

But evidence is there that, in unprecedented numbers, the interests and passions of minorities across the board — not just African Americans — are taking their place in the pantheon of the most popular art form in the world.

There’s the rollicking swagger of Jamie Foxx's star turn in “Ray”; Don Cheadle's poignant, affecting portrayal in “Hotel Rwanda”; the stirring breakthrough of Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Maria Full of Grace”; and contributions from “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

There’s Darrell Roodt’s “Yesterday,” a study of survival and hope amidst the AIDS epidemic, and South Africa’s first Academy-nominated film (nominated for best foreign language film); “Mighty Times: The Children's March,” a study of youth activists battling segregation in 1963 (which won for short subject documentary); and “Al Otra Lado del Rio” (from “Diaries”), the first Spanish-language song to win an Oscar.

Other tipping points?
There have been other signs of such progress — earlier tipping points — over the past few years:

  • In March 2002 Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won the Oscars for best actor and best actress, respectively, and Sidney Poitier received a special honorary Oscar for “remarkable accomplishments.” It was a dramatic advance for black stars in Hollywood, and a new ratification of acceptance of African Americans' place in movie history.
  • That same year Arenas Entertainment, an independent film production company focused on Latino moviegoers, began a distribution and marketing partnership with Universal Pictures, the better to gain a piece of U.S. Latino purchasing power, estimated by Hispanic Business magazine at $500 billion a year.
  • The weekend of Aug. 6, 2004, “Collateral,” starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx (in his second Oscar-nominated role) opened at No. 1 in box office receipts, followed by Denzel Washington's “The Manchurian Candidate” (No. 4), Will Smith's “I, Robot” (No. 6) and Halle Berry's “Catwoman” (No. 9). “Shrek 2,” with the vocal talents of Eddie Murphy, was at No. 18, and “King Arthur,” the medieval action film directed by African American Antoine Fuqua, was at No. 20 that weekend, a week when, for the first time, films directed by or starring African Americans in prominent roles were six of the top 20 movies Americans went to see — four of the top 10.
  • Despite merciless drubbing by the critics, the new Ice Cube road comedy “Are We There Yet?” has notched more than $76.4 million in receipts, according to data from Exhibitor Relations Co. The film remains in the top 10 more than six weeks after its release.
  • And on Sunday, the comedy “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” made a surprising No. 1 box-office debut, raking in $22 million in ticket sales while still in limited release — and pushing out of the top position the Will Smith film “Hitch,” which had occupied the No. 1 spot for about three weeks before that.

For Paul Dergarabedian, whose Exhibitor Relations company monitors domestic movie box-office sales, what matters is what’s on the screen — product that increasingly reflects more of America and the world.

“The hope is that the awards would become colorblind anyway, that it’s about the work,” he said on Oscar night from Los Angeles. “But there’s a lot going on with African American actors and actresses. There's no denying that the level of talent that's out there is deserving of box-office success, and also of critical success at the awards.

Meritocracy’ of the movies
“A movie has to be entertaining to make money,” he said. “People don't go just to make a statement. Opening weekends, yes, maybe people go for different reasons. But for a film to stay in the marketplace like ‘Hitch’ or ‘Are We There Yet?,’ it comes down to a meritocracy. They won’t be sustained in the marketplace just because they’re there. That doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the box office.”

“For a movie to hang in there for more than one week is a function of people responding to it. Films nominated for Oscars have to have a certain power and strength to them. Otherwise it would bring the whole process down if it had nothing to do with the quality of the work.

“It’s not about the popularity of these movies — this is the first time in years there hasn't been a $100 million film in the bunch — but they all deserve a chance to be in that rarefied air,” he said.

Equal opportunity diversity
For Dergarabedian, the shift in American cinema transcends race, going on to embrace gender and topical distinctions as well.

“You can apply this to other trends, like female action figures,” he said. “Twenty years ago, a female action hero couldn't get arrested. Now you have females in powerful roles kicking butt, and those films do well. A few years ago they were strictly roles for males; now the females take care of things on their own.

“There’s been a tipping point on a lot of things, not only race but also subject matter,” Dergarabedian said. “Consider ‘The Passion of the Christ’ on religion, or ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ on politics. There are so many ways the culture is evolving and becoming accepting of different voices, different angles. There is more diversity in terms of actors, actresses and the creative side of things. And that's a good thing.”