A sign of hope in black-and-white Hollywood That African-American Forest Whitaker directs Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. in 'Hope Floats' suggests a growing integration of the movie industry.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At first glance, "Hope Floats" doesn't look like a revolutionary film.

The romantic drama stars Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr., both young, attractive and appealing. Its setting is the all-American town of Smithville, Texas. Its subject matter - a young wife who comes to terms with a philandering husband by returning to her small hometown - doesn't exactly sizzle with controversy. And the film's director, Forest Whitaker, is a proven master of the "chick flick," having shepherded Terry McMillan's best-selling romantic novel "Waiting to Exhale" to the screen and big box-office returns.

Whitaker is also an African-American who has made a film that doesn't feature black stars or black themes. It's a rare occurrence that - along with more diverse films about the black community, more black executives in the studio suites and bigger budgets for films by and about African-Americans - is an important sign of progress that African-Americans are making headway in Hollywood.

In fact, Whitaker said that gender was more of an issue than race for him when he decided to direct "Hope Floats."

"It's more about me being a man directing 'Hope Floats' and how I understand the relationships, the intimacies, the details of the relationship between the mother and daughter," he said recently in a telephone interview. "I get that question in every single interview. ... It's surprising, and a pretty positive statement that I haven't gotten that many [questions about being black]. That means that they're perceiving me as a filmmaker."

Lynda Obst, who produced "Hope Floats" with Bullock, said that race "was never an issue" when they considered a director for the project. "To me, it's sort of an indication of the globalization and profound integration of the industry," she said. "We're all in one market. There isn't a racially segregated black market and white market, not a black voice or a white voice. And Forest somehow speaks for women."

Obst did admit to wondering whether a man could tackle a woman's story. "Then he came in and we met and we felt terrifically naive and stupid for ever wondering."

The list of recent movies like "Hope Floats" - films directed by African-American directors that don't necessarily focus on African-American characters or stories - is a short one. There's Ernest Dickerson's "Tales From the Crypt Presents Demon Knight" (1994). And "The Cemetery Club," about three Jewish women coping with the loss of their husbands, which Bill Duke ("Hoodlum," "A Raisin in the Sun") directed in 1993.

Duke recalled that when he was doing publicity for "The Cemetery Club," being black wasn't an issue for him. "I was asked by many reporters, 'What do you know about three Jewish women?' " he recalled. "And from black people it was, 'Why aren't you directing films about what you know?' And my answer to both questions was that the reason I can direct a film about three Jewish women is that they are three human beings. And to black people [I said], I am directing about something I know, which is my humanity."

Duke sees "Hope Floats" as a great sign of progress. "I think it's very healthy for our industry, in that you are not hired for the job based on your ethnicity but you're hired for the job based on your ability, and that's a very important step. ... I'm glad Forest is moving in that direction, because it's a direction in which we have to go."

Whitaker doesn't see it quite that way.

"The question of crossing over is a

dubious question," he said. "It depends on why you're a filmmaker. I'm telling stories about things that are important to me - the human spirit, rising above, breaking cycles - and those issues are not necessarily race-specific.

"But if I wanted to tell stories about racial issues or the projects, or I want to go into the prison system or even the black bourgeoisie, like 'The Inkwell,' if that's what I want to do, then you should do it. You shouldn't worry about crossing over or anything like that."

Still, for many in Hollywood, hiring black filmmakers to direct race-neutral movies is a crucial ingredient in integrating a still-segregated industry.

Jack Shea, the president of the Directors Guild of America, ZTC concurred with Duke that an African-American directing a race-neutral movie is "very definitely a sign of progress, especially in features. It's been happening in TV more. ... We had a diversity summit here last September, where we brought in the CEOs of major studios and television companies, and we talked about this. One of the issues they raised was that it's easier for networks and television programs to diversify and bring in minorities and give people chances because there wasn't as much money involved in one particular episode as there is in a feature film."

Just as it's incumbent upon the film industry to think outside the box where race is concerned, it's important that filmmakers open themselves up to working with all kinds of material, Shea added. "Over the years I've had the opportunity to help young directors along in their careers, and I've encouraged African-American directors to really get out of the ghetto and make a huge attempt to get on Caucasian-type shows - otherwise they'll be kept in [one] kind of show. And a lot of them have been able to move freely around."

Obst recalled a particularly gratifying, and symbolic, episode when she and Whitaker scouted Smithville for film locations. "As we walked by the railroad tracks where all the black restaurants were, people started coming out and noticing Forest was there. Then they noticed that he was leading a cadre of 30 white people. It was an African-American director leading a white crew - that we eventually integrated.

"And they realized that it was 42 steps beyond what they expected."

Pub date: 5/31/98

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