Black Hollywood embraces election year

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The buzz that has emanated from the entertainment industry since the presidential campaign shifted into high gear tells us that the African-American community in Hollywood has never been quite so excited, involved and galvanized politically as it is this election year, and that the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama has proven a massive rallying point for a group that often has felt disenfranchised and taken for granted.

The fact that Obama has ridden a wave of momentum leading up to and following Super Tuesday to pull even with Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination -- making him
easily the strongest candidate of color in American history -- has inspired actors and producers to write checks, hold fundraisers and embrace the process with a rare passion and vigor.

With the 39th annual NAACP Image Awards unfolding tonight at the Shrine Auditorium, the political animal that has been reawakened in black Hollywood will be on full display. It is, after all, difficult to imagine a greater embodiment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ideal than Obama, who acknowledges that he is the beneficiary of decades of civil rights and equal rights struggles, the product of a righteous battle that began with men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

But please don't tell Mara Brock Akil, creator and executive producer of the CW comedies "Girlfriends" and "The Game," that her Hollywood community's activism (politically and otherwise) has lain somehow dormant until now.

"You see our political activity more now because of the campaign, but the truth is that we've been at the forefront of political activism forever," Brock Akil insists. "I think the writers strike, too, has served as a bonding point, not only for the black community but all of the artists in Hollywood. But it's part of our history as black people to have fought a beautiful, bittersweet struggle for respect, for fair compensation for our work, and for issues of diversity. We've made great strides, but it hasn't come without major sacrifice."

Ruby Dee certainly can attest to sacrifice. Now 83, the acting legend last month proved a hugely popular winner when she took home a SAG Award for her performance as gangster Frank Lucas' (Denzel Washington) mother in "American Gangster." She also is nominated for a supporting actress Academy Award and Image Award for the same role.

"It's amazing to think about the progress that we as black performers have made toward being on equal footing in this town," Dee says. "Hollywood is really just a microcosm of the world, and in that sense we have moved forward in similar ways to the larger social culture. Racism still exists, of course, but when I first arrived here, it was something else again."

Indeed, Dee clearly recalls what it was like when she first set foot in Hollywood in 1948 prior to being cast in the 1950 feature "No Way Out," which co-starred Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier. Dee had a comparatively small role.

"It was all-white territory in makeup, in wardrobe, in casting," she remembers. "There were no black people at all on the crew. Not one. I was it. (At that time, we people of color) had to buy our own clothes for the movies -- imagine that -- and weren't allowed to stay in the regular hotels. We'd have to arrange to have families put us up in their houses. This was in Los Angeles! We had to fight the fight for fairness and justice right here just like they did all across the country. We all banded together to gain our own civil rights and human rights. The unions did a lot to make that happen for the black performers in Hollywood, and people like Lena Horne were so active in making that happen. But that's partly why I'm so supportive of the WGA in their battle."

The overlapping of the guild strike, which was close to a settlement deal at press time, with such an energizing political year has ratcheted up activist awareness within the industry's African-American community. This year's Image Awards theme, "Stand Up and Be Counted," pretty much says it all, and Brock Akil stresses that it's not possible to separate the passions surrounding the strike from what's happening on the campaign trail.

"We're fighting for our writers as much as we have pushed for diversity," Brock Akil says. "It's been tough for such a long time to get minority writers hired, and we see a parallel between our own political struggles and making sure we're fairly represented and taken care of in our guild. That doesn't happen automatically. You have to be active and aware and constantly fighting."

What has naturally emerged as a point of immense pride among African-American showbiz elite is the dynamic presence of presidential hopeful Obama, a black man with a legitimate chance of winning the highest office in the land. The Hollywood community's loving embrace of Obama is, ironically, best represented by a woman based in Chicago: Oprah Winfrey, who has spent much of the past year singing the praises of the Illinois senator, stumping for him on the road and otherwise giving him a massive injection of star power that most agree did much to stoke his campaign's early momentum.

Winfrey is hardly alone. Obama's celebrity donors and supporters among the industry's black royalty include Tyra Banks, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Cedric the Entertainer, Dennis Haysbert (who portrayed a fictitious black president on Fox's "24" and now is pushing to realize the dreams of an actual one), Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Michael Jordan, Branford Marsalis, Eddie Murphy, Sidney Poitier, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, Forest Whitaker and

Stevie Wonder. Obama also is finding his campaign bolstered by an army of Caucasian supporters, whose ranks include Jennifer Aniston, Zach Braff, John Cleese, George Clooney, Harry Connick Jr., Cindy Crawford, David Geffen, Scarlett Johansson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Rob

Morrow, Leonard Nimoy, Edward Norton and Brooke Shields.

"For me, since all three of my kids are biracial, they see for the first time in Obama someone who literally embodies both races and who can bring together this country and hopefully improve our place on the world stage," exults producer Stephanie Allain, whose projects have included last year's "Black Snake Moan" and 2005's "Hustle & Flow" and who has worked on the Obama campaign.

But at the same time, Allain is nearly equally excited by the candidacy for the Democratic nomination of Clinton. "I think if you're a woman and of color, this year holds even more significance as we are fully represented no matter who gets the nomination," she adds.

That Allain professes she would be almost equally pleased were Clinton to land the nomination points to the fact that the black community here is, perhaps refreshingly, nobody's racial rubber stamp. While Obama obviously has significant (and no doubt majority) support within this group, there is a contingent that has been particularly vocal in their backing of Clinton. As Brock Akil observes, "There is somehow this assumption that we think monolithically or vote for someone simply because they're black. We vote diversely. Some of us are Republicans. We have minds and free will that are not tied into a candidate's race or gender."

Many of Clinton's African-American supporters in Hollywood are among the older guard, including former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson and Quincy Jones (as well as white supporters such as Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Haim Saban, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand).

"I support Hillary Clinton," notes Anne-Marie Johnson, an African-American and senior adviser to the president of SAG. "What I'm seeing, I think, is that the majority of folks in the African-American community support Barack -- I think at least in part -- because there is this pressure and false assumption that as black people we have to. Too often, people think with their hearts instead of their political brains. For a lot of people, I think, it's chic to endorse Obama. It isn't necessarily the right thing to do morally, but, to them, it's their ancestral obligation. It's disappointing."

That said, Johnson is heartened by the greater involvement by the African-American community in the political process during this campaign. "That also goes for the SAG contract campaign," she believes. "People are really making the effort this time, far more than I've ever seen."

Tichina Arnold, who stars in the CW comedy series "Everybody Hates Chris" and is nominated for an Image Award for lead comedy actress, agrees with Johnson that "some people don't understand the political process and vote for a candidate solely because of the color of his skin -- or a man's indiscretions." But she isn't one of them.

"I'm a big Obama supporter," Arnold admits. "But to tell you the truth, if Al Sharpton were running, he's the one I'd vote for. I like the solutions that come out of his mouth. I'm really impressed by him. But since he's not in, I like Barack a lot. It's not because he's black but because of his intelligence. But I'll tell you what, a lot of black men supported Bill Clinton because he cheated, and a lot of them can relate to him because they cheat, too. You don't want to think that's why people vote for someone, but it happens."

It also happens, however, that African-American voters in Hollywood don't always succumb to any perceived racial peer pressure. For instance, Hosea Chanchez -- who co-stars in "The Game" -- is a black man who is endorsing Clinton for president rather than Obama.

"I'm not one for jumping on any bandwagon," Chanchez maintains, "especially where it surrounds race and my country and the freedoms that Martin Luther King fought so hard to gain for African-Americans. We have the freedom of choice, which doesn't necessarily mean doing the popular thing or chaining yourself to a political candidate because he's black or mixed race. To my mind, it's awesome to have an African-American man considered. But he's still a man. The bigger change (is having) a woman (as a contender). I have my reasons for not voting for Barack. It's not about race but who can best fix the mess that this country's in."

When Vicangelo Bulluck hears that actors are making reasoned choices rather than bandwagon-hopping, he feels proud of the town's African-American community. As executive director of the NAACP's Hollywood Bureau, Bulluck will explain to anyone who listens that there's no monolithic support for Obama simply because of his race.

"There's been a lot more attention paid to political issues by the African-American community this year," Bulluck acknowledges, "but I think that's due in part to the fact this is such a critical juncture in the history of our country. I mean, everybody's proud of Barack. He's obviously very intelligent and a great orator, and we take great pride in calling him one of our sons. But we also feel excited about Hillary.

"The NAACP always has been a multicultural organization, standing by the principles of judging people based on the content of their character and not the

color of their skin," Bulluck continues. "It's refreshing to see that in a presidential race for the first time in American history, we feel like it's the fulfillment of a lot of sacrifice and hard work made by this generation. We respect both Barack and Hillary, and it's great that there (was) a Mormon running, too, in Mitt Romney. We believe politics should be solely about a candidate's approach to the issues and ability to problem solve."

This story would be incomplete without addressing one area of the African-American community in Hollywood that remains something of a political powderkeg: rap music. There continues to be a certain discomfort in white America as surrounds rappers and the perception of thuggery, lawlessness and hostility. This nearly backfired on Obama when he met with the rapper Ludacris in November 2006 as he was still contemplating a presidential run. It didn't matter that the occasion was the launch of a YouthAIDS campaign in Chicago.

Chaka Zulu, co-CEO of the rap label Disturbing tha Peace Records and who manages Ludacris (among many other artists), contends that anyone who thought negatively of Obama for having the meeting -- which was more about charity than politics -- remains trapped in "the old mentality" of what rap once represented.

"Rap is far more progressive and dynamic now," Zulu says. "Anyone who would think badly of Barack for that meeting is just engaging in the nastiness of politics. Rap is now connected to actual concerns of the black community, and Obama was showing his progressive understanding and acknowledgment of that. The man is a leader, and I applaud him. I think everyone in Hollywood should. He's kept his focus in the middle of a huge amount of pressure. He's gotten past race. That's a great thing for this country."   

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