Writing for THR's current issue, the 'Top Five' writer, director and star tackles Hollywood's third rail as he explains what it's really like to be black in the entertainment industry (hint: you get asked to be Huggy Bear, not Starsky or Hutch) and the "slave state" of Mexicans: "If Kevin Hart is playing 40,000 seats a night, and Jon Stewart is playing 3,000 ... why does Kevin Hart have to cross over?"
I was probably 19 when I first came to Hollywood. Eddie Murphy brought me out to do Beverly Hills Cop II and he had a deal at Paramount, so I remember going through the gates of the Paramount lot. He's in a Rolls-Royce, and he's not just a star, he's the biggest star in the world. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer's office was in the same building as Eddie's office, and they would come to work every day with matching cars. Some days it would be the Porsches, and the next day it would be Ferraris. I was like the kid in A Bronx Tale. I got to just hang around when the biggest parts of show business were happening. I was only there a couple of weeks, but I remember every day Jeffrey Katzenberg would call Eddie Murphy — I don't even know if Eddie was calling him back — but it was like, "Jeffrey Katzenberg called again." "Janet Jackson just called." "Michael Jackson called." It was that crazy. I've still never seen anything like it. I had a small part in the movie, but my dream was bigger than that. I wanted to have a convertible Rolls-Royce with a fine girl driving down Melrose blasting Prince.
Now I'm not Murphy, but I've done fine. And I try to help young black guys coming up because those people took chances on me. Eddie didn't have to put me in Beverly Hills Cop II. Keenen Wayans didn't have to put me in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. Arsenio didn't have to let me on his show. I'd do the same for a young white guy, but here's the difference: Someone's going to help the white guy. Multiple people will. The people whom I've tried to help, I'm not sure anybody was going to help them.
And I have a decent batting average. I still remember people thinking I was crazy for hiring Wanda Sykes on my old HBO show. I recommended J.B. Smoove for Saturday Night Live, and I just helped Leslie Jones get on that show. She's about as funny as a human being can be, but she didn't go to Second City, she doesn't do stand-up at The Cellar and she's not in with Judd Apatow, so how the hell was she ever going to get through unless somebody like me says to Lorne Michaels, "Hey, look at this person"? I saw her at a comedy club four or five years ago, and I wrote her name down in my phone. I probably called four managers — the biggest managers in comedy — to manage her, and all of them said no. They didn't get it. They didn't get it until Lorne said yes a few years later, and then it was too late.
Some of these younger black guys just want me to see their act. Some come to me for advice. Hannibal Buress called the other day. They want to know about agents and managers and the business; this kind of deal and that kind of deal; dealing with the media and dealing with family; money crap and where they should live. It's big brother shit, and they ask because there aren't that many black people to turn to. Who do you hire? Where's the big black PR agency? Where are the big black agents? Where's the big black film producer? That's why I've been all over Steve McQueen. I put a microchip in Steve's pocket and track him like an Uber driver. Steve thinks we keep bumping into each other by accident. "Hey, Steve, my man!" I don't care if I have to play a whip, I'm going to be in a Steve McQueen movie. But I digress.
It's a white industry. Just as the NBA is a black industry. I'm not even saying it's a bad thing. It just is. And the black people they do hire tend to be the same person. That person tends to be female and that person tends to be Ivy League. And there's nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, that's what I want for my daughters. But something tells me that the life my privileged daughters are leading right now might not make them the best candidates to run the black division of anything. And the person who runs the black division of a studio should probably have worked with black people at some point in their life. Clint Culpepper [a white studio chief who specializes in black movies] does a good job at Screen Gems because he's the kind of guy who would actually go see Best Man Holiday. But how many black men have you met working in Hollywood? They don't really hire black men. A black man with bass in his voice and maybe a little hint of facial hair? Not going to happen. It is what it is. I'm a guy who's accepted it all.
We cut it out in Top Five, but there had been a scene where Kevin Hart, who plays my character's agent, is in his office talking to me, and he finds out that "Zoolander" (Ben Stiller) is down the hall and he's mad because none of the agents called him. He's the only black agent at the agency, and there was a line in the movie like, "I'm the only black agent here. They never invite me to anything, and these people are liberals. This isn't the Klan."
But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You're in L.A, you've got to try not to hire Mexicans. It's the most liberal town in the world, and there's a part of it that's kind of racist — not racist like "F— you, nigger" racist, but just an acceptance that there's a slave state in L.A. There's this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn't exist anywhere else. I remember I was renting a house in Beverly Park while doing some movie, and you just see all of the Mexican people at 8 o'clock in the morning in a line driving into Beverly Park like it's General Motors. It's this weird town.
You're telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that's true? The odds are, because people are people, that there's probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody's company right now. The odds are that there's probably a Mexican who's that smart who's never going to be given a shot. And it's not about being given a shot to greenlight a movie because nobody is going to give you that — you've got to take that. The shot is that a Mexican guy or a black guy is qualified to go and give his opinion about how loud the boings are in Dodgeball or whether it's the right shit sound you hear when Jeff Daniels is on the toilet in Dumb and Dumber. It's like, "We only let white people do that." This is a system where only white people can chime in on that. There would be a little naivete to sitting around and going, "Oh, no black person has ever greenlighted a movie," but those other jobs? You're kidding me, right? They don't even require education. When you're on the lower levels, they're just about taste, nothing else. And you don't have to go to Harvard to have taste.
Fifteen years ago, I tried to create an equivalent to The Harvard Lampoon at Howard University, to give young black comedy writers the same opportunity that white comedy writers have. I wish we could've made it work. The reason it worked at Harvard and not at Howard is that the kids at Howard need money. It's that simple. Kids at Harvard come from money — even the broke ones come from money. They can afford to work at a newspaper and make no money. The kids at Howard are like, "Dude, I love comedy, but I've got a f—ing tuition that I've got to pay for here." But that was 15 years ago; it might be easier to do it now because of the Internet. I don't know.
I really don't think there's any difference between what black audiences find funny and what white audiences find funny, but everyone likes to see themselves onscreen, so there are some instances where there's a black audience laughing at something that a white audience wouldn't laugh at because a black audience is really just happy to see itself. Things that would be problems in a world where there were a lot of black movies get overlooked. The same thing happened with those Sex and the City movies. You don't really see that level of female movie that much, so women were like, "We're only going to get this every whatever, so f— you, f— the reviews, we're going, we like it."
And you should at least be able to count on your people, and then it grows from there. If someone's people don't love them, that's a problem. No one crosses over without a base. But if we're going to just be honest and count dollars and seats and not look at skin color, Kevin Hart is the biggest comedian in the world. If Kevin Hart is playing 40,000 seats in a night and Jon Stewart is playing 3,000, the fact that Jon Stewart's 3,000 are white means Kevin has to cross over? That makes no sense. If anybody needs to cross over, it's the guy who's selling 3,000 seats.
But here's one thing I've noticed in the last five to seven years, and I didn't think I'd live to see this day. There used to be black film and Eddie Murphy, and the two had nothing to do with each other. Literally nothing. And in the world of black film, everything was judged on a relative basis — almost the same curve that indie films get judged on. It was, "Hey, House Party made a lot of money relative to its budget," or "Oh, we only paid $7 million for New Jack City and it made $50 million." Now, not only are black movies making money, they're expected to make money — and they're expected to make money on the same scale as everything else.
I think they've been better in the last few years, too — a little more daring, a little funnier. But look, most movies suck. Absolutely suck. They just do. Most TV shows suck. Most books suck. If most things were good, I'd make $15 an hour. I don't live the way I live because most things are even remotely good. But when you have a system where you probably only see three movies with African-American leads in them a year, they're going to be judged more harshly, and you're really rooting for them to be good a little more so than the 140 movies starring white people every year.
The best ones are made outside of the studio system because they're not made with that many white people — maybe one or two, but not a whole system of white people. I couldn't have made Top Five at a studio. First of all, no one's going to make a movie with a premise so little and artsy: a star putting out a movie and getting interviewed by a woman from The New York Times. I would have had to have three two-hour meetings explaining that black people also read The New York Times. A studio would've made it like Malibu's Most Wanted. And never in a million years would they have allowed a scene where the rich guy comes back to the projects and actually gets along with everybody. No way. In most black movies — and in most black TV shows and even in most black plays — anyone with money or an education is evil, even movies made by black directors. They have to be saved by the poor people. This goes back to Good Times and What's Happening!!
Now, when it comes to casting, Hollywood pretty much decides to cast a black guy or they don't. We're never on the "short list." We're never "in the mix." When there's a hot part in town and the guys are reading for it, that's just what happens. It was never like, "Is it going to be Ryan Gosling or Chiwetel Ejiofor for Fifty Shades of Grey?" And you know, black people f—, too. White women actually want to f— black guys, sometimes more than white guys. More women want to f— Tyrese than Jamie Dornan, and it's not even close. It's not a contest. Even Jamie would go, "OK, you got it."
Or how about True Detective? I never heard anyone go, "Is it going to be Amy Adams or Gabrielle Union?" for that show. I didn't hear one black girl's name on those lists. Not one. Literally everyone in town was up for that part, unless you were black. And I haven't read the script, but something tells me if Gabrielle Union were Colin Farrell's wife, it wouldn't change a thing. And there are almost no black women in film. You can go to whole movies and not see one black woman. They'll throw a black guy a bone. OK, here's a black guy. But is there a single black woman in Interstellar? Or Gone Girl? Birdman? The Purge? Neighbors? I'm not sure there are. I don't remember them. I go to the movies almost every week, and I can go a month and not see a black woman having an actual speaking part in a movie. That's the truth.
But there's been progress. When I was on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago, we did a sketch where I was Sasheer Zamata's dad and she had an Internet show. Twenty years ago when I was on Saturday Night Live, anything with black people on the show had to deal with race, and that sketch we did didn't have anything to do with race. That was the beauty: The sketch is funny because it's funny, and that's the progress. And there are black guys who are making it: Whatever Kevin Hart wants to do right now, he can do; I think Chiwetel is a really respected actor who is getting a lot of great shots just because he's really good; if Steve McQueen wants to direct a Marvel movie, they would salivate to get him. Change just takes time. The Triborough Bridge has been the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge for almost 20 years now, but we still call it the Triborough Bridge. That's how long it takes shit to change. We're not going to be calling it the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge for another 10, 15 years. People will have to die for it actually to be the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.
I don't think the world expected things to change overnight because Obama got elected president. Of course it's changed, though, it's just changed with kids. And when you're a kid, you're not thinking of any of this shit. Black kids watch The Lord of the Rings and they want to be the Lord of the Rings. I remember when they were doing Starsky & Hutch, and my manager was like, "We might be able to get you the part of Huggy Bear," which eventually went to Snoop Dogg. I was like: "Do you understand that when my brother and I watched Starsky & Hutch growing up, I would play Starsky and he would play Hutch? I don't want to play f—ing Huggy Bear. This is not a historical drama. This is not Thomas Jefferson. It's a movie based on a shitty TV show, it can be anybody. Who cares. If they want me to play Starsky or Hutch, or even the bad guy, I'm down. But Huggy Bear?"
I wouldn't be here if I thought I couldn't play those parts. I never limited myself. And that's the beauty of Obama. It might be a generational thing, because the difference between Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson was that Jesse Jackson never actually ran for president. He ran to disrupt the presidency. If he actually ran for president, he probably could have been president. Jesse Jackson won a bunch of primaries in Southern states, but not for five seconds did he think he could be president, whereas Obama was like, "Yeah, I could be president," and nobody stopped him. Literally, nobody stopped him.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 12, 2014 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.