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Race becoming less of an issue in film and television

David Zurawik and Mary Carole McCauley The Baltimore Sun

In movies and on television, white is black. And black is now white.

Black actor Ving Rhames, in the USA Network’s new revival of the 1970s TV detective series “Kojak,” has the role once played by the Greek-American actor Telly Savalas.

Meanwhile, in the new movie “Guess Who,” white actor Ashton Kutcher is reprising the part of the fiancé played by Sidney Poitier in the original “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

“It’s a big change, African American actors taking on these roles in major film and TV productions,” says Jannette Dates, dean of the Howard University School of Communications and co-author of “Split Image: African-Americans in the Mass Media” (Howard University Press, 1990).

“Hollywood has decided that they are going to get with the tide of what is happening in the country,” Dates says. “In fact, we’ve got a multicultural country. It is really here. And so, finally, after all these years, Hollywood is willing to accept that reality and let people who have talent show their talent.”

Nothing makes that statement more clearly than updating classics by reversing racial roles.

Take the feature-film adaptation of the landmark TV series “The Honeymooners,” now in production with Cedric the Entertainer in the role of Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) and Michael Epps as the hapless Ed Norton (Art Carney).

Oscar-winning performances by blacks have been the catalyst for this on-screen race reversal, Dates says.

In 2002, she says, “You had Halle Berry and Denzel Washington. And then, this year again, it was an extraordinary year for African Americans,” with Jamie Foxx winning as best actor for “Ray” and Morgan Freeman winning as best supporting actor in “Million Dollar Baby.”

It’s been an extraordinary few years at the box office, too. Among films with black actors in key roles, “Ray” earned $90 million in 2004 and Washington’s 2002 “Training Day” topped $100 million. Nothing drives a trend like money, and if there’s enough of it, the business story becomes a cultural one.

That is the kind of change noticed by Joy Lusco Kecken, a black filmmaker and writer on HBO’s Peabody Award-winning drama “The Wire.”

“Something is shifting,” Kecken says. “It really struck me as I watched the Oscars, but it goes back to the advent of hip-hop, which has been with us (nearly three decades) now.”

She says hip-hop has influenced a generation of young whites to embrace its multicultural sensibility, and that youth demographic is one Hollywood is desperate to reach.

“Hip-hop has made its mark on mainstream culture,” Kecken says. “And as a result, at least in the entertainment industry, black people … can come into your home now, win all these Oscars and have these roles that aren’t necessarily only for black men.

“I think black culture has really slipped into the mainstream, and now you’re seeing the results.”

Blacks had a place in prime time from the earliest days of network television, as long as they knew their place: in minor or often demeaning roles such as Ethel Waters as a maid in ABC’s “Beulah” (1950-52).

Diahann Carroll broke that barrier in 1968 when she became the first black woman to star in her own network series, NBC’s “Julia.” Her character was a nurse, but the network would not allow her to have a romantic relationship.

Bill Cosby opened another door by taking on the role of the upper-middle-class, sweater-clad dad in the NBC sitcom “The Cosby Show” in 1985 and proved not only that a black father could know best, but his show could become No. 1 in the ratings.

As for the movies, the hip-hop star Ice Cube sums up the progress blacks have made. Black director John Singleton used Ice Cube for his gangsta-rap associations when he cast him in the 1991 film “Boyz N the Hood,” a critical and financial hit that helped re-establish “urban cinema.”

But as an actor and a producer, Ice Cube soon went beyond that stereotype, creating franchises such as the “Friday” and “Barbershop” films that celebrated, respectively, porch-front humor and neighborhood connections. Both films – and their sequels – were big crossover hits.

The changing landscape is being felt on the stage as well as the screen.

Ernest Thompson, author of “On Golden Pond,” remembers moving to Westminster, Md., in 1962 at age 12 and being shocked to realize there was a “coloreds only” balcony in the Carroll Theater.

Now, an all-black production of his hit play starring James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams is in previews and expected to be one of the hottest tickets on Broadway.

“Maybe the culture is finally ready to grow up a little bit,” he says.

Thompson, who is white, acknowledges that an all-black cast brings different resonance to the show.

The patriarch, Norman Thayer Jr. (played on Broadway by Jones and in the film by Henry Fonda), is a bigot who says he likes New England “because there are no Jews in the state of Maine, no Negroes and no Puerto Ricans.”

“When James Earl signed on to play that role, I assumed we’d be cutting those lines,” Thompson says. “But he wanted to leave them in. He said, ‘Do you think there’s no prejudice in the black community?’ “

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