Filling the Void: Looking for the Next Denzel, Sam, Morgan and Will


Anthony Mackie at the Chicago International Film Festival

I recently attended a Q&A session with Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker, The Adjustment Bureau) as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. The actor, who was receiving an honor for his artistic achievements, mentioned how he felt Hollywood was lacking a leading man of color under the age of 40 and that he was hoping to fill that void. I’ve recognized this void for some time, but it means much more when supported by a statement from someone like Mackie. But why has Hollywood failed so miserably to groom new stars to replace aging headliners like Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Samuel L. Jackson?

It’s clear to me the void doesn’t exist for lack of talented contenders. But is Mackie our best bet to fill that void? He certainly has been on fire lately, landing roles in Real Steel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Gangster Squad, just to name a few. Yet we still haven’t seen him as a leading man outside little-seen indies such as Night Catches Us and She Hate Me. I can also imagine Chiwetel Ejiofor (Salt, Children of Men), Idris Elba (Thor, “The Wire”) and, aiming a little younger, Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, “Friday Night Lights”) breaking out in the near future, but history has shown that a breakthrough is anything but a sure thing.

Remember a time about ten years ago when it looked like Taye Diggs, Mekhi Phifer and (especially) Derek Luke were on their way to become “the next Denzel?” For whatever reason it just never happened. This isn’t exclusive to the male side of things either, as the same can be said for Gabrielle Union and Sanaa Lathan.

Is it possible that we as a culture were just more receptive to black leading men 15-20 years ago when guys like Washington, Freeman, Jackson and Wesley Snipes were breaking through? It certainly seems like producers were more willing to take chances, casting an up-and-coming Washington opposite “American’s sweetheart” Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief and even giving Snipes his own successful franchise with Blade. I obviously can’t back this up with a quantifiable stat, but doesn’t it seem like more major motion pictures were headlined by black stars 10-15 years ago?

Nowadays, every time an opportunity to pass the torch to a talented young black actor presents itself, things always seem to end up the same. What happens when the producers of the new Bourne and Mission: Impossible films each have a chance to hang the future of their franchises on a fresh face? They turn to Jeremy Renner, a 40-year-old white actor.

Oscar IsaacInterestingly enough, The Bourne Legacy director Tony Gilroy’s first choice for the role, the promising Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch, Drive), was vetoed by Universal. Isaac has since signed on for a supporting part in the film, but is it possible that they weren’t even willing to consider any minority actors for the lead? I’m sure they have their reasons for going with Renner, but it just seems like a rather uninspired choice. I feel like we know exactly what Renner is at this point, whereas Isaac could have brought a refreshing level of excitement to the role because we’d have no idea what to expect. I will say this, at least Paula Patton was able to score a role in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol… that’s a start.

The only young minority star the studios seem to have any faith in when it comes to Hollywood features these days is Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Avatar), an actress of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent. But how many projects making a smallish Colombiana-like impact will it take for the offers to stop pouring in? Minority actors seem to be given far fewer chances than their white counterparts.

Take Ryan Reynolds for example. Reynolds has been on the “fast track” to superstardom for the better part of a decade, even though the majority of his films have been financial failures. The Proposal is the only one you can consider a “hit,” and I would never argue that he “carried” that film. Yet, Hollywood proceeds to shove him down our throats as he continues to appear on the shortlist for every decent part that comes along. Same with Daniel Craig. Outside the Bond label he has delivered nothing but massive failures like The Invasion and Cowboys & Aliens, yet he still keeps getting opportunities.

Even more curious, how does Garrett Hedlund go from TRON: Legacy to a starring role in Akira? Oh, and the first female name rumored for that film based on the Japanese manga… Kristen Stewart.

One problem is Hollywood still largely hasn’t figured out how to use minority stars without playing into cliches and racial stereotypes, crippling their ability to show any versatility. For example, Penelope Cruz is one of the biggest stars in the world, yet it is only in her home country that she isn’t pigeonholed as the feisty Spanish sexpot. Why can’t we have more black or Hispanic heroes? The biggest mainstream movie we’ve seen centered on a black superhero has been Hancock, and he was a homeless drunk filled with wasted potential. What kind of message are we sending to our youth if the majority of iconic minority film characters continue to be crooked cops, drug dealers and bank robbers?

I realize movie-making is a business, but you’re compromising sustainability if you refuse to develop new stars. Freeman, Jackson, Smith and Washington are some of the most profitable actors of their generation, gaining universal appeal and millions of fans outside the niche “black film” audience. Though none of those dollars could have been produced if someone didn’t take a chance on these performers in the first place.

And nowadays, when a good role does present itself, it too often goes to a rapper or singer who has little acting ability. Sure, that whole Will Smith experiment worked out pretty well, but the more likely scenario is that we see another cringe-worthy DMX or 50 Cent-like performance. But these rappers do have name recognition and an established fan base, which probably makes for a less risky business decision in the eyes of the producers. Peter Berg will be partially banking on Rihanna, a first-time actress, to make sure his $200 million Battleship doesn’t sink. And despite being one of the most hated men in America, Chris Brown continues to rake in roles in movies like Takers. But hey, at least people know who he is, which appears to count for more than talent and drive.

I mean, how much better would Obsessed have been had it starred Kerry Washington? But then again, how much less money would it have made if Beyonce‘s name wasn’t on top of the poster? Either way, you have to credit Idris Elba because when someone can manage to escape from a train wreck like Obsessed with their credibility still in tact, you know you’re looking at a star.

Idris ElbaNow we have Elba saying he’d consider playing James Bond when Daniel Craig is done with the character, which would go along nicely with the theory that James Bond is a code name passed from one agent to the next, rather than a singular person. It would be great if it happened. I just think it’s far more likely they go with the always-looming Michael Fassbender or Hugh Jackman, who is now expressing interest as well.

Elba was at one point set to elevate his status by portraying Alex Cross from James Patterson’s bestselling detective novel series, previously played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came the Spider. Anyone I spoke to who has read a Cross book agreed that Elba was a perfect fit. I can’t explain Summit’s reasoning, but the lead in I, Alex Cross ultimately went to Tyler Perry. Yes, another big name not necessarily known for his acting. It might be a minor setback for Elba, but his upcoming roles in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim should serve his career just fine. If all goes well, he’ll be a household name in no time.

With Mackie and Elba leading the charge, a change is coming. And speaking purely as someone who likes movies, I’m ready for it. Our movies are about to get far more interesting.