By Alexis Garrett Stodghill
12:08 AM on 05/05/2012
Blacks in Hollywood are coming into a spectacular period of prominence, led by a vanguard group of African-Americans taking Tinseltown by storm. Familiar names such as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Will Smith have traditionally driven successful films featuring diverse casts marketed to wide audiences. But the African-American movies filling theater seats right now are the spawn of culture creators you may not know. There is a new black Hollywood power structure evolving, and its shot callers are making some very impressive moves.
Producer Will Packer has been working in film for over 15 years, but his name is likely unknown to the fans of his projects. With the success of Think Like a Man (2012), which grossed over $60 million in its first ten days in theaters, his star has risen considerably. The blockbuster is Packer’s 14th movie, but the first to crown him a Hollywood kingpin.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call Will Packer of Rainforest Films a ‘new’ power player,” Wilson Morales, editor of BlackFilm.com told theGrio. “It just took Hollywood longer than expected to recognize his success. Think Like a Man is his fourth film to open at number one at the box office.”
In fact, recent box office triumphs such as Think Like a Man have been created by many influential African-American producers, directors, casting agents and more who have spent years working under the radar — some in television or independent film. With their fresh successes, the “new” black Hollywood has just become more conspicuous. And more powerful.
“There are a team of us behind the scenes,” veteran casting agent Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd said of African-Americans coming to the forefront. “All kinds of grips, assistant directors, lighting people, second assistant directors and all kinds of techs. They’ve been at it at for many, many years,” she explained. “[Things] are just coming to fruition.”
Crowd-pleasers such as Think Like a Man and Jumping the Broom (2011) were authored by these specialists, who pooled their talents to create films with dazzling ensemble casts. By working together, they have generated the wattage required to consistently get money-making films greenlit — an influence formerly held by a handful of black superstars.
“Mara Brok Akil and Tracey Edmonds and Glendon Palmer and Will Packer and Tim Story — these directors and producers have been around for years. People seem to put actors in the forefront. But it is a concerted effort. Team work makes the dream work,” Byrd told theGrio. “It’s beautiful and wonderful and fabulous to walk on a set and see people that look like you. I’m part of a lot of winning teams right now.”
Indeed, Byrd has worked with husband and wife production duo Salim and Mara Brock Akil in tandem with Sony Pictures executive DeVon Franklin on two films: Jumping the Broom (2011) and the much-anticipated Sparkle (2012).
“Mara and Salim have been successful for a very long time,” Byrd revealed. “Mara created the show Girlfriends. Salim was the showrunner of Soul Food. Will Packer has been an incredibly successful producer for a very long time. And with Think Like a Man, it’s fantastic. Now the world is seeing the fruits of his hard labor. I feel as though Jumping the Broom was a part of this. Think Like a Man‘s numbers are amazing and through the roof, but I do think that Jumping the Broom, which I made with producers Tracey Edmonds and DeVon Franklin, jump-started some things.”
As the Vice President of Production for Sony Pictures, Devon Franklin works with both black-themed and other entertainment, yet takes tremendous pride in stewarding African-American works.
“My goal is to make great films. As an executive of color I certainly want to make great movies that star people of color that can go around the world,” Franklin told theGrio. “Making black movies is a great thing! It’s a huge opportunity. The movie Sparkle that I have coming out in August will show people again: there are so many different ways to display [our] culture on screen that are universal and exciting.”
Franklin stressed that the success of African-American filmmakers today is a direct outgrowth of his predecessors’ accomplishments in the ’90s, what many see as a golden era.
“Back in the early nineties you had Mario Van Peebles, you had John Singleton, you had the Hughes brothers… They were all making mainstream movies,” Franklin said of directors of that period. “Potentially there will be a resurgence back to a time like that. There were a tremendous amount of black films being made[.]”
Franklin feels that, “with the success of Think Like a Man, the success of Tyler Perry, and the success of the films we’re doing here at Sony, there is momentum towards getting back there.”
Franklin credits Tyler Perry with making this movement possible.
“Tyler is incredible and super-talented,” he said of the progenitor of this phase of black Hollywood achievement. “[He] has actually opened up the doors for more films to get made. With the films that are now coming out and with the success of those films, I think that Tyler gets a lot of credit for keeping people of color in the mainstream, and showing that if you program for the audience, the audience will show up.”