- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2005

Marvel Comics is entrusting its Fantastic Four franchise to relatively untested filmmaker Tim Story of “Barbershop” fame.

Comic fans may argue about how closely Mr. Story hews to the source, but little is being made over the color of Mr. Story’s skin.

The director is black, and so, too are a growing number of other directors being hired for blockbusters or other films whose racial content, if any, is purely incidental. Think F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job,” “Be Cool”), Antoine Fuqua (“King Arthur,” “Training Day”), Carl Franklin (1998’s “One True Thing”) and now Mr. Story.

Meanwhile, two prominent black directors who chipped away at racial barriers to opportunity in Hollywood are finding success circa 2005 a bit elusive.

Spike Lee, the groundbreaking — and reliably incendiary — auteur, has suffered horrific reviews for recent films such as “Bamboozled” (2000) and last year’s “She Hate Me.” For many, he has lost his “must see” status.

John Singleton, who, with 1991’s “Boyz ‘n the Hood,” became the youngest person ever to receive an Oscar nomination for best director, has found follow-up success hard to come by with “Poetic Justice” (1993), “Rosewood” (1997) and “Baby Boy” (2001).

The term “black director” stood as an oxymoron through Hollywood’s golden age. While some independent figures such as Oscar Micheaux eked out careers on the margins of the industry, the big studios that dominated movie production were off-limits to black filmmakers. By the early 1970s, a few directors such as Gordon Parks (“The Learning Tree,” “Shaft”) and Melvin Van Peebles had broken through, but the latter’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971) gave way to the blaxploitation wave of the 1970s.

By the 1980s, talents like Mr. Lee began delving deeper into their own communities, but their stories clearly began and ended at the borders of their ‘hoods.

Today’s Hollywood is finally showing hints of a colorblind tomorrow.

Mr. Story gave little thought to racism while studying film at the University of Southern California.

“I didn’t grow up with people stopping me from doing things because I was a black man,” says Mr. Story, who also directed last year’s “Taxi” with Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon. “My mom taught me to be the best of what I could be.”

If he can afford to factor race out of the career equation, it’s due in no small part to predecessors like Mr. Lee and Robert Townsend (1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle”).

“Those were the first directors where I said, ‘Oh, a black man is doing that stuff. It was the first time there was somebody that looked like me doing films I enjoyed,” Mr. Story says. “They gave you that announcement, ‘Tim, you can do this, go for it.’”

Mr. Story took matters into his own hands when he initially had trouble entering USC’s film school. He followed up his initial application with a picture of himself in the envelope. He suspected the university might want to increase the number of minority applicants.

“Hey, if I’m going to be someone to fit your quota, let me in,” he says. “I don’t care how I get into a situation. Once I get that opportunity, I’ll prove to you I belong there. I’m not shy to say that.”

Mr. Singleton, who helped secure funding for the Sundance hit “Hustle & Flow,” which opens July 22, credits the cha-ching of box office registers for much of the progress.

“Success begets success,” says Mr. Singleton, whose latest directorial effort “Four Brothers,” is set for release next month. He says nine of his 10 films have turned profits for their backers.

Another promising trend for people of color both in front of and behind the camera is the industry’s growing insistence on multiethnic casts to sell a project, according to Mr. Singleton.

“They believe that makes the film appeal to a broader demographic. It’s making movies more American,” he says.

Nice as far as it goes — but the director is leaving nothing to chance.

“If the system doesn’t work, you try to make your own system,” he says, explaining that he has begun leveraging his name to gain independent financing for his own pictures. “In a certain budget range, I won’t wait around for the studios.”

Not everyone is sold on the progress unfolding on movie screens nationwide.

Alonzo Crawford, associate professor of film at Howard University, sees little “Fantastic” about Mr. Story’s plum assignment.

Mr. Crawford questions what progress has been made if the content of these films doesn’t directly address the concerns of the black community.

The closest thing to racism in “Fantastic Four” is the horrified look on people’s faces when they gaze upon The Thing’s rocky mug.

“I know there are those who say there is benign entertainment,” Mr. Crawford says. “I don’t think [there] is. All entertainment has a purpose and a message.”

He insists Hollywood continues to portray black characters as “laughable, happy-go-lucky” types, a demeaning portrait similar to the one Hollywood drew of American Indians until, he says, “Dances with Wolves” broke that mold.

Mr. Story, for one, prefers to work within the system.

And, should “Fantastic Four” approach blockbuster box office receipts, he hopes a new group of black filmmakers will be taking notes.

“It would be nice to be a part of what helps other people get that opportunity,” Mr. Story says.

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