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

Posted on November 28, 2011 /Racial Politics

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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?

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