”The whole Fat Albert thing is not my favorite [project] in the world,” says Kenan Thompson, decked out in hip-hop gear and sipping on Stoli vodka. His hefty frame is slumped in a leather couch at a dimly lit restaurant steps from NBC Studios, where he and his fellow Saturday Night Live cast members have been frantically proposing skits for the upcoming episode. At close to 10 p.m. on this Tuesday night, the 25-year-old Atlanta native — whose filmography so far consists of Mighty Ducks sequels, Nickelodeon’s Good Burger, and a bit part in this year’s Barbershop 2 — has other things on his tired mind, namely the ongoing negotiations that will decide if he’ll be filling Fat Albert’s oversize shoes in the big-screen adaptation of Bill Cosby’s classic ‘toon. ”Is it going to be good for my personal self to have people running up to me calling me Fat Albert all the time?” he asks, his natural Southern drawl enhanced a bit by fatigue. ”That’s something I’m going to have to deal with.”
Deciding whether or not to accept a career-defining role in a major-studio film is a rare and enviable dilemma for any young actor, but especially for one who is African-American. Though more black men appear in films than ever — their slice of total parts cast in movies in 2002 was actually greater than their share of the U.S. population — there’s still an exponentially larger number of actors vying for those roles. And while not every character is a coon or a crook, well-written parts are tough to come by. Who can forget Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.’s turns in dismal fare like Snow Dogs and Boat Trip?
So how do these young men go about building respectable, lasting careers in a Hollywood that, when not typecasting them or shunting them into ”urban” films, doesn’t really know what to do with them?
They could start by looking at recent history. ”In the ’70s, during the blaxploitation era, there were movies made for black audiences [that] starred large numbers of black actors,” says Todd Boyd, a critical studies professor at USC’s School of Cinema-Television who also produced 1999’s The Wood, a film whose predominantly black cast included Taye Diggs and Omar Epps. ”[In] the early ’90s — the Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society era — you again had movies made by African Americans and targeted at African-American audiences. Those eras have both passed.”
From Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles to the Hughes brothers and John Singleton, industrious black filmmakers were the engines behind those eras. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Spike Lee not only reinvigorated black cinema with films like Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues but also helped launch the careers of Martin Lawrence, Wesley Snipes, and Giancarlo Esposito, among others. These black directors were rewarded for their ingenuity with more opportunities in Hollywood — Lee has since helmed 25th Hour; Singleton, 2 Fast 2 Furious; and the Hughes brothers, From Hell. But as they moved on up, the well of black films dried up.