With film, Underwood urges Hollywood to leave the 'hood

Actor to attend screening of `G' at Lewis Museum

September 03, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Blair Underwood has spent his career refusing to kowtow to Hollywood stereotypes. And that's why he's proud to be starring in G, a movie dominated by African-American characters and set in the upscale, moneyed world of the Long Island shoreline.

The 40-year-old actor and his co-stars, Richard T. Jones and Andre Royo, are scheduled to be in Baltimore on Tuesday night for an invitation-only screening at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. G opens in theaters Sept. 16.

"To me, what was appealing was to see this culture of African-Americans in this world of the Hamptons -- this very wealthy, upscale, elite world," says Underwood, calling from Los Angeles where he has just finished work on his latest film, Tyler Perry's Medea's Family Reunion. "To see this representation that is very realistic was fascinating to me."

At a time when most Hollywood films aimed at African-American audiences are set squarely in the 'hood and frequently center on tales of drug addicts and street criminals, Underwood, best known for his role on NBC's TV drama L.A. Law, is committed to making films for and about African-Americans that are firmly rooted in the upper- and middle-class worlds.

"I remember when Eddie Murphy came out with Boomerang [in which Murphy played a successful advertising executive], and people said it was unrealistic. One critic said it was `unrealistic that he worked in this world.' Well, that was not unrealistic to me or many other African-Americans.

"When G came around, that was realistic to me. Some people may not want to believe that or see it, but it's very much a reality in our world."

G, loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, stars Underwood as Chip Hightower, a wealthy Wall Street executive. The film pits Hightower against influential rap mogul Summer G (Jones) in a battle for the affections of Hightower's wife, Sky (Chenoa Maxwell) -- setting up an uneasy love triangle that ends tragically for all involved.

"The fusion of that life of the Hamptons with the relevancy of the hip-hop culture, that's what really made the movie interesting," Underwood says.

Underwood's commitment to changing Hollywood's depiction of African-American culture goes beyond his acting roles. He also is chairman of the advisory board of the Momentum Experience, a nascent production company created to target the urban audience. Underwood mentions both G and Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, a winter 2005 box-office hit set in the upper-echelons of Atlanta's high society, as the sort of films Momentum hopes to produce and distribute.

"There's a reason a movie like Tyler Perry's did extraordinarily well, and that other films that deal with pimping, etc. did not do as well as expected," Underwood says.

"We want to see ourselves reflected more accurately. We're tired of Hollywood dictating what we are able to see. We want to see things that are more positive and more uplifting."

Which is one reason Underwood's pleased that G will be screened at the Lewis Museum next week. The life of Reginald F. Lewis, who was CEO of Beatrice Foods, at that time the largest black-owned business in the U.S., reflects the kind of reality Momentum hopes to reflect. (Lewis died in 1993.)

"His life specifically, and what he was able to accomplish with his life, absolutely speaks to the genre and the world that we speak of -- classy, elegant, upscale, beautiful, well-educated."

Underwood pauses for a second, then mentions an additional essential ingredient: "With funky flavor."

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