Hollywood actors urge more black filmmakers to tell their stories

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Corey Moore/KPCC

Panelists at the "Artists and Activism" event at the 102nd NAACP Convention on July 27, 2011 included (from left to right): NAACP Hollywood Bureau Executive Director Vicangelo Bullock and actors Hill Harper, Harry Belafonte, Louis Gossett Jr. and Tatyana Ali.

Race, politics and representation on the big screen were the topics at hand at the 102nd NAACP Convention at the Los Angeles Convetion Center on Wednesday.

Veteran actor, singer and political activist Harry Belafonte warmed up the session with a joke about his many decades in show business.

“First of all, I’m looking for my first big break in Hollywood," he said.

Belafonte quickly became serious as he expressed frustration with the few mainstream films that portray good African American stories.

“But even in the odd moment here and there, films that I would say that have quintessentially reflected the life and the struggle and the hope and the aspirations of not only black people but people of color," he said.

Belafonte said that too often, artists put money above quality storytelling — and that paves the way for Hollywood-as-usual stereotypes.

It’s not the first time activists in the entertainment business have talked this way. The NAACP has worked to improve the image and portrayal of blacks on screen for decades. The group proclaimed a breakthrough a dozen years ago, when television networks volunteered to diversify their programming.

These days, the discussion includes young actors alongside the veterans.

Tatyana Ali — who starred as a kid actor on the popular 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — said it isn’t easy to find stories with leading roles for black women.

“I know that for a fact because I’m always up for roles as a best friend, a character who's really there to shed light on the main white character, Caucasian character or as a girlfriend — it’s very narrow," she said.

Actor Hill Harper — who stars on the TV drama “CSI: New York” — praised performers like Belafonte and Louis Gossett Jr. for overcoming many of the hurdles Hollywood had placed in their way.

“To the extent that I can follow in the footsteps of these great men and women that have certainly come before me, it’s just an extension of what they’ve already done. And it’s just an extension of using that platform to hopefully create some positive social change or effect," he said.

Other participants in the NAACP panel discussion included Alex Brown and Willie Harris. They became the first black stuntmen in Hollywood more than 40 years ago.

The NAACP Convention wraps up today at the LA Convention Center.

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