Hollywood studios practice a quota for black actors, Don Cheadle
answers with a matter-of-fact "yes." He knows from experience.
Cheadle earned acclaim for his performance of heroic hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda,
the hit film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide and how 1,300 people
avoided slaughter. But he says he earned the role only after proven
stars Denzel Washington and Will Smith passed on the film.
Cheadle hopes Hollywood powerbrokers will up the color quota from two
to three, although the veteran character actor will have to battle
colleague Jaime Foxx for that third black-leading-man slot.
Cheadle has good reason to complain, but the standout memory from our
recent interview is one of celebration. Despite the Hollywood quota, he
sees a New Black Renaissance sweeping the U.S., if not the world,
rivaling the famed Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
Cheadle points to the popularity of Hip Hop and Rap music and Slam
poetry as proof positive that this is a good time to be a black artist
in America. Politicians in Washington might be committed to have and
have-not policies that fall across racial lines, but art and culture
will ultimately have their say.
One leader in Cheadle's Renaissance Army is poet and singer Saul
Williams, 33. His arts resume includes music, acting in films like the
independent drama Slam
and books of poetry, but Williams refers to himself in simple terms. He
is a poet, no different, he says, from Sylvia Plath, who also read her
The Harlem Renaissance became a chapter in the history books after its
demise in the grip of the Great Depression. But Williams and his fellow
Slam poets continue the Harlem legacy of black artists crossing the
Back then, singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and poets Claude
McKay and Countee Cullen reminded America that blacks were more than
rural and uneducated laborers. They were also urbane, educated and
Bold proof of the New Black Renaissance is found in filmmaker Paul Devlin's 1998 documentary Slam Nation,
a high-energy story that shows Williams' rise at open-mic poetry nights
at New York City's Nuyorican Poets Café and his participation along
with 100 other spoken word artists at the National Poetry Slam in
Slam Nation was little seen upon its initial release, but its
new DVD from Docurama shows how open-mic poetry has crossed over into
mainstream culture much like Jazz and Hip Hop. It's also become a
"What is most interesting to me about the whole spoken word movement is
how multi-cultural and multi-ethnic it is," Williams said recently.
"Poetry is the place gay kids choose to come out of the closet. It's
the place where abused women choose to speak up. It's far from being
just a black thing, and the same is true for Hip Hop."
A pop culture phenomenon has a limited life. A renaissance has the
strength to make a lasting impact as long as the artists remain working
or pass the torch to new believers.
Williams looks at the big picture of Slam poetry -- a throwback to his
philosophy studies at Morehouse University. He sees Slam poets as the
harbingers of political change, the forces for economic and social
"Any time you have a renaissance or shift in cultural consciousness,
the first thing you see is a resurgence in the popularity of poetry,"
he says. "The beat poetry era ushered in the hippie movement. The black
power poetry era ushered in the black power movement. The Harlem
Renaissance slowly ushered in the Civil Rights era. It's all connected.
Poetry is usually the first thing that blows up again when people are
starting to think differently about themselves and about their
Art is the means for political activism. That's the legacy of the
Harlem Renaissance and the message of Williams and the rest of the Slam Nation poets.
The glory days are now, and they're getting brighter. Just listen to the words.
Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com