Jamie Foxx got here by screwing up a lot. The star’s initial burst with fame came after he starred on Fox’s hit sketch comedy series In Living Color for three seasons in the early ‘90s. But his first forays into film were forgettable comedies like Booty Call. He’s come a long way, starring in critically-acclaimed films and releasing hit songs. But according to Foxx, the only way he was able to find those more recent successes was because of his initial failures in Hollywood. He had to figure out who he was as a film actor.
“I had to fail as a comedian. I was successful in TV as a comedian, but I was unsuccessful as a comedian in movies,” Foxx recalls. “All of the movies I did were like someone else—I’d do a movie that was like something Martin [Lawrence] had already done or like Eddie [Murphy] had already done. So by failing, I go audition for Any Given Sunday [and] things turn out right. Boom—next thing you know there’s Ali, there’s Collateral, there’s Ray—these movies that were a departure from comedy.”
“And the people who were hiring me really didn’t have knowledge of my comedy,” he adds. “[Any Given Sunday director] Oliver Stone had never really gotten into watching In Living Color, you know what I’m saying? So he didn’t really have those things in his head to go ‘I can’t get with this dude because I’ve already seen these images.’ So I was meeting these directors and getting the chance to go in and they were seeing me for the first time.”
Foxx believes that because of the fact that his early forays into comedic movies went largely unnoticed, the industry and the world didn’t put him in the same kind of box that many black comedic stars have been trapped in. He didn’t get stuck doing a string of bad buddy cop comedies or dressing up as a crime-solving grandma or taking his family to wacky family reunion. He was able to land the kind of roles that would typically go to the Denzel Washingtons and Will Smiths of the world. And he’s also been able to do the kinds of things those leading men wouldn’t do.
“And when I go around the country, people know me from Django Unchained, people know me from Ray—I had to fail in comedy in order to fall into something different that was dramatic. And now—it’s sort of opened things up and all of a sudden, the world has opened up to where you can sing, you can act, you can do comedy, you can do drama—you can do anything you want. I’m riding that wave right now.”
And that wave his led him to Annie. In the film, Foxx is able to showcase his singing, knack for comedy and all-around versatility. But when the movie was announced—with Foxx and co-star Quvenzhané Wallis portraying what had traditionally been white characters—there was a backlash among longtime fans of the musical. While films like Exodus: Gods & Kings and Noah routinely cast Caucasian actors as ancient Middle Eastern or African figures, films like Annie and others have generated criticism from those who believe black actors playing fictional characters who have typically been white is political-correctness gone too far.
“Who was it that played Cleopatra? Liz Taylor—we’ve always sort of adapted Americana to do whatever types of movies we want to do,” Foxx says. “I think the conversation is a little old. To talk about racism with a kid’s movie is a little old.”
The actor recalls an incident when his daughter was younger. He says that he remembers her reaction to a hot-button news issue of the day that he’d discussed on his popular Sirius/XM satellite radio show, The Foxxhole.
“My daughter—who was 13 or so at the time, seven years ago—there was this thing about gay rights,” Foxx explains. “We’re having this thing on the radio show and everybody’s calling in. So I’m sitting with my daughter and all of her friends—who are 13—and she says ‘Dad, can I be honest with you? All we think old people do is bicker about how different you are. That’s why we’re turned off by religion and the race thing. Because all you guys do is talk about how you hate this person because of that. My friends are just my friends.’ So I had her on my radio show.”
Foxx is hopeful that young people are evolving past the point of being preoccupied with race. It should be noted that many of the protests that have developed around the country have been featured diverse crowds of people marching and holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and shouting down the systematic racism. But it will take more than superficial solidarity to dismantle those structures and the ideologies that birthed them. And one look at racist incidents on college campuses reminds us that it would be presumptuous to believe that everyone under 22 is an open-minded free thinker. But Foxx believes that progress is being made—in some ways.
“I do think it’s starting to become an old conversation when it comes to entertainment,” he says. “I remember Django…, we were talking about the word ‘n----r.’ Like, how many times are we gonna [say it]? Everybody was like ‘Oh, what’re people going to think?’ But with the younger generation, it doesn’t hold the same weight as it does with my mom or my father or me, even. People under 21-22, that word isn’t hitting them like that. And people were going crazy until the movie hit and it was ‘n---a’ 110 times on Christmas. And black people went, the younger generation, and had a great time. So when you talk about the color of Annie—yeah, people on blogs and people that want to get a story, they need something to talk about. But when I’m in the street, people run up and say ‘I want to see it.’ They don’t read the blogs, they just want to take their kids somewhere for family fun.”
Young people and race aren’t very far from anyone’s mind these days; with protests continuing around the country in the wake of several police killings of young black men and women. Foxx says that he thinks this generation has the capacity to keep pushing through racial barriers. But he’s frustrated by a lot of what he sees.
“When you look at what happened in New York, when you look at the Ferguson march that my daughter was a part of—it was every color, it was every creed,” Foxx states, pausing. “So we know that we have a problem.”