In 1997, 'Scream 2' Was Poised To Become Elise Neal's Calling Card. That Didn't Happen.

The actor reflects on the decade’s fleeting Black film renaissance and the opportunity that never was.
Elise Neal wants the kind of Black film renaissance we saw in the '90s.
Elise Neal wants the kind of Black film renaissance we saw in the '90s.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty/Rious Photography

By the second half of the ’90s, Black talent seemed to be everywhere on screen. The explosion of hip-hop helped catapult the music video era. Black audiences had a plethora of TV shows like “Living Single,” “Moesha” and “The Wayans Bros.” And there was always a new Black movie to catch in theaters — from “Waiting to Exhale” to “Eve’s Bayou” and “Love Jones.”

On top of that, Black actors were in demand. Not only by the many Black filmmakers like John Singleton and Spike Lee who helped amplify their careers, but white Hollywood as well. The latter, which also (and to this day) controlled much of what we saw on screen, showed a vested interest in Black images, even if it was less interested in nurturing Black talent.

The teen horror movie boom throughout the decade was one example. Three major sequels boasted more inclusive casting, and they all came out around the same time. 1998’s “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” featured LisaGay Hamilton, LL Cool J and Beau Billingslea. “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” also had Brandy in a prominent role that same year.

But neither offered engagement with the culture on the level that “Scream 2” did in 1997. Much of that is due to the natural intuition of costar Elise Neal, who played Hallie, the college best friend of franchise protagonist Sidney (Neve Campbell).

“Hallie wasn’t supposed to be Black,” Neal said during our video call. “She wasn’t written Black.”

The actress also tweeted this back in December, around the 25th anniversary of the film, in a series of posts that offered fans cool, behind-the-scenes intel.

When she was talking to me about this, though, we were in conversation about how Hallie’s Blackness became a turning point for the monumental “Scream” franchise to acknowledge racial nuances in horror.

Elise Neal in 1997's "Scream 2."
Elise Neal in 1997's "Scream 2."
Dimension Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

This particular entry gave us a peek into what it’s like to be Black on a mostly white college campus and, for instance, be dismissed by sororities favoring her uninterested best friend over her. Most of those subtleties come from non-dialogue expressions Neal admits giving Hallie that are directly in conversation with her young Black audience at the time.

“Looking back at it, people say so many things because I definitely brought my Blackness to it,” Neal recalled. She thought about the one scene where Hallie and Sidney are trapped inside a car with Ghostface and the former begins frantically kicking the doors open to escape.

“People say, ‘You in the car in the back seat with Neve…’” she said. “That was definitely me being the Black… What would a Black person do?”

Right. Opportunities like Hallie allowed Neal to bring some of her humanity to a role that wasn’t written with someone like her in mind. So, Hallie telling Sidney that “stupid people go back, smart people run” when, after they flee Ghostface, Sidney wants to return to the car to see if he’s dead, points to racial tropes in the genre simply on the basis that a Black actor says it.

Still, Neal emphasizes that she wasn’t only cast as Hallie because she was Black. It was because she had been auditioning for other roles for that studio at the time, and they thought she was good.

“They didn’t look at me like, ‘Oh, she’s Black, let’s throw her in,’” Neal explained. “‘We like her as a talent.’ So, it’s hard for me initially to be like, they were playing a game with me as a person. They didn’t have to give it to me; they wanted to give it to me.”

Neal during the "Most Wanted" Los Angeles Premiere at Cineplex Odeon in Century City, California.
Neal during the "Most Wanted" Los Angeles Premiere at Cineplex Odeon in Century City, California.
Ron Galella via Getty Images

And with good reason. Neal had been in a steady string of hits leading up to “Scream 2,” thanks in part to her infectiously down-to-earth personality, and because she really was just that good. And to think, she began her career as a dancer in her native Memphis (and soon after in New York), before acting ever became a thought.

“I wanted to be Debbie Allen,” she said. “I was traveling the world doing musicals, music videos. I was doing everything in that moment and really enjoying learning, growing as an individual in New York. Then everyone was like, ‘You have a great personality. Why don’t you try acting?’”

Neal dismissed the idea at first. “I was very much like, ‘I don’t need to try that,’” she remembered. “I’m happy where I am.” But she later dipped her foot into acting and fell in love with it. It began, as she recalled, with a lot of dance commercials.

For example, there was this Nike commercial featuring basketball star Chris Webber in 1993, which was huge for her. There was also a 1991 commercial for Burger King she did where a man played by Courtney B. Vance proposes to her in the fast food restaurant, which ultimately caught the attention of Lee.

Neal recalls bumping into the director when she was walking out of the East Village apartment she had around that time. He was heading to the movie theater next door and, yes, he brought up her Burger King commercial.

Neal in an episode of "Family Matters," in 1993.
Neal in an episode of "Family Matters," in 1993.
ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images

“He’s like, ‘You look familiar,’” she remembered. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, it’s something I’ve done [that] he’s excited about.’” He continued, “‘You’re in that commercial with Courtney B. Vance that he proposes to you in the Burger King. You trying to set our people back. How could you?’”

Really, she was just happy to be making money at all. “‘Don’t come for me,’” she recalled thinking at the time. She must have still made an impression, because Neal was called about two weeks later to audition for her first movie role in 1992’s “Malcolm X” ― Lee’s masterpiece, in which she plays a character only named “Hooker” under her IMDB credits.

“I’ll take it,” she said with a laugh, when I brought up the fact that her character never got a real name. Like every opportunity, including “Scream 2,” she made it her own. And from there, she appeared on other soon-to-be classics like “Family Matters,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Living Single.” And soon, her next major movie “Rosewood,” directed by Singleton.

Following Neal’s move to Los Angeles, the late filmmaker became one of her best friends at the time, particularly since both came from the music video world. Choreographer Fatima Johnson, who Neal was also close with then, introduced the two. He invited her to audition for “Rosewood” and, as she put it, “The rest is history.”

She also earned a lot of media buzz, as she recalls from an old article she had recently dug up. “I think I’m clearing out my phone a lot lately,” she realized. “It said the fact that I had three movies at the box office my first year coming out, which is — I forget so much now, I’ll be honest. It was basically ‘Rosewood,’ ‘Money Talks’ and ‘Scream 2.’”

To her own account, these are the films that solidified her acting career.

Neal and Chris Tucker in 1997's "Money Talks."
Neal and Chris Tucker in 1997's "Money Talks."

Thinking back on these projects now, including “Malcolm X,” was she conscious about the significance of them all being helmed by men?

“I mean, I wouldn’t say that that has changed, though,” Neal replied. “Not to a point where it should be. I think men own a lot of the spaces.”

She points to contemporary Black female stars who’ve risen in prominence during the social media era, like Issa Rae, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, who are all outspoken actor-producers. Back then, the actress said, there was no space for Black actresses like herself to use their voices in the same way.

“We’re going to go back and talk about how it was a different time, where it wasn’t really cool to be branding you,” Neal said. “If you were working on a set, you were of the community of whatever that job is.”

You were, essentially, a representative of the system. “That wasn’t the cool kid thing, to brand yourself while I’m doing ‘The Hughleys’ [the hit UPN series she starred in beginning in 1998] or while I’m on a set of ‘Money Talks,’” she said. “It’s like, no one was really talking about what they could do to elevate their brands in the ’90s.”

Well, not if there were few spaces for Black actresses to actually find each other and get together.

Neal and the rest of the cast of "The Hughleys."
Neal and the rest of the cast of "The Hughleys."
Getty Images via Getty Images

“If you’re talking about the ’90s, I don’t even think people were open to those conversations,” Neal said. “You’ve got to be open to the conversation to make a change. And I don’t think people were even mentally thinking, ‘I can speak freely while I’m here at work.’”

She thinks that that is still true today for many Black actresses who don’t want to risk their livelihood to share personal feelings about issues they see.

Still, there was a major renaissance of Black film that we hadn’t seen as prominently since the ’70s Blaxploitation era. Surely, some sense of Black female film community came out of that?

Neal said that wasn’t her experience, particularly as a person who came from the music and dance world. “My friends — a lot of them to this day are dancers, performers in terms of the behind the scenes,” she added. “That was my community of people.”

And besides, the actress even now takes pride in the fact that she’s always been fiercely independent. She is the same person who earned a scholarship to a performing arts school, left Memphis, made “a lot of money” as a performer, became a globetrotter and pursued an entirely different career at age 20. (Neal recounts these facts in rapid succession.)

“I really did figure a lot of it out along the way,” she said.

Janet Jackson on the set of her 1993 film "Poetic Justice."
Janet Jackson on the set of her 1993 film "Poetic Justice."
Anthony Barboza via Getty Images

Neal also had the benefit of coming up at a time when there was a much more consistent output of diverse Black experiences she could look to on screen, including a thriving Black independent film scene. They were offerings that she could watch with her mom, her sisters, her friends or her man that helped affirm who she was as a Black woman and where she wanted to go.

“You had so much of our culture in different formats on TV and in the movies,” she said. “I don’t know why or what happened, but we got to figure that out because it’s needed.”

This is something Neal says she has been thinking a lot about lately as she reminisces on this particular period. She name-drops everything from “The Hughleys” and “In Living Color” to “Poetic Justice” and “Menace II Society” that helped shape her.

“It was helpful for us,” she said. “It was helpful for me. It was helpful for a lot of people.”

The answer to her question of where it all went could be good, old-fashioned Hollywood racism. But that doesn’t delve into the intricacies of that system itself. Like, the treatment of Blackness as a fad that you can latch on to, as what reportedly happened around 1990, and discard when it theoretically goes out of style.

Or how Black filmmakers weren’t actually given the support they needed to succeed and make the films they wanted. Even more cynically, maybe Hollywood thought it figured out a way to commercialize Blackness without Black people, which could be why we saw a dramatic dearth of Black talent on screen beginning in the early 2000s, though hip-hop was as big as ever.

Filmmakers Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes attend the "Menace II Society" Beverly Hills Premiere on May 25, 1993, at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills, California.
Filmmakers Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes attend the "Menace II Society" Beverly Hills Premiere on May 25, 1993, at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills, California.
Ron Galella via Getty Images

Whatever the case, Neal found herself toward the end of the ’90s with another great opportunity: playing the killer in “Scream 2.” But an unfortunate script leak took that away. (Hallie is tragically killed by Ghostface, while she waits for Sidney to find out whether he’s still breathing in that car.)

Hallie being the killer was the behind-the-scenes #1 fun fact that she shared on Twitter in December, effectively sparking discussion among the film’s many fans. What would have been Hallie’s motive? Who, as it was in the first film, would have been her co-conspirator?

Neal doesn’t go into much more detail than what she already posted about it, but she does say: “It would’ve definitely changed a lot of things for my career back then. Absolutely.”

Well, she was about to star on “The Hughleys” the next year and obviously managed to carve a career for herself, even adding ‘producer’ to her long list of credits and helping elevate the Memphis performing arts scene. She’d also earn considerable accolades as a dancer long before then. But there was something else playing the killer would have afforded her.

“Well, when you are the lead and the killer of a huge, million-dollar franchise, then you can use that leverage to the next project,” Neal said. “And that’s happened to me a couple times where I’ve either gotten close to something and didn’t get it. But that’s the nature of the beast.”

Timothy Olyphant (left), Jamie Kennedy, Neve Campbell, Jerry O'Connell and Elise Neal in "Scream 2."
Timothy Olyphant (left), Jamie Kennedy, Neve Campbell, Jerry O'Connell and Elise Neal in "Scream 2."

She likens her feelings to why so many Black folks put such an emphasis on being nominated for and/or winning an Oscar. It’s about validation, which solidifies you in time.

“And you can use that to produce a project or get more money to produce your own project,” Neal continued. “It’s a calling card for the next job. It’s changing the amount you make.”

In a world where, as she pointed out, eggs cost $8, money most definitely matters. “You want to be able to say, ‘I was nominated, and I won, and this is how much money I want now and going forward.’ Or, ‘This is the way I want to be perceived and treated going forward.’ So, being the killer would have afforded me a little bit more opportunities to have those roles.”

All of this is true. It makes you wonder where her career would be today if that had happened. But then again, Neal has never been one to think too long about the coulda, shoulda, woulda.

“I’ve always been a go-getter about my life because I feel like life is to be enjoyed and that’s where it starts,” she said. “I’ve never been unclear about that, but it would’ve been great to have a little bit more structure. But we figured it out. We still here.”

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