Where are all of the Black/African-American Actresses in Hollywood?

Kere Eke

Remember those days in elementary school when it was time for your Physical Education class which some people liked while others loathed it? The most defining moment in middle school PE classes was the moment of picking teams for the sports activities. No one wanted to be picked last for the teams, and everyone wanted to be the number one pick who usually had previously shown that they were athletic. This same concept can be applied to the film industry and how movie directors tend to keep an eye out for the type of actors that have had success in particular types of roles and/or movies (the number one pick), which does not end up leaving many, if not, any leading roles for black actresses. Is this the reason why black actresses seem to be underrepresented in the film industry, or is it just a contributing factor?

There are certain African-American actresses that quite a number of people can name at the top of their heads. Beyoncé Knowles, just so happens to be one of them. However, this could be confusing for some, for the fact that she is mostly known worldwide for being an entertainer in the realm of music. But when we look at why Beyoncé, a well-known singer, can move easily into the world of film, it brings up the topic of marketability which is very important when analyzing the reasons for a lack of African-American women in the film industry. In the article “Where is the Black Julia Roberts? Part 1: Top Actresses 2000-2010” the author/guest contributor analyzes the top movies of the 2000s and formulates a list of black actress that had worthwhile parts in the top movies. After that list was formulated, the author ranks the black actresses based on the percentage of leading roles the actresses have had when compared to all of the roles they have held in their whole film careers. And who comes out on top? Beyoncé Knowles with eighty-three percent of films she’s acted in which she playing a leading role. She is at the top of the list not because she has particularly amazing acting prowess, but because of her status as an entertainment that can sell out huge venues for her concerts and casting directors see a strong correlation with selling out movie theaters which explains why she does not have to fight for her roles. Whereas other incoming black actresses who have only acting find it harder to be seen as being very marketable. Because the main goal of the film industry is to make money, so if directors have to make a choice between a lesser known actress and one that has proven to be one of the most popular entertainers in the business, they will most likely choose the latter. While that does not pertain to the issue of black actresses alone, it does not help matters. Because then the Hollywood community gets one view of African-American actresses and it’s the view that all of them can only act in roles in which they must be the stereotypical beautiful, voluptuous, singing co-star. When that is not true at all, because we have wonderful actresses such as Viola Davis who have had amazing roles, which unsurprisingly happen to be supporting roles. According to IMDB (Internet Movie Database) she has been in a leading role ten percent of the time. Even though she has earned an Academy-Award nomination.

If I asked someone of my generation to name ten great white actresses, they would have no problem choosing between actresses such as Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, etc. However, if they were asked the same question but of Black actresses, there would probably be a pause as they tried and most likely to name a good number of them. And if or when they do have some actresses in mind there will mostly likely be some comparison involved, such as “ [insert African-American actress name here] is like the black Julia Roberts.” And this is a problem. The fact that when most people try to gauge an African-American actresses’ talent we tend to compare it to a well-known white actresses. This is sort of a setback in itself.

There are plenty of potential Black leading ladies, but a problem that seems to come up quite a bit is that there is a lack of leading roles for them in Hollywood blockbusters. When you think about it, the film industry has to cater to what the viewers want to see. That target ends up choosing movies lead by white actors and actresses. However, over the past few years we have seen a few very successful movies emerge with an almost all African-American cast. Why the sudden change? The movies happened to be directed by Tyler Perry, a successful black director. However, Perry’s movies make the viewer feel as if there are only ten good black actors and actresses in all of Hollywood because the same ten actors appear in almost every movie he directs. In the web article “Hollywood movies with African American directors have more Black characters,” is pretty self-explanatory, in the sense that the author asserts that the Hollywood films directed by African-Americans are much more likely to have African-American actresses with a leading role than movies that are not directed by African-Americans. This implies that the race of the director is a contributing factor in the roles that African-American actresses get. Which means that in order to start attempting to diversify the leading ladies in Hollywood, we should/must start with diversifying those who produce, direct, and cast the movies.

In addition to diversifying all aspects of the film industry, we must also look at the current roles available to black actresses and compare them to the number of roles black actors receive. However, it is also important to note that maybe the reason for the lack of roles for African-American actresses is that when screenplay writers formulate a movie’s storyline, they are more likely to base it on their experiences and people who are similar to them, and a black actress usually does not fill those criteria. Although, columnist Margeaux Watson begs to differ. In her article “Commentary: It's Time to Put Black Actresses in Hollywood Blockbusters,” she argues that black actresses could have more roles, for example as love interests of other notable black actors such as Denzel Washington or Will Smith, but casting directors tend to offer those roles to white actresses in fear that the audience will think the movie or plot too urban.

After films are premiered and viewed, the highly anticipated award show season comes along. It is a season all talented people in the film industry look forward to every year. Some more than others. Award shows in general tend to be more forgiving to White actors and actresses. When you look at the history of African –American actresses in arguably the most esteemed award show of the season, the Academy Awards, it is quite evident that we still have a way to go when it comes to being recognized for the efforts made in various projects. Just to put this into perspective, the first African-American actress to be nominated for and win an Academy Award was Hattie McDaniel in 1939 for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, ten years after the first Academy Awards. And Halle Berry was the first African-American woman to be awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress (not supporting) earlier in this past decade. The solution, since there are such few Black actresses getting recognized for their work in films, the NAACP decided to have an awards show that would focus on the acting of people of color. By celebrating the achievements of African-American actors, they also help to promote the acting dreams and aspirations of the next generation of Black actresses.

While the African-American actresses in the film industry is the main focus of the black community, there is some controversy in the small screen. In the article “Race + TV: Taraji P. Henson Isn’t A Person Of Interest On Her Own Show,” the author Kendra James goes discusses the recent controversy over a well-known African-American actress and her new television show that was going to premier soon. In the article, we learn of Taraji P. Henson, a black actress in a leading role in a new TV show on cable, and how although she was one of the three main leads in the show, she was barely featured in any of the advertising campaigns for the show. This idea brings up the idea of the potential move of black actor and actresses to the “small screen” instead of the “big screen.” James makes the point that while award winning and noteworthy white film actors and actresses often make guest appearances on network television you don’t often find them leading television shows. Award winning Actors of color, however, seem to be making the transition from their Oscar nominated and critically acclaimed movies to network and cable television. Though, these are roles that the black actors’ white counterparts would probably never accept. What does that tell us about the future of African-American actresses in the acting world? Well, author Aymar Jean Christian articulates in “Is Hollywood Pushing Black Actors to TV?” that there might be a migration of A-list black actors moving to television. This is evident when one really thinks about it. For example you have Forrest Whitaker, an Academy Award winner, acting in the television show Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. Christian points out that networks are starting to order more shows with black leads even though they may not be guaranteed to succeed in terms of the amount of viewership every week. This is almost to be expected since movie budgets are for the most part more costly than television shows’ budgets which makes sense because if I happen to own a movie studio and my movies aren’t making money from the revenues of the films, the safest thing to do in order to insure that the director will get a good return/profit for the movie studio is buy casting popular actors that have proven that they can attract a certain target audience. However, because the television show budgets generally are smaller than that of blockbuster films, the networks feel that they can take risks in the shows that they want to produce.

African-American women generally do not get many leading roles in film, that is a fact. But one thing to be said about the current state is that ultimately it is up to the African-American actresses to change how they are viewed in Hollywood. We know that a handful of great black actresses have been a chance to shine in the film industry and those women have proven to the rest of African-American actress group that it is not an unaccomplishable feat, they just may have to work harder than their white counterparts. Another reason is it important for African-American actresses in the film industry to be present in leading roles and more Hollywood blockbusters is for the simple fact that it sends a message to the emerging generation or young children to adults of color that their stories are just as important as their white counterparts as well.

Works Cited

Christian, Aymar. "Where is the Black Julia Roberts? Part 1: Top Actresses 2000-

2010." Racialious. N.p., 10 Nov 2010. Web. 05 Nov. 2011 .

Christian, Aymar. "Where is the Black Julia Roberts? Part 2: Top Actresses 2000-

2010." Racialious. N.p., 11 Nov 2010. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. .

Christian, Aymar. "Is Hollywood Pushing Black Actors to TV?." Racialious. N.p., 22

Feb 2011. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. .

James, Kendra. "Race TV: Taraji P. Henson Isn’t A Person Of Interest On Her Own

Show." Racialious. N.p., 28 Sep 2011. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. .

McCray, Donna. "Plenty of Leading Black Ladies, But Very Few Leading Black Roles ."

Bronze Magazine. 12 09 2011: n. page. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. .

PR, Newswire. "Hollywood movies with African American directors have more Black

characters." OurWeekly. N.p., 20 May 2011. Web. 10 Oct 2011. .

Watson, Margeaux. "Commentary: It's Time to Put Black Actresses in Hollywood

Blockbusters ." Entertainment Weekly. N.p., 11 Jul 2008. Web. 10 Oct 2011. .