By Charles Hallman
Final installment of a four-part series
12 Years a Slave made five out of nine top-10 films of 2013 lists by movie critics, and Fruitvale Station made two such lists; these two movies featured Black males as leads. However, only two Black females — Halle Berry (The Call, Sony Pictures) and Paula Patton (Baggage Claim, Fox Searchlight) — were leads in movies released by major Hollywood studios in 2013.
“Critics don’t look at a film and notice that every one of the lead roles is White,” Uptown Magazine Editor Ronda Racha Penrice said in an October CNN.com article.
A UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies released the “Hollywood Diversity Brief” in October and it stated that there is “a dearth of gender, racial and ethnic diversity in film and television — both in front of and behind the camera.”
Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow) and Kerry Washington (Scandal) are the only Black female leads on prime time network television this season. “I’m 5’1 and an African American woman. I just didn’t think anyone would have me to play the cop,” said Beharie of her character in an Essence magazine interview.
The magazine also published survey results in November where over 1,200 respondents said “overwhelmingly negative” images of Black women in film and television “is seen often twice as frequently as positive imagery.” Among the negative images oft-mentioned were “gold diggers,” “modern Jezebels,” “baby mamas,” “uneducated sisters,” and “angry Black women.”
Actress LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross, in separate MSR interviews, discussed the state of “meaningful” Black female acting roles in film and television today.
“I graduated from Julliard in 1989,” says Hamilton. “I would say that things have gotten worse since I graduated from school.”
Adds Ross, “Just because of my looks, oftentimes I have been called in for “cops,” “lawyers,” and “tough women” [roles].”
Hamilton has appeared in over 20 films and television shows, including seven seasons on The Practice (ABC). She recalls being asked to audition for “a one-scene character in a movie… I’ve played a principal on film 50 times already but… my website and body of work doesn’t matter.
“So let’s suppose I got it — I am going to go all the way to Australia for a scene you might cut,” complains Hamilton. “As old as I am [she will turn 50 years old on March 25], I’m still fighting for [meaningful roles]. All of the Black women in my age range — we all are sitting there once again with do-rags on our heads because the character is a drug addict. This is ridiculous and breaks your soul after a while.
“No one out here is making millions of dollars — maybe one or two [Black actors] are but the rest of us are struggling to make it work. It’s an awful casting wheel that you would like to get off of,” states Hamilton.
“I’m getting the things I supposed to get. There are certain things I don’t even look at because I feel I’ve [reached] the top of a certain genre and I am not trying to go backwards,” believes Ross.
“There are not enough roles for women of color, period,” adds Hamilton. “I hate to be a Hispanic woman, an Indian woman, an Asian woman — it’s really hard to find roles that are full-fledged human beings and play an integral part in any commercial venue: film, television and even theater. It has gotten worse and worse, and worse and sad.
“There are certain actresses who get picked over and over and over again because they fit a stereotype. They fit a person’s perceived notion on how someone should look or be,” she points out.
The two actresses recently starred in Go For Sisters, an independent film written, produced and director by John Sayles.
“You have a film like this, which is very low budget and very, very simple,” explains Hamilton. “Very, very character-driven with African American women.” However, she bemoans that such films aren’t always seen by Blacks. “So for all the ‘ooh’s’ that there’s no films and roles for Black women, but when they do appear, they don’t show up and they don’t support.”
Says Ross, “The reality is [that] I’ve read a lot of really good scripts over the years but they just haven’t been able to get made.”
When asked why haven’t Black-oriented cable channels, such as BET, TV One and others, opened up more doors for Black actors and actresses, “Why don’t they? Because they don’t have the interest,” answered Hamilton. “They bought into ridiculous, meaningless imagery.
“Tyler Perry exists because somebody goes and sees it repeatedly,” she continues. “You got to stop asking why BET, Bounce (TV) and everybody else aren’t [because] they don’t want to. I can’t look to BET… I can’t look to these [channels] because they continue to do what they do, and they have every right to. But I think it’s sad, detrimental, and sets [a] dangerous precedent.”
The Internet and other new media types might be the way to go for Black actors, claims Ross.
“I don’t see any other alternatives,” concurs Hamilton. “It seems to me that it is the only way, and the least expensive way for all artists of all persuasions to get their political artistic views out there. Young artists, old [artists] whoever have to use the Internet because it is the only thing we have to speak, to bring your vice to the forefront.”
Finally, whether epic blockbusters or small independent films; network television or cable, Blacks in the 21st Century still are searching for meaningful acting roles.
“When it becomes about the green, it becomes about the status quo, whatever that means,” concludes Hamilton.
Information from the Detroit Free Press, The Root.com, CNN.com and Essence.com was used in this article.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com