Recognition of Black women in American film industry still the exception, not the rule



Movies, Media & More

Dwight Hobbes

You really have to wonder whether Black women are ever going to get from the American film industry the break they have long since earned, which is to say it’s gravely doubtful. White men who wield the power don’t show any signs of doing anything of the kind. Nor do White women. Not even the liberated liberal ones who just love to strut around as living breathing examples of social progress and always seem to have a special Black girlfriend on-call to trot out at upscale parties and other see-and-be-seen social events.

Black men in the business, they, generally speaking, are just plain sorry when it comes to holding the same door for Black women that they themselves walked through when it was grudgingly opened.

Consider The Weinstein Company, headed up by Harvey Weinstein and Bob Weinstein. These White executive producers are two of the most powerful people in Hollywood. The closest they came to doing the right thing by Black women was the HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a splendid show starring Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose that, when it didn’t take off right away, was scrapped after just one season.

In fact, the entire operation gave sistahs short shrift. Along with being shelved without a decent chance to go anywhere, all the people making the best money off it — the executives, producers, directors, casting agents, you name it — were, every last one of them, a White man or a White woman.

Sandra Bullock, Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie are among a whole list of White women with the juice to get a film financed just by signing on and get paid a fortune who are only interested in stories getting told on the screen are about, of course, intrepid, courageous and otherwise wonderfully heroic — you guessed it — White women. Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and such are so busy shining as co-star to one White man or another, you’re lucky to find a Black woman in the movie at all.

Now, naturally, you are going to find occasional exceptions to all these cases, which, as the saying goes, prove the rule. This includes Octavia Spencer having copped the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help. If Spencer is sitting around, expecting her agent’s phone to start ringing off the hook, she can guess again.

None of this is by happenstance. The movies are run by a racist sensibility. For instance, Rachel Weisz starred in Agora as Hypatia of Alexandria, a fourth-century lecturer, mathematician and scientist who actually happened to be Black. In the HBO series Rome, Lyndsey Marshal is featured as Cleopatra. Now, the queen of Egypt, if she wasn’t coal Black and shaped like Chaka Khan, certainly was not a waif-looking blonde built like a boy with bumps.

It should be unthinkable that, in this day and age, industry still stubbornly refuses to accurately portray history, so that White actors can cater to White audiences who want to see themselves reflected at all costs, including the truth about Black women who literally helped changed the world.

Kasi Lemmons, back in 1997, created a phenomenal stir as writer-actor-director of Eve’s Bayou. It looked like finally a Black woman had cracked the behind-the-scenes barrier, maybe even shattered it. With the commercial and critical success of that flick, Lemmons became the newest darling of Tinseltown.

Then she made the mistake of filming The Caveman’s Valentine, with George Dawes’ script that didn’t measure up to Eve’s Bayou artistically or, more importantly, at the box office. Where White directors frequently can fail two and three times (Firebox, Sudden Impact, True Crime) and still financial backing eventually prevails (Unforgiven), Kasi Lemmons immediately fell from grace.

Lemmons made the marvelous independent film Talk to Me in 2007 starring Don Cheadle. Since then, she has thrown in the towel and gone back to acting.

Beyoncé Knowles, in 2008, pulled off what should have been the power move of a lifetime, bankrolling and starring in Cadillac Records, hiring Black woman director Darnell Martin. Amazingly, without Knowles gyrating the sexpot in skimpy clothes, nobody — including Black audiences — was interested.

The project barely broke even, and she decided her next move in film would be to get up under Eastwood as director for his remake of A Star Is Born. So much for what, like Eve’s Bayou, could’ve and should’ve spelled the emergence of Black women as an industry-altering force.

This is the best we can expect. A sad fact. So, we may as well just be grateful when, every once in a blue moon, a Precious, a Cadillac Records or an Eve’s Bayou comes along. And truly appreciate it like coming across water in the desert.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.