Right On

African-American Actresses Decry the Lack of Good Roles

African-American actresses say good parts in movies or TV are few and far between.

©2011 Focus Features

Comedian/actress Kim Wayans is all smiles as she basks in the glow of her first dramatic role in the new film Pariah but she still has to pause and ponder when asked what role in film she wished she’d had the chance to portray in the past few years. After a few minutes of thought, she shakes her head and asks, “What have we had?’’

Wayans’s not-so-shocking response is a fitting comment on the dearth of opportunities offered African-American actresses in film, television, and the media generally. In a year that has seen black women highlighted and showcased as the “help’’ or as disgruntled ex-wives ready to fistfight the next woman in a heartbeat, many in film and television continue to pose the question: will more selective, diverse, and fully developed roles ever be a reality for women of color?

“I didn’t think we’d still be having this same conversation so many years later,’’ says Wayans, who gained fame with her brothers on the comedy variety show In Living Color. “The 90s were so bright and promising for people of color in Hollywood, and I for one thought it would only get better with the chance for me and other black actresses to portray any number of characters and in all types of stories.’’

It didn’t. Though the likes of actresses such as Halle Berry and Mo'Nique have all won Oscars in recent years, some would say they were awarded for stereotypical portrayals of African-American women in controversial films like Monster’s Ball and Precious. And while many African-American actresses say they’re still struggling to find work that fully reflects all facets of black female life, others say they’re struggling to find work at all.

“I remember in the 80s when my sister Phylicia (Rashad) was on the The Cosby Show and I was on Fame, girl, you couldn’t tell me that it wasn’t a brand new day for black women and the way we were portrayed in film and television,’’ remembers actress and director Debbie Allen. “No one could have told me we’d go in the complete reverse in the decades to come.’’

The reversal of fortune is not just limited to the number of roles offered to women of color but the type of roles as well. In the 70s Diana Ross and Diahann Carroll won Oscar nominations for leading roles in well-defined parts that highlighted their troubles but also gave the necessary backstory to those troubles as well. Both Lady Sings the Blues and Claudine offered well-rounded views of black women at work and at home, detailing not just the sorrow in their lives but the joy and good times as well. Today’s films featuring women of color seem to go to great lengths to do just the opposite.

“I miss the films that starred black women back during my childhood, says 40-year Letina Richards, a registered nurse from Hartford, Conn. “Even though Lady Sings the Blues was about Billie Holiday and her drug use, it was a beautiful and heartwarming film about a real woman trying to stay alive. Today there’s nothing but gloom and doom when it comes to stories about us—if there are any stories about us at all.’’

After a recent rehearsal for the Broadway play Mountaintop, star Samuel L. Jackson easily rattles off a list of upcoming projects due for release in 2012. His equally talented, Oscar-nominated costar, Angela Bassett, isn’t quite able to do the same. “I’m a black actress, honey—what can I tell you but I have no idea what’s next for me,’’ says Bassett.

For that reason alone Wayans says she literally jumped for joy when she landed the role of Audrey in the new film Pariah. The heartfelt and well-acted drama follows the life of an African-American teenage girl as she struggles with how to tell her family she’s a lesbian. As the teenager’s controlling mother, Wayans is allowed to display a range of depth and emotion not often seen in black female characters on screen. Pariah is written and directed by Dee Rees, an African-American woman.

“It’s been difficult for me because of my comic background and others not being able to see me as a serious actress,’’ says Wayans. “But it’s also been an issue of not that much opportunity for roles that are different or inspiring or uplifting when it comes to African American women.’’

Though Pariah is also very somber tale of a mother unable to accept her daughter’s alternative lifestyle, Wayans manages to bring a bit of dignity and humanity to the tormented role.

“I didn’t want her to be the typical black female character you see that’s just angry at everything and everyone,’’ says Wayans. “I wanted the audience to see that she loved her daughter in the way that she could and tried in her own way to make it work. She wasn’t just cold and callous. Giving the audience something different was very important to me.’’

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Even during a period where mature actresses such as Meryl Steep, Helen Mirren, and Judy Dench appear to enjoy their pick of edgy, well-written and highly publicized films, veteran actresses like Bassett and Berry have to search hard to find work that offers a more textured, detailed look into the lives of black women.

“It’s sad to say that the roles for African-American women haven’t strayed very far from what was comfortable for white or mainstream audiences to see years ago,’’ says Donald Bogle, film historian and professor at New York University. “Roles that show black women as maids, nannies, or sidekicks for the mainstream world continue to reduce black women to support systems and to only being there to service the needs of others. It’s a disturbing trend to see keep repeating itself year after year.’’

This year’s box office hit The Help, based on the Kathryn Stockett novel, follows the lives of two African-American maids as seen through the eyes of a white writer during the civil-rights era. Stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer give stellar performances as the pivotal characters, but many complained that the film was just another example of white audiences romancing a figure that no longer exists and a period of time long gone.

“I saw The Help in the theatre with an audience that was majority white female,’’ says Olivia Wilder, a 34-year-old schoolteacher in Toledo, Ohio. “The audience was so moved by the movie, and I couldn’t tell if they just missed those days where black women were maids for them or if it were the story itself. It was uncomfortable for me, and I also know those same women wouldn’t rush out to see a film about a woman like me—professional, married, and happy. White America isn’t interested in that story.’’

Wilder points to how little impact the arrival of Michelle Obama and the first family in the White House seemed to have on an industry long-viewed as liberal.

“You have this beautiful black family right in front of you all the time but nothing on television or in film that represents them or that world,’’ says Wilder. “I’m confused at how an industry can ignore the most famous family in the world and a black woman widely considered a cultural icon around the world.’’

Bogle agrees that Hollywood continues to overlook a prime opportunity to move from the past and into a more modern view of African-American females and African-American life after the 2008 election of Barack Obama.

“I was very surprised and disappointed that a change didn’t come from that historic event,’’ says Bogle. “I was sure endless stories would be everywhere from just seeing the example of love between a black woman and man, success and power. That story has all the elements of a good Hollywood movie and yet black TV shows don’t even exist anymore. It’s baffling.’’

Though many will point to the success of producer-director-actor Tyler Perry and his frequent release of films featuring black actors, others counter it shouldn’t rest on just Perry’s shoulders to diversify Tinseltown or showcase black actresses in varying roles.

“Perry is doing what no one has or will when it comes to giving the audience a variety of stories,’’ says Bogle. “But what are the studios’ and the networks’ responsibility in this? Should they also want to see characters of all colors on the screen and should they feel compelled to tell all types of stories? Isn’t that what Hollywood is supposed to be about?’’