It was a big deal when Kerry Washington was revealed as the cover girl for Vanity Fair’s August issue. An actress who’s been around for more than a decade and who has finally hit big as the star of the hit ABC political drama Scandal, she is the first black woman who’s not Beyoncé to pose solo on the front of the mag since 1993.* And since this is the publication whose annual Hollywood issues tout the “next big things” and the A-list elite, the significance of this (along with her Elle cover in June) cannot be overstated.
Washington isn’t the only black woman in Hollywood who’s currently experiencing a high point in her career. This summer has brought forth more welcome news, with the election of Cheryl Boone Isaacs as the first black female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Internet star Issa Rae’s deal with HBO to co-write and star in her own comedy series based on themes from her popular Web series, The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl.* (This comes after last year’s equally promising news that Rae is developing another sitcom under Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes’ company, though that project has yet to be sold.) Combined with the Oscar talk swirling around the performances of Oprah Winfrey and Octavia Spencer for Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Fruitvale Station, respectively, this seems to be a pretty great year for black women in film and television. Perhaps, even, this is evidence of “the Obama effect” on Hollywood, as Sharon Waxman wrote for the Wrap a couple of weeks ago?
Not even close. The “Obama effect,” for those new to the term, is a tidy phrase that implies that our black president has inspired the country to do better in all walks of life, from improving test scores for black students to moves toward greater diversity and inclusion of nonwhites. Waxman cites as her evidence of Hollywood’s improved stance toward blacks a meeting where names of the “hottest” current celebrities were bandied about. Washington and Parks and Recreation star Rashida Jones, she with the “piercing blue eyes and mixed race parentage,” were the first names mentioned, she writes proudly.
As easy as it may be for Waxman to measure equality in perceived hotness, it’s even easier for actresses of color to tell you that Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to black representation, and especially black female representation. Viola Davis made the case very clear when she deemed the current state of black actresses as being in a “crisis mode” during a discussion on Oprah’s Next Chapter. “We’re in the same category,” she told Winfrey and fellow guests Alfre Woodard and Phylicia Rashad. “Whereas if you take a Caucasian actress, you have the ones who are the teens, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and they’re all different. There’s roles for each of them.” But when you see a black woman in a movie, she’s usually playing a “sassy” character in a service job (nurse, receptionist, housekeeper) or a bland girlfriend, wife, or best friend to a white lead. (Or if she’s really made it, she gets to take starring roles in creative cesspools made by Tyler Perry.) With little exception, that was essentially Kerry Washington’s career prior to Scandal, which became the first network TV drama in nearly 40 years to star a black woman.
It’s not just that black actresses are auditioning and not getting cast in larger roles—it seems that they are frequently absent from the casting process entirely. If a film isn’t readily defined as a “black film” (one with a predominantly black cast that will supposedly only appeal to black audiences), casting directors are rarely able to imagine that there are talented actresses of color who may be right for a certain role. As reported by Nina Shen Rastogi in Slate, Berkeley Law professor Russell Robinson’s three-month sample of casting breakdowns found that 22.5 percent of roles were specified for white actors, while 46.5 percent were unspecified. “According to most of his sources,” Rastogi explained, “a role with no ethnic designation would be implicitly understood by talent agents and actors to be Caucasian—meaning that, in Robinson’s final tally, 69 percent of open film roles were presumed to be reserved for white actors.”
Consider the recent casting update for the heist drama Focus, which is set to star Will Smith. Kristen Stewart backed out of the project last month reportedly because she didn’t want to play the love interest of the 44-year-old Smith. (She’s 23.) The role has been recast with relative newcomer Margot Robbie, who is also 23. While several news outlets took pains to mock Hollywood’s obsession with pairing older actors with significantly younger leading ladies, pretty much no one pointed out the other glaring aspect of this casting news: The list of women who were up for the role—Michelle Williams, Rose Byrne, Jessica Biel, and Olivia Munn—is almost entirely white.