Black Male Film Stars Increase, but Black Women Are Still Far Behind

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Aug. 14 2013 5:51 PM

Will Black Actresses Ever Catch Up to Their Peers?

Casting black actresses still appears to be a stretch for producers.

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Perhaps this is not an inclusive list, and there were in fact women of color who tested for the role. But it’s more likely that a black actress was never even considered in the first place, even though the role of a novice con artist doesn’t appear to be race-specific, none of the proposed women are proven box-office draws, and there are several established women of color who would match those white actresses in age and/or talent. (Washington, Tika Sumpter, Meagan Good, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Saldana, Jurnee Smollett, to name a few.)

Shonda Rhimes
Shonda Rhimes at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for the season finale table read and Q-and-A for Scandal on May 16, 2013

Photo courtesy Rick Rowell/ABC

These perceptions laid out by Hollywood’s casting system spill into the public’s perception of whiteness-as-default. Take, for instance, last year’s uproar over the casting of black actors in The Hunger Games—for characters that are described in the original book as having “dark brown skin.” Or David Camp’s telling disclaimer in Washington’s Vanity Fair profile, written in parentheses, that immediately follows his description of Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers’ search for black actresses for the lead in Scandal: “Olivia was conceived as a black woman because her inspiration, Judy Smith, is black.” Can you imagine someone explaining the casting of Ray Liotta in Goodfellas by noting that his character’s inspiration was also white?

And although no one will argue that today’s black actors as a whole have reached equality in the Hollywood studio system, they have been demonstrably more successful than their female counterparts, thanks in part to Hollywood’s continued “boys’ club” system. Will Smith’s role in Focus was originally conceived with Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Ben Affleck in mind; his characters in I Am Legend and Hitch were also written as white. His black peers, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx, have also been cast in roles meant for white actors.

Meanwhile, Viola Davis, Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett, and others—today’s current crop of older black actresses who are also critical darlings—have never even come close to matching the commercial success (and thus the ensuing plethora of creative opportunities) of their black male peers.

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And there’s little grooming of younger black actresses in the same way that Hollywood is constantly searching for the next young white ingénue. Twenty-one-year-old Shailene Woodley is currently that “it” girl after her wonderful performance in The Spectacular Now, and before her were dozens of young white actresses: Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon, Saoirse Ronan. Yet 19-year-old Keke Palmer, who impressed in Akeelah and the Bee and had her own successful Nickelodeon series for three seasons, has yet to receive any similar career opportunities or attention. (Black male youth actors fare similarly as their female counterparts do, though it’s worth noting that Michael B. Jordan, currently getting Oscar buzz thanks to Fruitvale Station, is now being touted as a “young Denzel.”)

One problem, of course, lies in the overwhelmingly white and male executive suites of most networks and movie studios. Often it takes a woman of color in a position of power to see the value of black actresses that others overlook; so long as Rhimes continues to promote the work of others like Rae while creating popular shows with ethnically diverse casts like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, actresses (and actors) of color will get their shot at high-profile, challenging work. But it shouldn‘t be up to Rhimes alone. The Academy has already started to turn a new leaf, welcoming a number of minority artists as members, including Kimberly Elise and Michael Peña. Here’s hoping networks and studios follow suit so that there are more underrepresented performers for this suddenly diverse committee to choose from come Oscar season.

Correction, Aug. 14, 2013: This article originally stated that Kerry Washington is the first woman of color besides Beyoncé to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair since 1993. Washington is the first black woman other than Beyoncé to pose solo on the magazine's cover since 1993. The article also stated that Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first female and first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She is the first black female president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

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