NOT Wanted? The Vanishing Black Actress.

Beyonce vs. Nia: should popularity trump skill?

Beyonce vs. Nia: should popularity trump skill?

Many a day goes by before my thoughts turn to Dorothy Dandridge.   Okay, I’ll be honest.  Unless my wife brings up what a tragedy it was how Dandridge was handled by Hollywood, I probably don’t think about her at all. 

I used to think quite a bit about Pam Grier.   Probably back when I was a terrible sexist I marveled over her aerodynamically perfect body in Blaxploitation films such as Coffy and the nude centerfold from Players magazine that used to adorn the wall in my dormitory when I was in the Air Force.

I haven’t thought of Whoopi Goldberg since I used to argue with a lesbian friend over whether she was a talented actress or a sell-out.  I do see her on The View on the television screen overhanging the treadmills at the gym.   I will think about Oprah Winfrey because she’s omnipresent that trying not to think abut her is difficult.   I think about Halle Berry.   Because she’s Halle Berry.

I hope to soon be thinking about all of them because they are the subjects of a new book,  Divas on Screen: Black Women in  American Filmby Mia Mask, an Associate Professor of Film at Vassar College.    By natural temperament I’d be interested in the subject.   As there is a possibility for a potential story by interviewing Professor Mask for some publication—one that pays $$$ for interviews—I’m even more inclined to learn more about Dandridge, Grier, Goldberg, Winfrey and Berry.

Writers come across attention-catching ideas that make us pause, stroke our chins thoughtfully and think, “This would make a great story.”   More often than not though they never get past the chin-stroking stage.  There aren’t enough hours in the day to act on every idea that seems promising. 

Go ahead. YOU tell Pam Grier you gave the part to Beyonce.

Go ahead. YOU tell Pam Grier you gave the part to Beyonce.

Last July I read a quotation by the actresses Nia Long that got a little play in the Black blogosphere.   In an interview with Pride, the British online magazine Long was asked by the Fatal Attraction-in-Blackface reimagining, Obsession, starring Beyonce in the Anne Archer role as the wife who defends hearth, home and hubby from  a psycho bitch trying to push up. 

A crap movie like Obsession probably belongs being ignored on Lifetime or straight to DVD oblivion, but got a  theaterical release it probably wouldn’t have enjoyed if Beyonce’s big butt wasn’t attached to it.   Nia Long wasn’t feeling the love for Sasha Fierce playing on her side of the court.

“I didn’t see ‘Obsessed,’ so I can’t comment , but it’s just not about how talented you are anymore, it’s about ‘How much box office revenue will this person generate?’  When you see certain people–we won’t name–they just don’t have the skill, and no one in their team has aid, ‘You need acting classes.”

 Oh no, she didn’t!   How could it be that the star of  The Fighting Temptations, Austin Powers in Goldmember, and Carmen: A Hip-Hopera  need acting lessons.  What are movies anyway but really long music videos with less music and more video?

Long’s remarks were widely taken as Long hating on Beyonce.  Of course, lost in the gossipy aspect was the actual truth  that Beyonce can’t act.   Singers and rappers taking time off from their day jobs are getting the leading roles  while real professionals  like Long and Sanaa Lathan are picking up a paycheck from Fox doing voice over work on The Cleveland Show.

At the time I had some discussions about what Long said and nobody seemed to care much.   It’s not like Obsessed would have been anything but trash with Thandie Newton or Kerry Washington playing the part.    I also get it that unless you’re eye candy (Megan Fox) or a beloved superstar (Meryl Streep)  it’s hard for any woman to find steady work in front of or behind the camera.   

But try to recall the last time a film with a Black woman in the lead not named Halle, Whoopi or Oprah  made any money?    If you’re only as popular in Hollywood as your last movie,  Berry hasn’t had a hit since X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).  Goldberg and Winfrey are on even longer losing streaks.

 It’s just  bugs me  how sistas can’t get a job in movies unless they’re willing to play girlfriends to White actors with a dose of jungle fever or Tyler Perry isn’t throwing them a bone.   As much as I’m looking forward to the release of Precious next month, no less than  three of the leading roles were performed by non-actors (Mo’nique, Mariah Carey and a newcomer  Gabourey Sidibe).    Perry seems to be a one-man job service for Black actresses, but even though he’s adapting For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,  even with the names of Berry and Winfrey  rumored to be attached to the project, so  is that of the singer Jill Scott.   Even Perry has to hedge his bets with a non-acting actress in the mix.

Sophie Okonedo:  An Academy Award nomination, but few jobs.

Sophie Okonedo: An Academy Award nomination, but few jobs.

It’s strange that at a time when it seems there’s never been so many talented Black women in Hollywood, good roles for them aren’t there.    There’s something kind of screwed up when Beyonce and Queen Latifah have more future gigs lined up than Angela Bassett, Sophie Okonedo or Taraji Henson. 

As likely as not, as increasingly fewer movies are produced relying on actors instead of computer generated special effects,  Black women will reamain as an underrepresented minority within an underrepresented minority.  There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of change on the horizon when even Black actors with the clout of  Denzel Washington and Will Smith are as likely to pair off with Charlize Theron,  Rosario Dawson and Eva Mendes as a Black woman.   When Denzel and Will don’t have any love for the sistas, what do they have to do to catch a break? 

Then again, it’s been a long time since Halle Berry made a movie hugged up with anything other than Pierce Brosnan, Bruce Willis, or Benicio Del Toro, so it’s hard to get a mainstream movie out of Hollywood showing  a happy Black couple.   

I am looking forward to reading Divas on Screen.  I’m also hopeful I get a positive response to my story pitch for an interview with the author.   The thing I’m worried about is the subtitle.   Will there be enough Black women in American films for Professor Mask to write a second volume  if she chooses?

2 thoughts on “NOT Wanted? The Vanishing Black Actress.

  1. It is shame that Black actress are finding it so hard to find study work.

    They are hit with a double wammy of the fact that women in general are usually subjected to only playing the roles of the wife or girlfriend and the fact that there really aren’t enough roles for Black actors period.

    also I don’t think it sexist to have enjoyed Pam Grier (or anyone else’s) body, as long as one doesn’t feel that looks are the only value a woman has.


  2. Wow, this was a really good read. I like how you caught booth sides of the spectrum as fas woman in general have limited opportunity. My favorite comment though was “Singers and rappers taking time off from their day jobs are getting the leading roles while real professionals like Long and Sanaa Lathan are picking up a paycheck from Fox doing voice over work on The Cleveland Show.” CHURCH! That is so true. Me personally, as an african-american woman, I can tell you I’d rather Nia or Sanaa all day everyday. Secret Life of Bees benefitted strongly from Sophie.


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