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An Inquiry Into The Plight Of The Black Actor...

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act May 28, 2014 at 11:28AM

An Inquiry Into The Plight Of The Black Actor...
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Imanuelle Grives and Geza Weisz In "Only Decent People"
Imanuelle Grives and Geza Weisz In "Only Decent People"

I don't believe we've ever posed this question to S&A readers - actors specifically; not those who've already "made it," but those many who struggle daily to, not just be hired for jobs, but paid jobs; and even further, paid jobs that come consistently, enabling them to earn somewhat of a living wage as actors, and actors only.

I want to hear from those folks specifically on this one... although everyone else is free to chime in.

In light of recent debates on this site over the so-called "burden of representation" that many of you expect black actors to bear, I want to know if, or how these discussions influence you, as the struggling actor who happens to be black.

I know a lot of actors, as a New York resident, where many come to hone their skills, and pursue their dreams, whether on the stage, TV or in film. I've even had relationships with a few actresses, in my adult life. And while I certainly can't say that I'm one with their struggles, I'm familiar enough with them, given what I've learned from those experiences over the years, to empathize with that struggle. So I tend to be less judgemental about the choices actors make, whether or not I approve.

I was reminded of all this as I browsed through the S&A archives, and came across posts for the 2012 Dutch comedy, Only Decent People (photo above), which was severely trashed by readers, not only on this site, but around the web, wherever it was written about. And in skimming through the myriad of comments left in response to that film, several asked a variation of this question: "How can these black actors agree to take these kinds of unflattering, stereotypical, racist roles that depict black people in such a negative light?"

And the question is usually followed with an exclamation like: "These actors should be ashamed of themselves;" or, "they should have their black cards revoked," etc, etc, etc.

I read those comments and I immediately think about the actor(s) in question (in the above case, Imanuelle Grives, the actress who plays the lead female role in Only Decent People- and I wonder if they're at all ruffled by these kinds of questions and comments, and in some cases, what are essentially flat-out attacks against them!

I start to wonder if we, the audience, is being fair, especially often without hearing their side of the story - hence this post. It's easy to be on the other side, and criticize choices. But maybe it's not all so black & white, and there's a lot more here to consider.

It is a business after all, and while some would say that they'd rather starve than play some 1-dimensional character that they find utterly despicable or demeaning (whether to themselves, or in representing black people), there are others who would say, "sorry, but my survival is primary; I have to eat; I've got rent to pay; I've got union dues to pay; I need sessions with my acting coach, and they're not free; I need a new set of head-shots; etc, etc, etc. I don't owe anyone anything, except myself!"

But yet, we, the audience, have these expectations of them. And the reason I'm addressing the *struggling actor* specifically here, is because, they're, well, struggling; Their options are far fewer than those who've *made it* (although even those who've *made it* aren't all financially comfortable either). What do you do when you're 3 months late on rent, and you're offered a part in a movie, that actually pays something, but you'll be playing the "smiling, happy Negro," or some other undesirable role - the kind black people typically reject?

Do you set limits and boundaries for yourselves as actors? In entering the business as an actor, have you decided on what that line is that you won't cross, No. Matter. What? Are you affected by the criticism you read of other actors? 

Another example, going back even further, a couple of years ago, when Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer essentially did what I'd call a "defense tour," spending almost every single interview they did during the press tour for The Help, defending their reasons for taking the roles as Civil Rights era maids in that film, given the onslaught of criticism from the black community in the USA specifically, leveled against them.

Although, let's face it, even if they hadn't taken the roles, I'm pretty sure that there would've been a long line of other actresses, both known and unknown, who would've been more than happy to take the jobs. Because, again, it is a job. It's a business. It's work. It's income.

And going back still further, when Angela Bassett was critical of Halle Berry for her performance in Monsters Ball - specifically the raw sex scene; a role that Halle was severely, and still is criticized for today. I imagine it's maybe even worse when it's your fellow struggling actor leveling the criticism against you.

So, what's a black actor to do? Or what's a struggling black actor to do? How do you deal? How do you reconcile? Do you set limits? Maybe you just don't give a damn what anyone thinks? Or something else?

This is a serious inquiry; I really want you to allow others into your heads, and give insight into how black actors think about all of this, if at all. As always, the intent is to inspire critical thinking, and generate conversation.

So, let the information flow...

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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