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

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by Tambay A. Obenson
May 28, 2014 11:28 AM
24 Comments
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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...

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24 Comments

  • Kenyetta Hughes | July 15, 2014 6:07 PMReply

    Where can I see Only Decent People? Cant find it on Netflix or Youtube or anywhere to buy it

  • Walter Harris Gavin | June 13, 2014 12:59 PMReply

    It's not just about "black" actors and the roles they choose to play. As Shakespeare said "all the world's a stage." It's about "value" vs "values." There are "black" folks in every profession that sell their souls for the almighty dollar. Being "black" in a "white" dominated society carries a burden that being "white" does not. That's just the way it is. Either you accept that burden or you don't. But either way the burden remains until institutional "white" supremacy is cast asunder. As Hattie McDaniel is purported to have said, "I'd rather play a maid for $7,000 a week than be a maid for $7 a week. It all come down to a question of "values."

  • Nelson | June 11, 2014 9:45 PMReply

    Sydney Poitier, in his autobiography, The Measure of a Man, talks about how ... Even when he needed the money, he turned down roles that robbed black characters of their dignity by portraying them as powerless victims.

  • @picsimpson | June 11, 2014 7:47 PMReply

    Did background on a couple productions in Charlotte. and i often wonder if i would be still working on those shows had i submitted for roles portraying an alternative lifestyle?
    I wouldn't say i was uncomfortable with the role as much as the pay. but not everything is negotiable!

  • troublemaker | May 29, 2014 10:39 PMReply

    The problem with struggling actors playing stereotypical or negative role, is that they get stuck playing these roles because they decided to accept the first, two or three stereotypical roles thinking that they just want to be seen or get their foot in the door. Denzel told an interesting story about when he was a struggling actor and he was offered a very negative stereotypical role which was paying him a lot of money. He stated that he remembered what Sidney Poitier had told him "the first 2, 3 or 4 films that you do in this business will dictate how you're perceived in this business." When Sidney told him that, he decided to turn down the $600,000 role and 6 months later he got Cry Freedom. Viola also told a story that she was offered a role playing a Jamaican maid who lived in the projects with her 18 kids. The maid was also a nanny & maid to a white kid who would spit on her all the time and tell her to go back to the projects with her 18 kids. She said the maid talk like Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars. She said she really needed the money because she hadn't work in awhile but she had to say No because there has to be a level of integrity and at some point you have to say No to something.

  • MK | July 11, 2014 7:14 PM

    I agree. Similarily, as a freelance writer and journalist I abstain from projects that I find morally objectionable. Nothing can pay for your reputation.

  • Nate | May 30, 2014 1:21 PM

    Great post. All money isn't good money. When you start putting financial success or everything else... you become no better than the reality tv stars America loves to talk bad about.

  • Sometimes Real | May 29, 2014 6:44 PMReply

    Never heard of Only Descent People. Just tried to watch the trailer at work. My advice don't. Lets just saw it's better suited for late night viewing... and a bottle of lotion.

    To the question at hand about black actors, IMO its a combination of the underlying property producers use to create content, the projects studios are financing/distributing and mainstream actors not taking chances on unproven talent. Right now there is a huge age gap with black talent. All our bankable stars are over 40 and have been the same for the past 2 decades. Only now are getting new talent Michael B Jordan, Lupita and John Boyega. The established black stars are finding new talent like their music industry counterparts. Spike Lee teaches at NY Film school which is cool. Pariah came from that. Forrest Whittaker "found" Michael Jordan and director Ryan Coogler who will both reboot the Rocky franchise with MGM Studios' Creed. Other than that Will Smith, Samuel J, Denzel haven't done anything of mention. Denzel did find Derek Luke though. Other than that the folks that made it are sticking with the people they know. The casts of Best Men Holiday and Think Like A Man are in everything besides the Tyler Perry regulars. It would be great for those that make it to take on riskier projects that can allow talent to be discovered. I mean how many Avengers or Men In Blacks due you need. I realize those actors may have the obligation to a tentpole but when they are in sequel after sequel you have to wonder why they are in showbiz. I'm sure they feel it shouldn't be up to them to push for change otherwise they would have done so by now. If they do think like that it would be good to know who they think should be making that change. You telling me Brad Pitt was the only one that knew about Steve McQueen? The movie cost just as much as typical Tyler Perry fare or a Will Power Prod. From the independent filmmakers perspective black folks really need to expand outside of church themes, hood dramas, sports, sing a longs and bio pics. Where is the sci-fi, fantasy adventure and horror. We are noticeable absent from those genres. I saw that because when others look at our work they will typecast us in the same genres and roles. So first it starts with the producer and it trickles down to the actor. It's difficult to be a black actor lead in the Hobbit, Star Wars and the many superhero films when the underlying property is based on white characters with history and backstory. Most films are based on books.

  • Random Commentary | May 29, 2014 12:12 PMReply

    I'll jump to the catch-22. As a screenwriter I don't write scripts with degenerative portrayals of POC. I write characters that service the story. Now say another screenwriter writes a script that portrays a stereotype or negative image. The script the actor ends up with isn't the decision of the screenwriter. It's the decision of those that green light projects. So the roles an actor has to play is based on what a Producer is willing to finance. Its not a lack of quality roles its a lack of what is marketable. If the role is questionable I say with a little reservation "take it". Once said "social conscious actor" gets ahead of the curve financially, turn around and become a Producer. That's one way to get quality scripts to actors who want substantially meaningful roles.

  • troublemaker | June 12, 2014 2:14 AM

    @RANDOM COMMENTARY
    "Let's say we have a script with a positive portrayal of Dr. Benjamin Carson. And we have another script about the exploits of Demetrius Big Meech Flenory. The film that's green lit is the CHOICE of the Producer."

    My point was the screenwriter still wrote the negative script which the producer chose over the positive one. Just like the actor has a choice to accept or turn down a role, the screenwriter has a choice to write a positive or negative portrayal. I think marketability boils down to the more well written script not if the script is about a doctor or drug dealer.

    "I don't recall a lot of people eager to see "You don't Know Jack" but I recall a lot of people eager to see "Blow"."

    The fact that more people saw the negative portrayal may be a reason why a screenwriter would lean towards writing a well written script with a negative portrayal versus writing a weak script with a positive portrayal.

  • RANDOM COMMENTARY | May 31, 2014 11:03 AM

    @TROUBLEMAKER Let me clarify. The screenwriter IS responsible for the creation and content of the script. Let's say we have a script with a positive portrayal of Dr. Benjamin Carson. And we have another script about the exploits of Demetrius Big Meech Flenory. The film that's green lit is the CHOICE of the Producer. An actor has a choice to accept or turn down a role. But it comes down to what is more marketable a doctor or drug dealer. I don't recall a lot of people eager to see "You don't Know Jack" but I recall a lot of people eager to see "Blow".

  • troublemaker | May 29, 2014 8:07 PM

    @RANDOM COMMENTARY "Now say another screenwriter writes a script that portrays a stereotype or negative image. The script the actor ends up with isn't the decision of the screenwriter. It's the decision of those that green light projects."

    Please don't give this awful copped out! The screenwriter usually give the physical description of each of their main characters in their screenplays. "Blonde, blue eyes…" doesn't refer to a black person. With this description, the producers use this to select the actors.

  • Black Sun Tzu | May 29, 2014 5:43 AMReply

    As in everything in life, it's all subjective, varying from actor to actor.
    From mine own part, I believe, as in most things in life, to be a matter of balance.
    Being a successful black actor is not easy, we all know. Being a successful actor is not easy, period. It's something all of us want to be, but of course there are not enough jobs for all of us to live solely on the grounds of acting.
    Now, the alternative to that crude reality would be either quit, or take any possible job that comes our way, depending of our goals - wether we want to make a living out of acting or to build a respectably successful acting career.
    I take a third option. I love acting and it is something I do well, I'm told, and something I would love it to be the my main, if not sole, source of sustainable income. But there are many limitations to that goal. We all know that it's not only about talent.
    Being an actor is also being a lover of possibility. Otherwise, how could we portray the complexity of humanity? And being a lover of possibility is being open to the world and all of its offers. Acting is not the only thing I enjoy doing and the only thing I do well. So, when I'm not acting, I'm doing other things such as singing or traveling for other work, or coaching young actors, or writing, doing photography in film and other events, things that allow me to have the basic income to support my lifestyle, enjoy life in an interesting and curious way (that makes you stand out in front of casting directors when they want to know more than just your acting persona), make industry connections, gain life experience and being able to chose the types of roles I want to play and aim at them. Haven't been booking all of them, but the few I have, are good enough to showcase me as an actor to be seriously considered for more financially and professionally rewarded projects, and thus build a respectful career.
    Of course I have taken on roles in projects I am not necessarily hundred percent happy about the outcome, But I do turn down job offers, when I think that they are not going to contribute to the growth of the type of acting career I want to make, or when I feel like they are not going to infuse me and the type of people my image is associated with (black people) with a dignified portrait. But I do admit it to be a tricky balance.
    I'm approaching my career in a non-obsessive way and I'm happy about it.
    Will I be competing with Freeman, Washington, Smith, Elba and the like? Maybe yes, but most likely not, but in the meantime, I'm enjoying the ride... One role at the time!

  • Danny | May 29, 2014 3:28 AMReply

    Not seen Only Decent People in the UK. An actor has to work, they have bills to pay, agents to keep happy and a steep ladder to climb. I guess it's better to work than spend a lifetime waiting for that 1 decent role that's gonna change your life. You're right, it's a business and execs don't like change. This goes for ALL ethnic minorities. The parts offered to friends of mine have all been 1 d minority roles. An onslaught of domestics, waiters, criminals and pasta eating dummies (as portrayed in Dolmio ads). It's tough being an unknown actor they get pushed around a lot by agents, casting, producers and directors. Perhaps this is the class system creeping in keeping us all in our place. As long as the execs and financiers keep us the audience focused on the way they see the world these 1 d characatures will keep coming at the unknown actor, there'll be no change and racism will continue to flourish.

  • Yakima | May 28, 2014 9:24 PMReply

    Thank you for sharing, Dankwa, this is an interesting article. I personally feel that when it comes to this end of the industry, there is not a level playing field regarding "majority" type roles for "minorities." Therefore, many of us have to do our best with the opportunities that are available. And, I also feel that some stories, even one mentioned in this article, are worthy of being told. When it comes to the plethora of other stories that can be told or roles that can be portrayed, I fully believe in the theory of making what you want to see yourself. The stories and roles we want to see ourselves in are not always going to be created by others or placed in our laps with a pretty bow on it. We have to get in the process of building our own strength and quality in film by making that which we yearn to see.

  • Yakima | May 28, 2014 9:24 PMReply

    Thank you for sharing, Dankwa, this is an interesting article. I personally feel that when it comes to this end of the industry, there is not a level playing field regarding "majority" type roles for "minorities." Therefore, many of us have to do our best with the opportunities that are available. And, I also feel that some stories, even one mentioned in this article, are worthy of being told. When it comes to the plethora of other stories that can be told or roles that can be portrayed, I fully believe in the theory of making what you want to see yourself. The stories and roles we want to see ourselves in are not always going to be created by others or placed in our laps with a pretty bow on it. We have to get in the process of building our own strength and quality in film by making that which we yearn to see.

  • Reinaldo | May 28, 2014 7:55 PMReply

    Has Only Decent People played in the US?

  • E Forde | May 28, 2014 6:07 PMReply

    How about the late George Baxt's NYPD detective, Pharoah Love.

    Love featured in four books first of which was published in 1966. The character is something of a pioneer being the first Gay detective and also believed to be the first openly gay African-American/black character in books.

  • Dean | May 28, 2014 4:31 PMReply

    I loved "The Help" is was a very good film. There is a need for actors to play roles from history--from Kunta Kinte in Roots to Nelson Mandela or Patrice Lumumba or Michelle Obama. The stories should be told.

  • Dankwa Brooks | 'Nother Brother Entertainment | May 28, 2014 3:59 PMReply

    As black independent filmmaker I know LOTS of black actors. I'll try to get them to comment.

  • Katie | May 28, 2014 12:45 PMReply

    Well, I'm not a actoress, I'm a web developer, but I don't necessarily blame them. I think blaming the actor and actress is just a distraction. The problem is the system that forces them to play these roles in the first place. As long as these systems are in tact, even if the current black actors and actresses are taken out, there will be someone behind them waiting to take the spot. The system either needs to be destroyed (which I don't recommend because it's also distraction, and a waste of time, energy, and resources) or a new system needs to be put in place. Not as to compete/counteract, (because I think that's unwise, who cares what whites are doing) but to put out the images we see ourselves in for the people that need to see it. It doesn't have to be mainstream either. It just needs to get out the image to the ones that need to see them.

    So the solution, create the stories you want to see or at the very least fund and share the stories you'd like to see with friends so the images in question get some traction. Eventually an industry will form and we can leave HollyWhite in the dust. But that can only happen if we realize what power is, how powerful we are, and believe in our product. Not that white man's.
    JMHO.

  • No | May 28, 2014 11:36 AMReply

    Re the politics of representation, I think Hattie McDaniels once said that she would prefer playing a maid than be one, or something to that effect.

  • Guest | May 28, 2014 3:00 PM

    @saadiyah, I think it diminishes our progress to say there have not been significant gains. Octavia won for the help but she has had a very rich career playing a plethora of characters. This fall we will have 4 or 5 African American women as solo leads on major network TV all playing roles with different professions. Quvenzhané Wallis is playing a child genius in her next project as well as having several interesting projects coming up including the remake of Annie. Zoe S (because she is a hard working hustler) has played every type of character you could think of and she gets to play lead roles in sic-fi movies which just used to be a dream for Black Actresses.
    There are still huge challenges to do not get me wrong, but saying things are not significantly better than what Hattie had to deal with diminishes her sacrifices for all of us.

  • saadiyah | May 28, 2014 12:18 PM

    The problem is that decades later, the role options for Black actors/actresses is only slightly better than what Hattie had. Octavia's win showed how little things have progressed. I guess they (Black actors/actresses) have to do what they think is best. As a movie goer I choose not to support those kinds of representations. I still haven't seen "The Help."

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