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From The Front-lines: A Working Black Actor Opens Up & Has Plenty To Say

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by A Black Actor
June 4, 2014 5:06 PM
12 Comments
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On May 28, Tambay published an article titled An Inquiry Into The Plight Of The Black Actor..., in which he called on working black actors to share their thoughts on the the challenges they face in the industry, as well as to respond to long-standing and ongoing criticism of choices black actors make, by black audiences, and some times from other black actors. I was going to respond to that post but remembered that I actually wrote a very related piece a year ago. I asked Tambay to share it again because I believe it directly addresses his inquiry, as well as many of the questions and comments that were posted in response to his post. It's just my own personal experience. Other black actors may say something different. But here again is the piece I wrote a year ago. 

I'm a black actor. I love what I do, and I'm incredibly thankful to be in a position that allows me to earn a living doing what I love. I'm not what you'd call a star or a "name" actor by any means. I'm nowhere close to being that. But I work consistently on TV, films, commercials, and even web series. Jobs that actually pay unlike many of my friends who are also actors who haven't been as fortunate as I have been. It's not always about talent, you see. I think I'm talented, but I'm also humble and can say that some of my friends are even more talented and capable than I am, but they just haven't caught the breaks that I have for any number of reasons, whether it's that they don't fit a needed type, or don't have whatever look a project or director or casting director might want, or, as ridiculous as it may sound, don't have any connections, or "ins" that can help shoot their head shots and resumes to the top of a list. Not that that's how it always is (nepotism, cronyism, whatever you want to call it) but it shouldn't be a big surprise to know that it happens.

It's tough what we do. I'm not looking for sympathy, but it takes a lot of courage and strength to be an actor, being completely vulnerable and putting yourself in a position to be praised, or criticized, or ridiculed, loved, and despised.

It's even tougher if you're not white. Not only are we limited in the amount of work that's available to us within an industry dominated by roles for white men and women, on TV and film (although white men primarily), and the work that is available isn't always the most desirable, we are also often intensely scrutinized by black audiences especially, for the roles that we do take, and frequently find ourselves having to defend a job that we accepted, if only so that we can continue working and making a living. 

It's doubly frustrating to feel like you're caught in the middle of a battle, when one side doesn't consider you worthy of a part simply because of the color of your skin (especially the more juicy, complex, interesting roles), or your own story bankable enough to fund, and the other side condemns you for the work you are able to get - the one side that you hope will be the most empathetic of the two, given that they are you, and you are them.

I work in an industry in which people who look like me are still invisible, despite any racial progress that's been made in the last 50 years. Don't believe the hype, if you're one of those that do. We aren't anywhere near anything that looks like a post-racial America as some media might have you believe, just because we have a president whose father is Kenyan. And so the roles that are available for working actors like myself (those who've managed to have some success, but aren't anywhere close to being what you'd call stars or "names"), are still very limited in terms of volume and variety. And so we take what we can get, as long as we can look at ourselves in the mirror and feel at ease with the work that we've done. 

It's very easy to play armchair critic, and I'm sure this post won't change everyone's mind. But I read this site on a daily basis. It's become my Deadline, my Variety, my Hollywood Reporter. I still read those sites to, don't get me wrong, but when I come here, I feel at home. I know I'm getting what the other sites publish, but in addition, and this is the crucial part, I get what those other sites don't cover. Those indie films by black filmmakers in this country and outside that Nikke Finke probably won't bother writing about. I get the mainstream and I get the indie, and I get the international Diaspora, which I love. Tambay may not even know this, but myself and other actor friends of mine have auditioned and been cast in projects that we first learned about on this site. I know black filmmakers read it. I know black actors read it. I know producers read it. And so on. It's a valuable source for black people in the business like myself. 

And I say all that to add that, wow, the comment sections sometimes can be vicious. Let me just say that y'all go HARD! No-holds-barred. You keep it real. Friends tell me to stay out of the comment section, but I can't help myself. Like I said, when I come here, I feel like I'm at home. I want to know what my people are saying, thinking, feeling about the work that we do. Yeah, some comments are just plain spiteful, but there are also those that are very logical, smart and insightful, which I appreciate and I'm sure others do to. This is a site that attracts a nice range of folks, from the academics to the cinephiles to the average film lover. And that's great. And while we all should be able to take criticism, some of it shows some lack of awareness for how the business works, and the trials and tribulations of actors. Black actors in this case. It may be a surprise, but folks like myself, actors looking for opportunities, we are very aware of our blackness (trust me the industry reminds us of that daily), and by that I also mean that we know when a role is foul or questionable in terms of its depiction of black people. For some actors, they don't care one way or another, and they'll take whatever they can get. I can't knock those folks. We all have different motivations for doing what we do. I'll just say that they shouldn't be surprised though when there's criticism. But I'll say that for me and my friends who are actors (I can only speak for us), we do care about the work that we do and the images we are putting out. We don't carry that around like a burden wherever we go, but we're always aware and thinking. We want to do good work. But we also want to just work. And sometimes that might mean bending your rules a bit, to not only collect a check but also because there's always a chance that that role could be something that leads to something else, something better. So you weigh all the factors involved.

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12 Comments

  • Monique A Williams | June 5, 2014 9:30 PMReply

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Reinaldo | June 5, 2014 6:58 PMReply

    Powerful! A very deep and clear analysis of a very difficult situation. He is particularly hopeful which is remarkable.

  • Seth Fine | June 5, 2014 12:59 PMReply

    I am moved by the thoughtful and careful insight you detailed while sharing your journey. The balancing of needs and demands -- both internal and external -- exhibit an extraordinary awareness of self and others. Such awareness is not commonplace. Your remarkable persistence and resilience are commendable. I applaud your finely honed skills of professional navigation and am fortunate to have you as a fellow member in the ranks of the irrepressible. Although our industries are different, we walk a similar path. Press on, my friend.

  • Cinexa | June 5, 2014 10:30 AMReply

    A FIST is stronger than the five fingers individually. I know its been beat to death, but there needs to be a coming together to make these films/projects from all angles. We are just banging our heads against the wall trying to out do one another when we should be combining resources to get more work done more efficiently and using the talents that we already possess. I applaud Shadow and Act for being a conduit through which we can at least have a discussion about it. I for one intend to at least try to practice what I preach. Great article BTW.

  • Dave's Deluxe | June 5, 2014 6:26 AMReply

    "....The industry is going through radical changes in terms of how films are financed, produced, cast, distributed, marketed, and exhibited. No one, and I mean, no one knows what all this change is going to result in, in another 5 to 10 years..."

    While I applaud your endeavors, I'm going to have to go on ahead and disagree with you on that point.

  • Thenexttake | June 5, 2014 4:35 AMReply

    Thanks for sharing your expérience!

  • Elaine | June 5, 2014 4:23 AMReply

    I remember this piece when you wrote it a year ago. I think African American actors and actresses need to be more vocal. I don't see how you can continue to work under such segregated conditions. There is no self respect in your community. You guys are afraid of backlash and have resigned to yourselves to cowering under the shadows of oppression. Also, regardless of whether you face being put on an industry blacklist for speaking out, the truth and statistics show that most of your careers will eventually reach a nice, narrow dead end. I don't think you should face this alone either, but try instead to convert your fellow delusional peers that are busy chasing the holy grail of token roles, Youtube side projects, direct-to-dvd indies, and budget sitcoms into understanding that they are a worth a damn...heck maybe even a main character role on prime-time.

  • sharongee | June 5, 2014 12:51 AMReply

    sharing...very eloquent

  • Vimbai | June 4, 2014 7:19 PMReply

    As a black actress in Australia this resonates with me. I love reading things from a black actors perspective so thank you for this Tambay. I recently turned down a role where I was meant to be a "ratchet ho" these are the exact words used to describe this woman and I had no qualms declining except maybe the nice cheque that came with it. Needed to read this today to remind me that the struggle is universal as well.

  • Devinn | June 15, 2014 8:44 PM

    Wow. I respect and appreciate your integrity.

  • Demond | June 4, 2014 5:49 PMReply

    Love this article and the perspective that it provides. Hoping to see an article like this one from the perspective of a black filmmaker.

  • @milesmaker | June 5, 2014 12:38 AM

    #cosign

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