From The Frontlines - A Working Black Actor Speaks

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by A Black Actor
October 4, 2013 2:35 PM
20 Comments
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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.

I have no problem playing a butler, or a slave. It's a job. Obviously it depends on context and the story being told. I'm open and try to be flexible; although I've turned down paid work before because I was going to have to do something in a role that I just couldn't bring myself to do. I wouldn't have been able to look at myself in a mirror and be at ease. But I don't have an instant knee-jerk reaction to every casting notice I'm sent, or every role that I'm called in for, or offered. I, and my actor friends, consider each role on a per project basis. So my immediate impulse isn't to run the other way if the first word for the role on the casting notice is "slave" or "maid" or "butler." 

Think of it like how directors like Steven Sodebergh's career is often described - one for them, and one for you. Sometimes 2 for them, and one for you. Sometimes you have to take a role that you don't really want, because it means that you'll be able to do something else that you really want to do. Or at least, there's the possibility. You survey every factor, like who the director is, who are the starring actors involved, what the production or distribution company or studio's end vision is for how the project will be released, and of course the story, and how your character fits into it, if at all. And for someone at my level, often the characters I play don't really have any real influence on the main story, especially at the studio level. But when I've done indie films, I've had more substantial parts.

And that's the other thing when I say, do one for them and then do one for you. An actor like myself may take a bit part that the audience won't even remember in a big budget studio film, for the paycheck, and then we'll go do a lo-budget indie film for nothing but credit and tape. So that paycheck from the studio for that bit part keeps you above water until the next check, because you're getting no money for the indie film. But you do the indie film because you want to do work that fills your soul, and is enriching. And often indie filmmaking is where actors of color have to go for that kind of nourishment. 

But you weigh all the factors, and if the math computes, you have to consider the job. Sometimes you don't exactly have all day to think about whether you'll take a job or not. There are plenty of hungry actors behind you just waiting for their chance, so you can't always be a prima dona.

Yes, I understand your frustrations with the limited depictions of black people in movies today. But don't you think that these are frustrations that we as actors share as well? This is what happens when like I said before, you're invisible in an industry. Every single black film or black role is very heavily scrutinized, and I understand why. There isn't much else for us. I get it. It makes sense. And, trust me, something that my friends and I often talk about while hanging out, is that, if I were an A-lister, I would not only be very selective in the projects I choose to star in, I would be developing projects for myself, and if I had to, I'd also finance them myself. I mean, if I'm making $10 million a movie, and I'm making a movie a year, I'm sure I'll be able to find $1 or $2 million to produce a "smaller" film with me starring, and maybe even an up-and-coming director directing, so that I can give them a shot.

Obviously, as I said before, everyone's motivation isn't the same. So I can't knock how any actor maps out their career. It's theirs, not mine.

So I guess what I'm trying to say in all this rambling is that, slow down a little bit. Don't be so quick to judge and be down on black actors in Hollywood especially. There are many different kinds and each has his/her own motivation for doing what they do. For every star actor/actress, there are many thousands of unknown names and faces who you might see in a bit part here and there, in a TV series or film, a commercial here and there, who are toiling away in obscurity, looking for not even their big break. They're too busy just trying to set up the next gig so that they can keep working and earning a living. A small living, but a living nonetheless. Some of us are creating projects for ourselves, whether it be web series, or learning how to write and writing screenplays for ourselves, and then working to get the money to get them produced, which is always a struggle. Some are able to find the financing from family, friends or independent financiers, others use sites like kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise money, although not everyone is successful. So for those folks who ask why we don't create projects for ourselves, my answer is that many of us are. But it's still not a sealed deal. I'm nowhere near rich. I'm lucky that, annually in the last few years, I've been able to earn enough of a salary to pay my rent for my Brooklyn studio apartment, put food in my refrigerator, keep my light and gas on, pay my cell phone bill, and internet, and after all that and then some, I have a little left over to put away. But it's lean living. I have to be frugal with my spending, because, you know what, I can't always guarantee where and when the next job will come. And so self-financing a film for myself isn't something I'm readily able to do. But like I said, I'm still one of the lucky ones in that I've been able to find work consistently thanks to my diligent agent who doesn't skimp and puts me out there for everything in TV, film, commercials, print, stage, web and wherever else there's a need for actors. What helps is that once you get one job, the others tend to come. Although that's not a steadfast rule. 

So find those who you appreciate and cheer them on, and support them fully, no matter what. We really do appreciate that support.  

It's a tough business that we're in. Yes, I know I chose this path, so I can't really complain about where I am, because it's a career I chose for myself knowing fully well what the challenges were for folks like me. But it's work I love and have loved to do since I was a teenager many years ago, and trust that a lot of folks at my level are busting butt daily trying to get in where we fit in, supporting each other, working together when we can on our own projects, and just plain surviving. So chill out for a minute or two, and don't be so quick to judge who we are, what we do, why we do what we do, and instead find those actors you like and support them all the way. Not to sound cliched but change is going to come. 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. There are those prognosticators, but all I can say is that I'm very encouraged by the changes we're experiencing, and what I think it means for actors (and filmmakers) of color, who are now (more than ever) in positions of power and control, enough to independently finance, and distribute their films and web series completely outside the studio systems, and be financially successful doing so. They may not be millionaires, but you'll be surprised at how well some folks have done for themselves.

In closing, obviously "A Black Actor" isn't my real name. I could use my real name but there's a risk in me doing that here. Let's just say that I thought it best to maintain my anonymity because I want to keep working, but felt compelled to share these thoughts with you all.

I'm an actor, and not the most eloquent of writers but I hope all of what I said here makes sense.

I thank Tambay and Shadow & Act for giving me the platform.
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20 Comments

  • Monty | January 24, 2014 12:59 PMReply

    This was really interesting. i got here because I typed "what aren't there more black actors on tv" into Google and came upon this. I am always dimayed when i look at the upcoming seasons and see that there are so few black actors on the shows. It seems like every season and mid-season there can be a new Friends type show with 20 people in the cast and there will only be one black person (if that). I would love to be in on the development of these things but have no idea where to even start. Good luck to you and your friends Black Actor.

  • Onxy | October 28, 2013 10:16 AMReply

    Thank you for doing this, Working Black Actor. Your post is a must read imho.
    I don't need to know who you are.
    I just want to commend you for your onscreen presence, because I'm someone who goes beyond looking at the star of a film, to check our the extras and the ending credit names, and also to follow the careers of those who don't become A listers film stars.

    Even having a POC in a TV commercial can be a boost for those longing to see someone like themselves, especially our youth. Once again, I thank you, and may you have a long career doing what you love.

    @Mark & Darla:

    "Tyler have given black actresses the opportunity to dress up and play Cinderella at movie premiers before 2006 all we saw was Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones on the red carpet."

    While I understand giving credit where credit is due, and certainly, Tyler Perry has employed many black actors, it's important not to stretch the limits of credibility. "We" saw more than just the actresses mentioned in your post, both present and past on red carpets.

    Black actresses and entertainers in fields such as comedy and music who weren't nominated have graced the red carpets of several award shows, and way before 2006. Some names that quickly come to mind who still show up to walk red carpets for movie premieres and did so before 2006 are Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gabrielle Union, Monique, Vivica A Fox (I recall her being on the arm of rapper 50 cent walking a red carpet) Queen Latifah, and there are many more, even those who've appeared in Tyler Perry's films, like Angela Bassett. I could even go into the 90s, 80s, 70s and prior, but its just as easy for someone to Google such info. But I recall Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, Jayne Kennedy, Diane Carroll among others walking the red carpet years ago, and looking quite beautiful and fierce doing so.

  • Another Black Actor | October 4, 2013 5:58 PMReply

    THIS. WAS. PERFECT.
    It was put so beautifully and there were points hit that I thought only me and my fellow black actors friends talked about (silly I know). So great. Thank you. Sharing this now!

  • Mo to tha | October 4, 2013 3:39 PMReply

    Great read. What was interesting to me is that his experience as an actor matches up almost exactly with my experience as a movie-goer. While I love a big-budget, action/comedy/drama filled flick as much as the next person I also love the indies that tell more realistic and relatable stories. My issue has been that due to where I live...I don't always have access to see that indie film that i'm dying to see. There are 3 theaters in my area that show independent films, but RARELY are they the films I want to see which feature actors and/or directors of color (i.e. Middle of Nowhere didn't even come to my state). So how do I support these films without the access? I'm hoping with the changes mentioned about about how films are being funded and distributed that it also results in more availability. I think the audience for these stories is out here its just a matter of getting more projects created and getting them to a larger audience. I've realized that the film festival circuit seems to be the best way to see some of these films so maybe a push for more of us to go to festivals to support these films would be a start.

    I also thought the '1 for them 1 for you philosophy' was great...finding a balance (regardless of your profession) is so important and so often overlooked.

  • regi | October 2, 2013 1:23 PMReply

    great essay! which is something i say when i feel i'm reading something i might have written. ;-)

    i just wanted to add one thought: i really wonder if even A-list actors (of whatever color) have the freedom of choice we imagine them to have. we all THINK tom cruise (to take a "name" out of the air) could take or turn down any project that comes his way (or if it doesn't come his way "naturally", he can get it to make a detour). but don't we, as audiences, determine what we're willing to see him do? what investors are willing to pay him to do? i'm certainly not saying that his decisions are as constrained by the need to pay the bills as "a black actor" (even an A-list one, without quote marks), but when i see cruise doing basically the same kinds of movies over and over again, i wonder if the freedom we imagine him having is all we think it is.

  • CHJ | October 1, 2013 11:16 PMReply

    Thank you for your honest, humble and insightful post!

  • Daryl | October 1, 2013 7:24 PMReply

    Good article black actor, if more black actors shared your perspective then things will change, unfortunately most of them got the it's all about me attitude and as long as I get mine that's all that's important to them, I'm glad you see the big picture. I hope you become and A lister because we need that type of thinking to make things better, also more black actors need to treat the small indie films like they do studio films instead of just looking at them as stepping stones to do bigger and better things.

  • BlackCanseco | October 1, 2013 5:58 PMReply

    Shouts to Black Actor... sounds like the brother is pretty level-headed and had some things to get off his chest. Also sounds like he isn't looking for sympathy but wants critics audiences and aspiring content creators to keep pushing, not just for him but for all of us.

    I wish he could've attached his name to this just for transparency/perspective's sake. But we know that wouldn't end well for him behind closed doors. Even Lee Daniels didn't wanna get too deep with this subject in a recent interview I saw of S&A.
    I also want to thank Black Actor for noting that White Women are getting the bulk of the so-called "women's roles"... That's important because in all of Hollywood's championing of diversity and inclusion, they still act as if White Women are the default for 'women'—and few of them speak up as this benefits them more than Black Woman/Women of Color...

    We got a ways to go, so as the Black Actor said, let's keep creating, keep supporting and keep fighting.
    On a slightly related note, I saw J.J. Abrams being interviewed by Tavis Smiley and Abrams said "did you see the Emmys? It's really White." It was if it finally hit someone like Abrams that something's not right in Hollywood.

  • Mark & Darla | September 30, 2013 10:47 PMReply

    Black actor, feel your pain.

    The gang of uppity knuckleheads still won’t get it, they are so entrench in their uppity attitude, can’t see the forest between the trees.

    Black actors don't have the luxury to wait for the perfect director or movie, they need to act and act to keep their skills refresh and competitive, even if that job is a non-paying Shakespeare play in the middle of Central Park

    The knuckleheads spit green vomit at Tyler Perry and ignore the big picture, Tyler gives black actresses opportunities to use their eyes, facial expression, mind, body and soul to do what they love, act. That's the big picture.

    Tyler have given black actresses the opportunity to dress up and play Cinderella at movie premiers before 2006 all we saw was Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones on the red carpet.

    Knuckleheads don't see insulting Tyler, they indirectly insult Taraji Henson, Alfre Woodward, Sanaa Lathan, Loretta Devine, Felicia Rashed, as actress who only to work and I must say they are damn good actresses.

    So I ask the knuckleheads, either pack up your superior screenplays, your superior directors, go stand in front of Paramount, Universal, Columbia, Walt Disney studios and scream to the top of your lungs or shut the hell up.

  • Ghost | October 4, 2013 7:41 PM

    If you can't take criticism get out of the kitchen. The actors are free to take whatever roles but they have to understand the consequences of those roles. Just because Tyler gives folks jobs doesn't excuse him from improving his craft. How many have lost out on jobs because they ran to him? Is Lance Gross about to find that out on his NBC show? How many folks are going to ignore that show because of his links to Tyler?

    All folks want is for Tyler to improve. Before his replacement show up who can do the films cheaper and maybe more offensive.

    I LOVED the article but that won't stop me from speaking my mind when a black actor takes a crappy role. I refuse to go with the at least it's keep black folks working-AND???? I refuse to settle for trash and scraps. Black folks are getting dumped on because when ANYONE tries to step out of the box-they get bashed. If all we do is run to Tyler. Steve Harvey and pandering black films and TRASH anything that doesn't fit that mold-we are not helping our actors get better roles.

  • cinexa | October 4, 2013 4:19 PM

    I agree with some of these comments. The brother Tyler Perry is picked quite a bit as the "all flash not substance" black director. I was one of those who didn't appreciate what he was doing until I started to direct and try and get my own projects made. the fact that he is doing what he's doing at all is a milestone of epic proportions. This is a brother that started at the bottom like everybody else, you cant knock him on some "Quality" talk. Quality is as subjective as beauty. As for professional script writing. It doesnt really mean anything to take years or months writing a screen play, just like it doesnt take months to make a hit song. If you know what you want and what you are doing, you too could write one in a few weeks. There are myriad examples of shitty movies that took years to write and make. This is from Joe Eszterhaus "Always lie about your first draft. I told people I’d been working on the script of Basic Instinct for years when I sold it for a record price. When the movie became the biggest hit of 1992, I told the truth: It had taken me 13 days to write it."Tthe more movies we can produce, the more work there is and the more"Quality" will emerge. You cant wait forever for the perfect scenario.

  • Marie | October 1, 2013 10:08 AM

    Black Actor, your comments are deeply appreciated and give some of us necessary insight into the struggles of actors of color. You make it abundantly clear that the issue isn't the roles blacks choose but the opportunities given to them.

    Mark & Darla, your comments are as vomitous as those you accuse. Yes, some Tyler Perry critics can be unnecessarily nasty. But some of his critics like me focus solely on the QUALITY of his work which is called "constructive criticism". You mention the ONLY positive of Perry's work--that he gives black actresses work. That's the one pro. Here are the cons--bad writing, bad direction, bad editing and overall bad storytelling by any objective criteria. My personal criticism about Perry is not that he's doing the work (although as the ONLY director in the US who puts out two movies a year, I think that speaks to the lack of quality of his work) but that he does it badly on a consistent basis and doesn't seem to be getting BETTER. Would you root for an athlete who made the same mistakes in every game? Of course not! Then why are your expectations for Perry so low? Why are you enabling Perry's obvious mediocrity when you should be encouraging him, like his critics, to get better? All of the black actresses you named deserve better than Perry's poorly written and poorly executed moralistic diatribes. And I say that having just sat through his Temptation movie which, like all of his other movies, lacked in basic storytelling skills.

    I am one of your "uppity knuckleheads" who's currently drawing an animated film (that has black characters) that I intend to enter into festivals, doing research for a thriller screenplay (research, something Perry's clearly never done for any of his stories) and developing ideas for three other animated series. Unlike Perry (who allegedly writes completed film scripts in 2 weeks, whereas award-winning writers take months to write just a first draft) I'm putting in the creative sweat to create solid pieces of storytelling. You keep supporting and wallowing in mediocrity, the rest of us will support and pursue excellence.

  • Alias | September 30, 2013 7:30 PMReply

    "Black Actor," I commend you and thank you for your post. And, like Nina I feel all of the emotions you've exhibited in your post; as the general public often doesn't understand the tremendous personal sacrifice that is involved in pursuing one's passion, particularly as it relates to the performing arts. For many of us in this game (whatever your craft, i.e., acting, screen writing, directing, producing, editing et al), it becomes your mistress. It's like oxygen. You need it to breathe. You cannot imagine a day without it. It's a difficult feeling, need, desire, to explain to others who aren't living in the fishbowl with you. But many of us do understand. We admire you, salute you, encourage you and support you. Don't ever stop fighting.

  • Nina | September 30, 2013 7:15 PMReply

    "Black Actor"
    Everything you said about the business really resonated. The general public has no idea of the spiritual and moral battle waged against actors and others who are passionate about this business. The fact that you have sacrificed greater success and bigger checks to maintain your morals and ethics is a testament to the advanced evolution of your spiritual self in a business that chews people up then spits them out. You are already more successful than those that made it big but lost themselves along the way and can now see themselves only through lines blurred with drugs and alcohol, or those who finally could no longer stand to look at what they'd become and ended it all. Hollywood boulevard is lined with them.
    I admire you. Carry on.

  • Lea | September 30, 2013 4:30 PMReply

    This was really interesting, thanks for sharing it with us!

  • Dee | September 30, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    I appreciated this perspective, it gave me lots to think about that I hadn't considered.

  • ScriptTease | September 30, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    Well thank you "Black Actor". I enjoyed the read, and understand where you are coming from. As long as you're able to look yourself in the mirror from your choices is all that really matters at the end of the day. If it wasn't for certain roles for Black Actors, then the chances of seeing ourselves on television would be much slimmer.

    I also agree, change is coming. It only takes one person to push the domino, and it can either be knocked backwards, or pushed forward, I choose forward, so yes... change is coming.

  • Masha Dowell | September 30, 2013 1:33 PMReply

    Thanks so much for your post. I appreciate it. I understand it.

  • CC | September 30, 2013 1:32 PMReply

    Thank you for your thoughts, Working Black Actor.

    We have had experiences from mostly unknown industry people so far which I understand. However, I was wondering whether it would be possible to have a similar anonymous post with some known black actor or actress here since the experiences are so different for known/unknown names work and audition wise. I know it can be incredibly difficult to organize but I would love to read some frank thoughts that can be given anonymously.

  • Sienna | September 30, 2013 1:51 PM

    It's absolutely no different for those at the top. Same exact story, just higher stakes. I know a top black male actor & A-list black Latina female actress who, based just on two profession-related experiences I had w/ them separately last week, could have written this word-for-word. The only difference is you on the lifestyle end, you can trade 'commercials' for 'endorsements', take out the term 'lean living' & replace it w/ 'potential bankruptcy'. Same fears, same struggles, same frustrations, same questions - same hope.

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