Viola Davis on the Crisis for African American Actresses

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by Melissa Silverstein
June 25, 2013 1:00 PM
2 Comments
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This past Sunday Oprah hosted several leading African American actresses for a conversation on OWN.  There are a variety of clips available but I found this one from Viola Davis very interesting.  Here's what she says: (Paraphrased a bit)

We're in a crisis mode as black actresses.  Not only in the number of roles that are offered but the quality of roles.  And therein lies the problem -- we're in deprivation mode.

When you only have two or three categories for black actresses...it's a natural instinct that if you throw a piece of cheese in a room full of rats that they are going to claw at each other, it's natural.  At what point do we stop stepping on each other?

So basically, there are no parts and the women have to fight for the crumbs that are thrown out.  Double sigh.

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2 Comments

  • d | June 26, 2013 7:23 PMReply

    I am glad that you both highlighted the show before it aired, and also created this thread to discuss an aspect of it. It was a really good show, and surprisingly candid. It was also heartbreaking, but alas, I expected that.

    While I sign off enthusiastically on much of what is written here, in this particular issue, I cannot co-sign. Rather, if there is to be a double sigh, I hope we understand that the second is produced by us. There is most certainly a dearth in roles for women in Hollywood. However, this time, I don't think the problem is mainly in male-driven fare. For women of color, and black women in particular, the problem lay in the hands of other women.

    Does no one else see this?

    When you look at what is considered male-driven films, they've become so diverse that it's basically a non-issue. In the early 80's Eddie Murphy starring in a crime procedural with a diverse cast was revolutionary- that the film became one of the top grossing franchises in the 80's even more of an anomaly (I'm talking Beverly Hills Cop, btw, not 48 Hrs). And the diversity doesn't stop with existence. Jamie Foxx can play a standing president, a homeless musician, or Tubbs in a Miami Vice remake. All major co-starring roles and all fairly diverse. It's just harder in general to anchor a film, yet he's also done it in Ray, and more recently Django Unchained. And I can start rattling off not just him, but other actors who have done it, and with more success. And for this discussion I am focusing on black actors, but there are also opportunities for both latinos, and asian men (although I think that one still noticeably lags).

    You can write that off, and argue that by having more male roles period, they have more room to spread the wealth. But, what about when it comes to women? I am starting to come to the conclusion that even on that front, even if we took the industry exactly as it it, there is STILL more representation to be found for black women in male oriented and/or created films than in female ones.

    For instance, let's look at romcoms, since the romantic comedy is one of the few genres with heavy female representation both in front of, and behind the camera. When Lucy Liu said, "People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me", who are those people? It can't solely be men. In fact, she is the love interest in Lucky Number Slevin. The one role she did get to play on Lifetime was originally written for a white (and southern) female.

    Or, look at Nancy Meyer films. Her writing specifically skews white, female, and middle/upper class, so much so that Kate's character in The Holiday was quite the change being both British and broke. And even here, I've heard the sentiment of "well, you know... she writes what she knows." If a man, asked the same question, offered up the usual "write what you know" answer, he would be roasted!

    In fact, even with the gender bias and limited roles, black women specifically have a far easier time finding a place in genres like action or sci-fi. I looked at the top 100 grossing romantic comedies since the late 70's (courtesy of Box Office Mojo), and guess how many starred a black woman? NONE. The first film that has a black female in a substantial role is Bringing Down the House (at #11), and Steve & the queen did not get together in the end. It's actually men who are the top sellers. Hitch comes in at #3, and Eddie Murphy has several films in the top 100. And even a film that isn't anchored by a famous face (like Think Like A Man) is in the top 100. The highest film with a female black actor with a noticeable role & love interest is Clueless (at #69), and the first one that stars a black female is Just Wright, again with Queen Latifah (at # 176). And you know, this gets even worse when we talk about ensemble films. You'd think it would be better, with more roles available, but no - the same pattern exists. Many roles for white men & women, a few minorities mixed throughout, and of that group - if the person is black - it is a male.

    I just focus on romcoms because of the strong female influence relative to the other genres. But it doesn't end there. When you look at female created stories kind, many seem to be staggeringly white, with black females being the least represented. Girls is stupifyingly white considering it is bound by neither by geography (the setting is NYC, not Dubuque), or time, like a period piece. I enjoy a great Austen remake, but doing that will naturally limit who can be included in the story. And in speaking of tv, the few female-created pilots that were picked up hardly had any ethnic variety at all, and they certainly didn't noticeably showcase any black females. For example, The Originals, a show that should be teeming with diversity, there is only one black actor highlighted, and that character is a male.

    Mind you, if some want to keep the status quo, then that is their prerogative. But to insist on greater representation, while at the same time limiting the representation of others, minimizes the strength of the argument, at best.

    And btw, if anyone has any logical reason why this is the case, please do share it; I'd love to hear it.

  • jasmine | June 25, 2013 6:15 PMReply

    Why is it that 90% of films now do not have a female protagonist? So if you take that 10% that is left, you have African-Americans and other minorities that do not have anything written for them. Why? Is it because men don't think they can write a female protagonist part? Is having a female supporting character easier to write for them?

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