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Hollywood's Niche for Black Actresses

As a few African American women are celebrated during this award season, pop culture commentator Courtney Young asks how many Hollywood doors are actually open.

The recognition of black actresses in nominations for the 82nd annual Academy Awards came as no surprise. Film aficionados anticipated nods for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress to Mo’nique and Gabourey Sidibe, respectively. Articles at The Grio and MSNBC.com to name a few suggest that just maybe, a diversity in recent years seen across the Oscar nominations signifies an overall push towards diversity in filmmaking.

And it is true that since 2000, a person of color has been nominated in at least one of the six most notable categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture, and Best Director).

In 2001, 2004, and 2006 African Americans won in two major categories (Denzel Washington/Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman/Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker/Jennifer Hudson). But are the Oscars symbolic of actual inclusivity in Hollywood or do they just obscure a larger, deep-seated problem in the cinematic representation of African American women?

Even before the nominations were announced, 2009 could arguably be said to be the year of “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.” Backed by executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, the movie, its stars and director Lee Daniels received near ubiquitous media promotion on TV, in print and online. The movie set major records, becoming the highest grossing film ever to premiere at just 100 theaters nationally. The movie’s breakout star Gabourey Sidibe has definitely had her moment in the sun, making rounds along the talk show media circuit. But what exactly does this mean for black actresses? In a recent article on MSNBC, several black actors were touted as being the next in line to Hollywood greats such as Denzel Washington but only one woman made the list: Afro-Latina Zoe Saldana, star of Avatar, the highest grossing film in history. In fact, the first black female actress to crack the $10 million dollar per picture mark was Halle Berry, and she has not headlined a Hollywood film since 2007, when she announced that she was pregnant with her first child. No other black female actress has managed to reach that level and headline major Hollywood studio films consistently.

In a now notorious cover spread, the March 2010 issue of Vanity Fair celebrated New Hollywood with a slew of thin, pale actresses, not one women of color in sight. Given the fanfare that Gabourey Sidibe, Zoe Saldana and rising star Kerry Washington have been receiving, it caused many serious pause—where are the black women? Several popular websites, from The Root to Jezebel, have pondered the career options available to Gabourey Sidibe, after the “Precious” buzz dies down following the Academy Awards. As Irin Carmon at Jezebel wrote, “Raves and nominations notwithstanding, as casting director Mark Bennett (“The Hurt Locker,” “Junebug”) puts it when asked for his professional opinion, ‘Unfortunately Hollywood is still a system that doesn't produce a lot of great parts for black women and doesn't produce a lot of parts for women who aren't conventionally beautiful. And that's not going to change overnight.’” 

Zoe Saldana in Avatar

Moreover, with respect to salary, headlining a major film, and significant press, is there a black female truly equivalent to the likes of Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L. Jackson? The answer is a resounding no. Of concern to many still are the roles for which African American women have received nominations. When Mo’nique won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting actress for “Precious,” my Twitter and Facebook pages erupted with distress from many of my black female acquaintances that Mo’nique was being awarded for playing a monstrous mother seemingly beyond redemption. And historically, black female winners of the Academy Award have most often won for playing characters deemed equally as problematic: a maid, a grieving widow who has an affair with the racist prison warden who executed her husband, and a medium whose body is used as a vehicle to find justice for a murdered New York banker. Given the tenuous representation of black women in media, there is good reason for concern.

The question remains: Are Oscars nominations really an accurate tableau of increased diversity in Hollywood? On one level, yes. The recognition for outstanding work can and should be celebrated across the board. The recently consistent nomination—and occasional wins—of women and people of color in traditionally dominated white male venues are a symbol of that. But, along the lines of race, most of this progress is exemplified through the career trajectories of black male actors. Feature film opportunities for black women—especially leading roles—are few and far between, particularly ones that garner critical praise and have far-reaching appeal. As talks about diversity, inclusion, and representation continue, it must include conversations that surround both race and gender because when all the men are black and all the women are as white as those on Vanity Fair’s cover, where does that leave black women?

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