By Guest Contributor Aymar Jean Christian, cross-posted from Televisual
Note: To see Part 1, which featured a breakdown of several of the box-office performances of several leading black actresses, go here.
III. The State Of The Black Leading Lady
It’s hard to be a woman in Hollywood. It’s hard to be black in Hollywood. So, obviously, it stands to reason it’s hard to be a black woman. It can be boring to hear — “black women have it tough, huh, what else is new?” — but it’s true!
One good place to start is New York‘s new “Star Market,” which is a great resource for people wanting to know more about how stars are made and unmade by the throngs of publicists, casting directors, producers and studio execs in Hollywood. One theme from the feature rings clear: it’s much tougher for women. The 2000s haven’t been bad to black actors and actresses: stars like Will Smith and Queen Latifah rose in power; 22 actors and actresses were nominated for and 7 won Academy Awards — in the previous 70 years, only 36 had been nominated and 6 had won. But the overall picture for black women is less rosy than for their male counterparts: most black-led independent and mainstream films are centered on men.
It’s hard to assign blame. Surely, the industry’s partially at fault: too few black/women directors, screenwriters, people above/below the line. But the industry also responds to what America wants, and year after year, movies led by white/men top the box office. Every once in awhile, something shakes the conventional wisdom — Sex and the City, or films by Sandra Bullock , Tyler Perry and Will Smith — but the conventional wisdom more or less remains because Hollywood is congenitally cautious. Once again, who’s to blame? Most films fail, and job security is hard to come by, so how much can we blame industry workers for not taking risks? I don’t know. Let’s talk about it.
Nevertheless, a small group of black women have been given a chance and few have proven themselves marketable; many of them — six on this list — have Oscar wins and nominations. None of them can touch $4 billion Will Smith, but a number can pull in audiences. We’ve come a very long way, but we have a long way to go!
IV. How I Went About It
How do you measure star power? There are many ways to do it. For the black actress, so often overlooked, the issue of measuring value is particularly acute. I wanted to come up with a way that honored the diversity of roles these actors played that still highlighted the imbalances in the industry. Hence the focus on “leading” roles, and the downplaying of other factors — like salary, box office gross and average production and marketing budget (which are the real industry standards).
Most black actresses do not get to play leading roles, even fewer get leading roles in blockbuster films. For this reason, I thought it was important to count equally roles in independent, art-house and blockbuster films — so a leading role in a Tyler Perry film counts as much as a leading role in a Michael Mann film. Even still, most of the women on the list, nine out of fifteen, spent most of their time not in a leading role. Even some of those with scores over 50% have to be qualified: Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Mariah Carey do not work that often, nor is acting their primary profession.
I started counting what films each actor had been in, relying on IMDB Pro. I also tracked the budget and gross of each film using BoxOfficeMojo and IMDB Pro — and of course information on either wasn’t always available.
I categorized the actor’s role in each film based on five “types:” Leading Lady, Best Friend, Mother/Family, Love Interest and Professional.
Leading Lady – Integral to or featured in the marketing of the film. The character has a back-story or is integral to the plot.
Best Friend – A character who is a friend, confidant, or villain who is there only to serve emotional fulfillment on main character.
Mother/Family – Mother or family. Includes “mammy” and “strong ghetto mother” types: a maternal figure or a guide of some sort, there to emotional/psychologically fulfill leads.
Love Interest – A character who is there as love interest to fulfill romantic, sexual needs primarily of the lead or other major character.
Professional - A character who is valuable primarily for their expertise or profession, intended to further the plot and journey of the protagonist.
Basically a “leading lady” could be any one of those types, or a character without any specific type, but the crucial aspect was the actor’s role in the film’s marketing, prominence in an ensemble cast, or being the integral attraction in the film. This is not to diminish the importance of supporting roles, which are some of the best parts, but if we’re invested in creating stars, the fact is that stars lead. So I gave Mo’Nique a “leading lady” for Precious, because her performance basically sold the film, IMHO. Queen Latifah’s role in Valentine’s Day too counted as leading lady, because she was a big star in a big cast. But Halle Berry didn’t get an LL for X-Men (I’d say the franchise, plus Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Anna Paquin really sold the films). In the end, all this is subjective, so feel free to disagree and change my mind!
I should say that the original list was much, much longer. I started by generating a list of actors in film and television who have worked or been buzzed about for about throughout the 1990s and 2000s. That list got to about 40 actors. Too long! So then I decided to focus on film, where there’s more money and a higher profile, and to limit it to the 2000s, for the sake of my sanity. That led me to the 15 actors above. Missing from this list are whole bunch of actresses who either a) did most of their work in 1990s; b) mostly do television; c) are, sadly, too old to really deliver films anymore; d) don’t work consistently. Some of them, however, could still be huge, or are huge in their own right, but I’m only one person!
The actresses I did not look at for time and other constraints: Anika Noni Rose; Jill Scott; Jada Pinkett-Smith; Paula Patton; Alicia Keys; Janet Jackson; Angela Bassett; Vivica A Fox; Tia and Tamera Mowry; Kimberly Elise; Raven-Symoné; Lisa Bonet; Regina King; Janet Jackson; Robin Givens; Whitney Houston; Aisha Tyler; Lynn Whitfield; Ruby Dee; Vanessa Williams; Alfre Woodard; Phylicia Rashad; Sherri Shepherd; Audra McDonald; Loretta Devine; Gabourey Sidibe.