By TV Roundtable Member Kendra James
Did anyone else know that Emmy and Oscar nominee Taraji P Henson is the third lead this season on Abrams’ and CBS’ new thriller Person of Interest?
No? Don’t be ashamed, because you certainly wouldn’t know given the advertising. The New York billboards feature the white male leads, Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson, and that same poster is the one you’ll see featured in magazines and papers all over, including this morning’s free Metro in NYC. As far as I was concerned these two men were the show’s only leads. I had no idea that an Oscar and Emmy nominated actress was the female star.
When TV Guide gave more of the same on the cover of their latest issue, Taraji took to her Facebook fanpage to speak to her fans:
WOW!!!! TV Guide is NOT including me on the cover with my cast members……..I am the female lead of a 3 member cast and I’m not included on the cover!!!!!! Do you see the shit I have to deal with in this business…..I cram to understand!!!!
The post was removed later and replaced with:
I swear you guys keep my spirit lifted cause it ain’t easy AT ALL for a sister in Hollywood. Your love is God sent!!!! Thank you ALL from the bottom of my heart. Wanted to tell you all this on live TV at the Emmys (if I’d won) but……oh well. Muah!!!!!
Normally, I’m the first to applaud CBS for their diverse casting on their procedural series. CSI, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Hawaii Five-0, and NCIS: LA each feature(d) staring men and women of color. Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior was also led by Forest Whitaker before being cancelled. However, the omission of an Academy Award nominated lead actress from an entire advertising campaign is more than an accidental oversight.
Both Taraji and Forest are the latest actors of color to follow in a trend I have mixed feelings about. While award winning and popular white film actors often make guest spots on network television you don’t often find them leading shows outside of HBO (and that’s not television, it’s HBO). Award winning Actors of color, on the other hand, seem to be making the transition from their Oscar nominated and critically acclaimed movies and parts to network and cable television. Forest Whitaker, Sandra Oh (Greys Anatomy), Terrence Howard (Law and Order: LA), Lawrence Fishburne (CSI), Viola Davis (United States of Tara, one season), Djimon Hounson (Alias, recurring role) and Don Cheadle (House of Lies), come immediately to mind. Out of the group Sandra is the only one not nominated for Oscar, though she does have a SAG to her name.
While each of these talents certainly deserve to work, why is it they’re taking jobs on network and cable television their white counterparts never would, especially if they’re not going to get the exposure? (Another question to muse on: why are so any of them men?) If we look at the year Taraji was nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we’ll see that she was nominated against Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Marisa Tomei, and Penelope Cruz. Of the five who are the two who’ve had recurring television work since? Viola and Taraji. The same thing happens if we look at Forrest Whitaker, who was nominated against Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gossling, and Peter O’Toole.
For all intents and purposes their fellow nominees are their peers (after all, they’re nominated by their fellow actors and actresses … or at least their assistants) and we can clearly see that they’re not getting the same type of work. (Can you imagine DiCaprio deciding to do a Showtime series, much less a Criminal Minds spin-off? Can you imagine him needing to do so?) Then, when actors and actresses of color are chosen to headline or co-headline a show, are they ever the face of the show? Are they out doing publicity and taking photos for magazine covers? Both Terrance Howard and Forrest Whitaker were given a huge promotional push and CM: SB and L&O: LA were cancelled in the middle of their first seasons. A search for Sandra Oh magazine covers reveals one result for a Marie Claire (Sara Ramírez has two covers to Latina to her name). I counted nine for Ellen Pompeo before I stopped, and didn’t even bother with Katherine Heigl or Patrick Dempsy. Taraji’s beef with CBS’ and TV Guide’s exclusion is hardly a unique one.
It’s bad enough that actors of color aren’t always given the same credit (or role choice) as their peers within the film industry (the publicity department for The Adjustment Bureau would have preferred that you didn’t know Anthony Mackie had a starring role– he was in a good two thirds of the movie. Certainly more than John Slattery). As television leads and co-leads, the opportunities to represent themselves and be represented by the shows they work for should be provided, and yet they don’t seem to be. Women of color especially are pushed to the side of the advertising table; CBS and NBC at least tried with Forest Whitaker and Terrence Howard.
I used to joke that after the failures of Undercovers, L&O:LA, and CM:SB in a one, two, three punch no network show would ever use a black face and the main face in their campaigns again. Given how quickly CM:SB came and went, there might be merit in wondering if CBS chose not to make Taraji part of the ad campaign focus because of the show’s failure and the direction of that particular campaign.
Whatever the reason, for Taraji and others the reality is mostly this: I’m sitting here watching The Big Bang Theory premiere and I’ve seen three ads for Person of Interest so far (two short, one full length). Two ads didn’t feature Taraji at all, and the thirty second ad featured her for a total of three seconds — I timed it. Worse, I know that had it not been for Taraji publicly calling out TV Guide I wouldn’t have known she was on this show. And that’s a shame because there’s no reason that should be the case. They took a shot of the three cast leads. They made the poster. Why aren’t they using it? Because Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson are obviously meant to be the stars of this show.
No one can blame Taraji for taking to Facebook to express her displeasure, and it’s important that even though the post was eventually deleted she had the chance to make her opinion public. It’s especially important for actresses of color like Joi Bryant (Parenthood), Annie Ilonzeh (Charlie’s Angels — who isn’t even listed as a “star” of the show on its IMDB page), Naturi Naughton (The Playboy Club), Maggie Q (Nikita), and Jasika Nicole (Fringe) who don’t have the prestige of an Academy Award nomination behind them, and continue to be underrepresented in advertisment and promotion by the networks that depend on them to show up on set each day and deliver quality work.
Taraji’s experience with Persons of Interest is no more than the latest example of Hollywood’s continuing issue with race and, as the actress her self said, “the shit” a person of color has to deal with in the entertainment industry even when they’d accomplished as much or more as their white counterparts.