By Guest Contributors Zach Stafford and Nico Lang
Illustration: Joseph Lamour.
Over the years, people of color have had the hardest time breaking into the ‘biz’ or just simply being recognized for the work that they have done on the silver screen.
It was in 1939 that the first African American person–Hattie McDaniel–won an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind. It took 30 years for another African American person to win again: Sidney Poitier won Best Actor in a leading role for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, a film that tackles racial divides and interracial dating at the onslaught of integration. But how much have we integrated since then?
In their 2011 New York Times article, “Hollywood’s Whiteout,” staff film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote, “[Race] in American cinema has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress. It has more often proceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs, and periods of intense argument followed by uncomfortable silence.” Their article came out in response to the 2010 Academy Awards where zero African Americans were nominated, which struck many as peculiar within this Obama Era where ideals around post-racism circulated from sea to shining sea.
The lack of people of color at the Academy Awards was a stark reminder that Hollywood was still very much divided. Let’s play a game: Can you name a prominent black actor under 30? Someone that, if you walked up to a random person on the street, they would know who you are talking about? Didn’t think so.
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.