“The only thing that separates women of color from anything else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” said Viola Davis in her Emmy acceptance speech.
Do the lack of acting roles in Hollywood that portray African American women as desirable, educated, happy and successful play a factor in the way we view Black women today? It could be! For many years, the film industry’s negative depiction of Black women on the big-screen has shaped the mainstream’s reality of who black women really are. Many actresses are beginning to speak out about the inequality in Hollywood.
Two-time Tony Award winner, Oscar nominee and Emmy Award winning Viola Davis is one of them. She admits to still feeling that she is underused in television even as the first black actress to accept an Emmy Award. She won best actress in a drama as Annalise Keating, the tough-talking criminal law professor and protagonist of ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.”
But in her acceptance speech, Ms. Davis quoted Harriet Tubman:
“‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’
The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.
You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black,” she said addressing the television industry’s lack of opportunities for black women.
For this reason, Scandal’s Kerry Washington and Davis’s recently inked deal with ABC Studios and ABC Signature Studios is a great opportunity to create more diverse roles for the next generation of African American actresses.
Two of the biggest stars, Davis and Washington plan to broadcast, cable and digital projects exclusively for the network by way of their independent production companies. Davis signed her company JuVee Productions, founded with husband Julius Tennona, and Washington signed her recently launched production company, Simpson Street.
“We started JuVee because we wanted to see narratives that reflected our multi-ethnic and multifaceted culture,” Davis commented to a source. “We wanted to be a part of classic storytelling, and we didn’t want to wait.”
So what does this mean for African American women? Throughout the history of television, the only roles available for Black actresses depicted them in an undesirable manner i.e. maids, mammies, jezebels, negro, thugs, promiscuous, weak and more.
The Help: Stereotypes of Black Women in Early Film by BillieIsaak
For example, stars like Lousie Beaver, the African-American actress, the original Delilah from 1934’s Imitation of Life is best remembered for the large number of maid roles played throughout her career. She appeared in over 160 films from the 1920’s to the 1960’s.
Hattie McDaniel, 1939, was the first black woman to win an academy award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. However, her role was depicted as angry and outspoken.
Halle Berry made history in 2002 for winning Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Monsters Ball. The movie didn’t display her multifaceted talents, but was more less a role engaging in sexual activity. Over 14 years later, she admits to feeling heartbroken that another black women hasn’t followed in her footsteps.
There is a disconnect somewhere. Chris Rock said it best in his opening monologue at the 2016 Oscars when referring to the racism in Hollywood:
“What I’m trying to say is, you know, it’s not about boycotting anything. It’s just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.”
The roles are simply not there.
Davis and Washington’s independent companies are a step toward generating these new opportunities in the film industry. The hope is that these newly independent production companies will offer black actresses the opportunity to portray African American women in a more realistic light, so that the next generation of Black viewers can have the opportunity to see the truth about black women, and in turn, it will reflect in the way that they see themselves.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been progress, but we’re not there yet.
Look at the ABC drama “Scandal:” Actress Kerry Washington, who plays Olivia Pope, is a crisis management expert to politicians and power brokers in Washington, DC. Her character is under scrutiny with some critics arguing that her role plays into the sexual stereotype of black women as easy and sexual.
Also, Gabrielle Union stars as Mary Jane Paul, a successful TV reporter and journalist on a popular series “Being Mary Jane.” But, even then, the character played by Union is criticized for its negative depiction of powerful black women in an article in Black Enterprise. In the beginning of the series, she was sleeping with a married man. The talent is there, however, there hasn’t yet been a breakthrough of diverse roles on film that reflect African American women in the most positive manner.
According to a 2015 article in Newsweek by Lucy Nicholson, which talked about the Blacks portrayals in movies.
“…movies like The Help, The Butler, Precious, 12 Years a Slave, and Training Day all had black people as central characters. They all won some type of award or nomination and/or had actors that were recognized with awards. However, each movie promoted stereotypes of black people, which is a common issue in the film industry. The biggest problem is that these awards are only presented to blacks for roles of servants, slaves, ghetto moms, or thugs. It only sends the message that that’s all Blacks are good for.”
It’s no secret that inequality exists and not only for African Americans in Hollywood but also for African American Actresses. It would only make sense that these new production companies take a step in the right direction.
“I believe strongly in the importance of having a seat at the table which makes starting this production company thrilling for me. It’s an honor to be at a point in my career when I can help generate projects that that are exciting, necessary, and truly reflect the world around us,” Washington said in a statement. “I’m grateful to be on this journey with ABC, a network that remains unparalleled in its commitment to inclusive storytelling.”
So far, Simpson Street’s first project was the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas HBO movie Confirmation, which the company produced with ABC Signature, as well as Groundswell Productions and HBO Films. It was successfully and accurately represented Black women for what they really are – eminently powerful!
Written By: Taylor Bennett