It’s been a good year for Black women on film, so the Oscars would have you believe. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer received well-deserved nominations, and Spencer joined the exclusive club of Academy Award-winning Black actresses. But, let’s not forget she is only the sixth Black woman to be recognized with this honor. The last African-American to take home the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role still struggles to find work and saw her latest performance go straight to DVD.
Black women may have been top of mind this awards season, but for the most part they remain invisible on-screen. A recent study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that 32.6 percent of speaking characters from 2007 to 2010 were female, which translates into an on-screen ration of 2.1 males to every one female. Black actors accounted for 11.6 percent of speaking roles.
Who’s Telling Our Story?
There is an old industry adage in Hollywood – “write what you know.” Best Picture-nominated films with one or more female screenwriters show a higher percentage of female characters than films written solely by men. Only 14.3 percent of directors from 2007 to 2010 were female. The stories of Black women aren’t being told because Black women aren’t doing the telling. Furthermore, they aren’t the ones deciding which stories are told. As chief executive and chief creative officer of OWN, Oprah Winfrey is arguably the only Black woman in television or film with the power to control the images that are presented.
The old guard of Hollywood is still very much in place. It is one where a select group of decision-makers, largely non-minority males, pander to the lowest common denominator of audiences. They subscribe to ideals like films and television shows with Black leads aren’t successful domestically or abroad. Waiting to Exhale, The Cosby Show, and Will Smith are all flukes.
The media is a notoriously monopolized industry. Through a history of mergers and acquisitions, massive corporations; namely General Electric, Walt Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, Viacom, and CBS; now dominate the U.S. media. With everyone reporting to the same boss, it’s no wonder entertainment looks like one big homogenized, whitewashed mess. But, a shift in the tide is brewing.