The Disappearing Meaty Roles for Black Actresses

November 2, 2011  |  

Pop quiz. Name me five widely-released movies that starred a black woman in the past year.  I’m not talking about as the sassy friend or some small featured part. I’m talking about the lead in the movie. Could you do it? If you could, it probably took you a good minute, right? The current television landscape also has few Black female characters and most of these talented black actresses must shine in smaller, secondary roles especially on the big four networks ABC, CW, CBS, and NBC. There are notable exceptions like ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and the upcoming ABC show Scandal (I love Shonda Rhimes) that show black female characters we love. I also love Maya Rudolph as Ava on Up All Night. And smaller recent movies like Pariah by Dee Rees (premiering in December) and 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy by Barry Jenkins still offer black actresses headlining roles. Say what you want to say about Tyler Perry, but the man offers black actresses top billing as well.  However, I find it disturbing that there are not a greater number of juicy, complex roles available for black women anymore. 

I grew up in the 90s when black television and movies were at a high point in both quality and quantity. Shows like A Different World, The Cosby Show, Girlfriends, Living Single and Soul Food (well early 2000s too) all had meaty, funny, and touching roles for black women. Movies like Love Jones, Love and Basketball, Menace to Society, Girl 6, Higher Learning, Eve’s Bayou, What’s Love Got to Do With It and Boomerang gave Black actresses complex characters to show off their acting chops. As a little girl, these shows and films inspired me to want to act, then eventually to write and direct for TV and film. These were stories I could relate to and that reflected my life as a black woman in this country. These films and shows gave us talented and beautiful black actresses like Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Jurnee Smollett, Lynn Whitfield, Phylicia Rashad, and Tracee Ellis Ross; women I still look up to as a black artist.  However, the landscape has changed. The black sitcom has all but disappeared and of those that exist how many are good? I know what my answer is, but I’ll leave you to ponder that one. Where does a little Black girl who dreams of a life in the arts look to inspire her these days? Where can she go to see quality television and film that feature faces that look like hers? If she flips on television she doesn’t see much that resembles her unless you count the shouting and fighting women of reality television. This makes me very sad.

Playing the “girlfriend or wife” of a black male star like Idris Elba and Will Smith in television and movies is not exactly a meaty role, but it used to be a role reserved for black women. Now, these roles are often cast with non-black women. Shadow and Act’s blog explores this trend in a great article that focuses on interracial coupling on television. While I am not one to hate on interracial anything, it troubles me that this trend is taking roles away from black actresses and that it’s so rare to see two black people coupled up on the small or big screens anymore.

What can you do to help the situation? Make an effort to find out about the smaller independent films that feature black women in substantial roles and support them with your presence and your dollars. For a  great blog to keep you up on the indie scene, visit  Shadow and Act. Also check out AFFRM, better known as the African American Film Releasing Movement. This organization provides distribution and promotion for quality black films. As for television, support quality online artists like the Awkward Black Girl. Hopefully once the networks see that there is an audience for shows like this, they will offer to put them on the airwaves, but only time will tell.

Do you miss the television and film of the 90s?

Grace Edwards is a writer living in New York city. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter @gracyact.

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