A Step In A New Direction: Is The 2014 ‘Vanity Fair’ Hollywood Cover A Sign Of Changing Times?

February 10, 2014  |  

With award season in full swing, Vanity Fair magazine recently revealed its annual Hollywood issue cover. From the fashion spreads to the well-written articles (no, really, Vanity Fair produces some of the best writing in the magazine world), Graydon Carter’s renowned publication is known for pulling readers into worlds of opulence, exclusivity and… well, vanity.

The yearly “Hollywood” cover became a tradition in 1995. And in that first Vanity Fair Hollywood cover introducing the magazine’s picks of the hottest, most sought-after and relevant entertainers, one Black actress was included — Angela Bassett.

The year after, in 1996, Will Smith was the chosen Black entertainer, alongside stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Benecio Del Toro and Matthew McConaughey. Clearly, the VF editors know talent and bankability when they see it, but the question remained for years: Why has there never been more than one Black performer included in this issue?

In 1999, the magazine’s editor’s seemed to heed the outcry when Britain’s own Thandie Newton and Omar Epps gave their lost-in-thought poses near Kate Hudson, Reese Witherspoon and Adrien Brody, sealing their Tinseltown success. From that year forward the numbers of Black entertainers ranged from zero to two, and sometimes when featured, they were pushed to the insert portion of the photo, such as actresses Adepero Oduye and Paula Patton in 2012. Others have been denied altogether despite their undeniable talent, like Gabourey Sidibe.

With the periodical’s questionable history in selecting diverse women and men of color to be celebrated among one of its most important issues, this year’s edition is a very important step in the right direction. Not one or two, but six Black actors and actresses have been selected to star on its pages: Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris, and Chadwick Boseman. It would have been a gross miscalculation for the magazine to feature fewer than that as 2013 marked a banner year for Black filmmakers, producers and screenwriters. Fresh talent as well as industry veterans shone in heart-tugging true-life renderings like 12 Years a Slave Fruitvale Station, 42 and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.

America’s film industry doors, which opened in 1910, were closed shut to Black entertainers in many ways. Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award in 1940 and it took 14 more years for another African-American actress to become an Oscar nominee (Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones). 

The question now is whether this is a sign of change both at the Vanity Fair offices and, moreover, in the decision-making ranks of the movie-making industry. This year, there was no denying the impact that Blacks were having in the theaters, behind the cameras, at the box office, and everywhere else. Excluding these stars from the cover would’ve been more than just a gross oversight, but an undeniable slap in the face. But what about years to come, when we don’t have the back-to-back films focused on the Black experience? Will those Black Hollywood stars still get their due? Do Black actors have to be in a gut-wrenching film like 12 Years or touch upon heavy topics like the injustices put upon Nelson Mandela to get recognized?

Black Americans have made many positive contributions and unfortunately history shows that recognition for their progressive influences ends up as long overdue. While we have learned not to expect credit from institutions such as Hollywood, it is nice to see in proof through this month’s Vanity Fair cover that those iron gates once barred from African-American players are surely, yet gradually becoming unlocked. Here’s to looking at a future where magazine covers and films are not Black or White, but truly showcase varied talents to both inspire and engage in the human condition.

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