Last week marked the beginning of the awards season frenzy, as nominations for the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes were announced. Yet, there was one important group that made a poor showing among the roster of talented nominees: black women.
While Oprah Winfrey (The Butler) and Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) both picked up supporting actress SAG nominations (and Nyong'o grabbed another from the Golden Globes), they are the lone black women on a list of lily-white female film nominees.
In fact, black women are entirely absent in the best actress, best director and best screenplay categories, begging a troubling question: Where are the black women in Hollywood?
"This is always such a tough question for me, because I'm really optimistic about my journey and I can't really compare my journey to Cameron Diaz's journey or Reese Witherspoon's, because we're not the same," says Nia Long, whose romantic comedyThe Best Man Holiday, which has taken in nearly $68 million at the box office so far. "We're not considered for the same roles. We're not paid the same. That's just the truth."
Long's hit film represents one of only a handful of times this year when multiple black actresses share the screen in a major motion picture.
Even withScandalstar and current "it" girl Kerry Washington peeking out from multiple magazine covers, landing endorsement deals, awards nominations and hosting diversity-challengedSaturday Night Live, Hollywood is hurting when it comes to opportunities for black women. It's a stark contrast to the music industry, where such performers as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj have enjoyed major success.
So, why is Hollywood lagging?
Oscar nominee Viola Davis says black actresses are "in crisis mode," with not enough roles to go around and a lack of opportunities for them to showcase their talents.
"We're in deprivation mode, because listen: me, Alfre (Woodard) and Phylicia (Rashad) ... we're in the same category. Whereas if you take a Caucasian actress, you have the ones who are the teens, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and they're all different," Davis said during an episode of Winfrey'sNext Chapter.
"There's roles for each of them, but when you only have two or three categories for black actresses - you want to work. It's a natural instinct. If you throw a piece of cheese in a room full of rats, they're going to claw at each other."
Plus, Hollywood has a reality-vs.-representation problem, says Christine Acham, program coordinator at the University of Southern California's Bryan Singer Division of Critical Studies.
"In terms of representation in front of the camera, (Hollywood is) not changing," Acham says. "When you have that reality vs. what's happening on TV and film not matching, you're always going to have those questions and those issues pop up."
Black women are absent from television's hottest shows, includingHomeland,Mad Men,Modern Family,Girls,Downton Abbey andGame of Thrones.SNLhasn't added a black woman to its cast since Maya Rudolph left in 2007. (Creator Lorne Michaels said last week that he'll hire a black woman next year).
The void is clear on the big screen, too.
Of more than 250 box office releases so far in 2013, fewer than 50 have featured a black woman in a leading or supporting role. Among the 10 highest-grossing movies of the year so far, only one -Star Trek Into Darkness- starred a black woman. Kasi Lemmons, who directedBlack Nativity, is the only black female director who has released a major film this year.
Conversely, black male directors and actors are having a banner year with the successes ofThe Butler(Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker),Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan) and12 Years a Slave(Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor). In fact, some Oscar prognosticators believe the best-actor category could be stacked with black men.
There is some good news for black actresses, though. In addition to Winfrey, Nyong'o and Washington's nominations, Zoe Saldana has A-list projects, includingAvatar 2and a just-announced role in the Miles Davis biopic opposite Don Cheadle.
On network television, Washington's hosting gig earnedSNLits highest ratings of the season andScandalcontinues to be a hit for ABC. Plus, several black actresses have found work this season on new series, includingAmerican Horror Story: Coven's Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe andSleepy Hollow's Nicole Behari and Lyndie Greenwood. And, showrunner Mara Brock Akil will launch the new Gabrielle Union-led seriesBeing Mary JaneJan. 7 on BET.
'AN OLD CONVERSATION'
But there is more progress to be made
"This conversation is an old conversation," says actress/choreographer/producer/director Debbie Allen."Unfortunately, we just keep having (it) over and over and over. It's like raising a child that doesn't listen ... We have to keep going over it."
Nic Sammond, a professor at the University of Toronto's Cinema Studies Institute, says historically, roles for black actresses have been problematic.
"If you go back to the earliest days of sound film in Hollywood, the roles that were available for black women were painfully stereotyped," he says. "You had people like Nina Mae McKinney and Ethel Waters who were incredible stars in their own right, slotted into pretty stereotypical roles."
Chandra Wilson, one of the leads on ABC's long-running hitGrey's Anatomy, says the limited number of roles for black women kept her away from Hollywood for years before she landed a steady job.
"When I would come just to audition, all in the same room, auditioning for the same role - that scared me to death! I kind of stayed away from Hollywood because of that. Because the quantity isn't high, we're all out there fighting for the same few roles."
Another issue lies in the lack of nuanced roles for black women.
Jubba Seyyid, senior director of programming of TV One, a black-oriented cable TV network, says that some mainstream TV outlets fail to portray black woman as multidimensional, something his niche network tries to combat.
"What America is primarily getting are the 'ratchet' images of black women, where black women are depicted as being angry and bitchy and fighting," Seyyid says. "We make a concerted effort to make sure that we give a full scale of the black woman human experience. What that means is, yes, sometimes black women can be bitchy. Black women can be angry. Black women can be dismissive. But, you know, what? So can white women."
"And," he adds, "white women are depicted that way on television, too. The difference is that they're also given balance. ... She's also a mom and she's sweet. She's also sexy, she's also sophisticated. So, what America gets to see is a balanced woman, and that is the real human experience."
Shonda Rhimes, the creator of 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Private Practice' and 'Scandal' is one of two black female showrunners in the TV landscape.(Photo: Thos Robinson, Getty Images for The New Yorker)
RACE AND HOLLYWOOD
Being black in Hollywood has long been a challenge for women and men, and Long says the reason lies, in part, in the difficult history African Americans have had in the USA.
"When you look at our journey historically, it's always been a challenge, and I don't think Hollywood is an exception," she says. "We are required to be better, be stronger and we have a lot more losses than we have wins The truth is, we still live in a very segregated country, and when you look at material, the scripts and the stories that are being told, that segregation is still alive."
Consider that the first black actor to win an Oscar - supporting-actress winner Hattie McDaniel - was forced to sit apart from herGone With the Windco-stars during the 1940 ceremony, which was held in a segregated theater.
It would be another 50 years before another black woman won an Oscar (Whoopi Goldberg forGhost) and more than a decade after that for the first black best-actress winner (Halle Berry,Monster's Ball). There hasn't been another one since.
In the 1980s and '90s,The Cosby Showruled the airwaves, with five consecutive seasons at the top of the Nielsen ratings.
And the boon of black-representative television programming in the late 1980s through the mid-'90s ushered in, in part, by Cosby, included such shows asFamily Matters,The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,Living Single,Martin, 227andSister, Sister.
Yet the trend didn't have legs, a phenomenon mirrored today withScandal, actress Holly Robinson Peete says.
"This Kerry Washington thing is so awesome, but I remember when my dad (actor, producer and writer Matt Robinson) was doingCosbyand we just knew that meant there were going to be three or four black family pilots every year."
Peete, who says her breakout role on TV's21 Jump Streetoriginally was written for a white woman, marvels at the strides that have been made on the diversity front in Hollywood, but says the job is hardly finished.
"We've come far," she says, "yet we have so much work to do."
Producer and showrunner Mara Brock Akil ('Girlfriends' and 'The Game') will bring her latest project 'Being Mary Jane' to BET in January.(Photo: Chris Pizzello, Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
GOING BEYOND ACTING
The absence of black women in Hollywood is complex, and fixing it requires more than simply seeing more black actresses land more layered roles, Wilson says.
"It's about the opportunity to be a showrunner and the opportunity to be a creator of a series when you're a person of colorabouta person of color. Who's going to give that opportunity?"
Wilson, who has directed nine episodes ofGrey's, credits creator/showrunner Shonda Rhimes with creating an environment at her Shondaland production company that could lead to grooming more black female voices in entertainment.
"Shonda andGrey'shave given me the opportunity to become a director, and that's something that I hadn't really envisioned for myself, other than directing for theater," she says. "Now I've got this résumé of television credits that I can carry forward into the next opportunity."
Linda Lowy, a Hollywood casting director who has cast all of Rhimes' series for ABC and is featured in the HBO documentaryCasting By, advocates a color-blind philosophy to help rectify racial inequalities.
"When I cast the pilot ofGrey's, Shonda didn't give anybody a last name. She just said, 'Linda, I want you to cast it the way you see the world.'"
After an impressive audition tape, Lowy brought Wilson and Kristin Chenoweth in for a screen test.
"(Wilson) sees Kristin Chenoweth sitting there and she must have been shaking in her boots, and then (Wilson) got the part. I'm telling you, it was a rip in the universe."
And, Lowy adds, even then, they weren't worried about resistance from the network for casting a black woman in a role written with a white actress in mind.
"Kristin Chenoweth is a genius, there's no doubt about that, and would have been great in the part, but, all of the sudden, it's like the waters parted and the world opened up and we saw the possibilities of what we could do if we took it another way," she says.
Kerry Washington is the star of ABC's 'Scandal,' which has earned her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, as well as a spotlight in mainstream Hollywood.(Photo: Eric McCandless, AP)
Misconceptions about black audience behavior are another roadblock for black actors.
Some box office watchers seemed shocked by the success ofThe Best Man Holiday, which gave Marvel'sThorsequel a run for its money in its opening weekend. But, the film's home run is simply proof that there is a market of black audiences longing to see their stories on the big screen, Peete says.
Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian says Hollywood's approach to reaching black audiences cannot be a one-size-fits-all strategy.
"The things that draw African Americans to the multiplex are the same things that draw everybody. Is the movie good? It's not just create a movie for a particular audience and it's going to be a hit with that audience."
Above all, there needs to be a more level playing field when it comes to opportunity and access for black women, says Allen.
"The word that we all want is 'possibility.' But the word we don't have enough of is probably 'opportunity,' " she says. "I'm looking at all the young women I'm mentoring and the ones that I have raised. Jada Pinkett Smith is someone who I discovered, who is now a mogul. ... It's about us remembering to network and call upon one another and give opportunity when it's possible."
When that happens, Peete thinks that roles for black women could go to infinity and beyond - literally.
"That would have been interesting to have George Clooney opposite a Kerry (Washington inGravity). We have a black female astronaut, so don't tell me we can't do that!"