Black Women in Hollywood: Bumrushing the Old Boy Network

When was the last time you watched a critically acclaimed film starring a black woman as a ballerina, a queen or a boxer? Now raise your hand the last time you saw a movie where a black woman was lauded for her role as an abusive mother living in the projects, a singer or a maid?

You can put your hand down.

Stifling tropes of black womanhood such as the aforementioned and a lack of transgressive roles for these actresses are the reasons why I rarely hit the multiplex. The offerings on the small screen aren’t much better, which is probably why I can go for months at a time without picking up my remote control. Except when Lola comes to visit. Then two or three times a week, I join her on the couch in the guest room, sucked into watching her favorite sitcoms and procedural dramas. Boob tube bonding. But I can only take so much of the Best Black Friend, Sassy Medical Examiner and Bitchy Police Chief before I bid the flat screen adieu and resume whatever activity I was called away from. I’m jaded. I see through Hollywood’s veneer of diversity. Writers of these shows reach their Colored Quota by positioning sisters as comic relief, or as a two-minute love interest, without infusing the characters with any complexity or back story or dimensionality.

More and more, I find that whenever dissenting voices try to explain why they object to feeble attempts at representation or downright offensive depictions in film or TV, they’re met with cries of “Why do you let yourself be defined by television characters?” and “It’s only a movie.”

I don’t get my self-esteem from films or dramas featuring black women. If I had to depend on Hollywood to help me maintain a positive self-worth, I’d be an emotional wreck by now. Well, sometimes I am, but that’s a whole nother post. It’s insulting to reduce the argument against programming that marginalizes black women or renders them invisible to “Lighten up. It’s only a movie/sitcom/police procedural.”

Representation matters. Why should white men have a monopoly on superheroes (or supervillians), computer geeks, surfers and even serial killers? There, I said it. Why is it that white actresses can be aristocrats and secret agents, and black actresses have to fight to be, well, the help? It’s easy to ride for the status quo when you can walk into any theater and see characters on screen who look like you and know that the people behind the scenes look like you as well. Or maybe such racial disparities don’t bother you at all, which is an issue in and of itself.

This year’s Academy Awards was hailed as being one of the whitest on record, a cinematic blizzard freezing out the majority of black talent. According to the New York Times, this past award season was “more racially homogenous — more white — than the 10 films that were up for best picture in 1940.” It’s ironic that Hattie McDaniel became the first black to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy seventy-one years ago, and next year, a black actress may take home a gold statuette for her role as a domestic.

Such is Tinsel Town’s idea of progress.

The diversity outlook in television is just as bleak. According to a recent Nielsen report, African-Americans watch more TV than any other group, putting in about 40 percent more viewing time than the rest of the population. Yet a recent report from the Directors Guild of America finds that men of color directed only 11 percent of the more than 2,600 episodes produced during the 2010/2011 TV season, and women of color directed a mere 1 percent. White men directed a whopping 77 percent of all episodes. There’s something wrong with this picture.

As people of color – particularly women of color – we can’t continue to be avid consumers of a medium that continues to diminish our worth in front of the camera, while denying us opportunities behind the camera. We have to create the images we want to see. This is not an easy process. Ask any writer who has ever fought to get a script green lit or director who has struggled to secure financing for a pilot. But sometimes when we become desperate for representation, we’re forced to circumvent the traditional routes to the silver screen and the small screen.

Producing digital WOC-themed content seems to be the next frontier, a cyber stage on which to center robust portrayals of black womanhood. The immense popularity of the web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” gives me hope. Written and directed by Issa Rae, the show revolves around the exploits of J, a 20-something black misfit trying to survive a dead-end job, catty coworkers and two men vying for her attention. Each webisode is smart and irreverent, and Rae has been hailed as “the black Tina Fey.” J’s character is a quirky black woman with agency, someone striving to reclaim her inner geek goddess. She is not a drug addict, a servant, a gold-digger, a cold-hearted buppie, a sassy best friend or any other trope that Hollywood likes to trot out as a defining characteristic of black women.

When CNN recently asked Rae about the impetus for her web series, she replied, “I just felt that I didn’t really see myself represented on screen, or in television or in film. I love these shows like Parks & Recreation, like 30 Rock, just because they have this awkward humor. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld – these shows represent my sense of humor. So I thought it would be funny to have this series based around this African-American girl who goes through everyday awkward situations. I just decided to stop sitting on it after reading an article ‘Where’s the Black Liz Lemon?’ [Fey’s character on 30 Rock] I said, ‘That’s my idea. That’s what I want to do.’ So, I just decided to shoot the first episode guerrilla style.”

Without the backing of a major studio or investors, the Stanford grad enlisted the help of friends, and shot the series on a shoestring budget. Her efforts are resonating with viewers. Nine episodes and more than a million YouTube hits later, Rae is now repped by major agencies CAA and UTA. I’m hoping that the young filmmaker’s diligence will result in a cable show or even an Awkward Black Girl movie.

Another black auteur bucking the studio system is Ava DuVernay, writer and director of the critically acclaimed feature I Will Follow. The movie chronicles a day in the life of a woman grieving for her dead aunt, and renowned film critic Roger Ebert called it, “One of the best films I’ve seen about coming to terms with the death of a loved one.” Like Rae, DuVernay realized her chances of securing a multimillion dollar budget were nil, so she financed the project with her own funds. In an even bolder move, she founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) to distribute I Will Follow. AFFRMs goals are to release two independent black movies annually with the backing of organizations such as Urbanworld Film Festival and the Pan-African Film Festival.

When I worked for a radio trade publication years ago, DuVernay was owner of The DuVernay Agency, a film and TV public relations firm. She coordinated several press junkets that I attended, among them The Brothers, Two Can Play That Game and Hill Harper’s indie film The Visit. She was a driven sister then, and she remains even more so now. According to her Facebook page, DuVernay is currently in post-production on her second film, Middle of Nowhere, which explores the life of a woman caught in the web of incarceration.

In an L.A. Times interview, the Compton native turned PR maven voiced her disenchantment with the standard celluloid portrayals of black women. “We all sit around and complain about the studio system, complain about men in dresses. The bottom line is, the energy I spent complaining about them is energy I can put into making a film about a happy black woman who is taking her destiny in her own hands.”

Redefining our destiny. It’s a beautiful feeling to know that there are fearless sisters bumrushing the Old Boy Network by producing complex content for and starring women of color. I challenge every woman who is weary of the Tinsel Town status quo to donate to Rae and DuVernay’s projects, or to “like” their Facebook pages or to spread the word about their work. Clutch Magazine has a list of eight other filmmakers to support.

Trailblazers such as the aforementioned make me feel like we’re on the cusp of a zeitgeist, with black women rising up to declare that we will no longer be ignored by Hollywood, that our stories and voices and dreams are worthy enough to be broadcast to the world. We may never win Best Actress as a ballerina or aristocrat, but at least this new crop of filmmakers dares to challenge outdated and disempowering representations of black women while at the same time subverting traditional channels for funding and distribution. Grab your popcorn. It’s going to be a thrilling show.

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