“You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may tread me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise.” —Maya Angelou
*The unsavory depictions of Black women that Hollywood has forcefully imposed on the viewing public for nearly a century are slowly but surely being phased out of the marketplace. Due to the efforts of trailblazing African American female producers, writers, and filmmakers, the world is finally being introduced to imagery that accurately reflects the numerous complexities of this demographic.
“I think we’re just finding our groove and coming into our own,” says actress and director Nicki Micheaux (not related to legendary filmmaker Oscar Micheaux). “If Black women are not being able to tell their own stories from their own eyes, then you won’t get a chance to see the dynamics of what a Black woman is or can be. We’re just breaking through.”
Numerous TV, film roles
Micheaux began her career appearing in supporting film roles and playing guest starring parts on television shows including “ER,” “Any Day Now,” “City of Angels,” and “Soul Food.” She also received two NAACP award nominations for her role as Jennifer ‘Jenn’ Sutton in the ABC Family drama series “Lincoln Heights” (2007-2009). These days, she’s allocating her time and resources to create projects that will provide Black women with opportunities to undertake lead roles in sci-fi and action films, two genres that have historically been reserved for White performers.
“Someone like myself who wants to spread her wings and participate, or even star in any genre beyond what’s normal (expected) is a non-starter in the eyes of major production companies,” she explained. “No one wants to give you money for a Black female to play the lead in your movie, especially a movie that’s going to cost more than $5 million. That’s against the grain of what’s normal. It’s not about a racist thing per se; it’s about a business model. Financiers will ask you ‘how do I know that this film will make money? They base the model around White men, so we don’t have a place, especially in the sci fi and action genres. There’s no conversation to be had. I want to break that mold.”
Micheaux continued, “There are only so many shows that have a lead Black female character. And the women who get these roles are movie stars. They (the studios) are not allowing working Black actresses like myself to be the lead in the new “CSI.” A working White actress can get that role. Most secondary characters aren’t as well developed. That’s what we’re given; we’re forced to play the receptionist or the fat funny chick. That’s where we land. It shouldn’t be left only to Black women to write shows about Black women.”
More female leads
Micheaux also pointed out that networks have exhibited a willingness to create projects that center around female leads of other ethnicities than Black. ABC’s “Quantico,” for example, features an actress of Indian heritage (Priyanka Chopra) who plays a young FBI agent that is suspected of being an accessory to a terrorist plot gone awry in New York.
“These types of roles are tailor made for everyone but us,” Micheaux lamented, adding that on the rare occasion a project is created to feature a Black actress, it’s usually a biopic or connected to a moment in history, as opposed to being an original idea.
“‘Hidden Figures’ was directed by a White guy. I love the movie. But we have to be the authors of these stories and that is just (now) starting to happen. We just have to keep up the good fight. I have to tell these stories. There are too many Black and Brown girls whose stories aren’t being told.”
In recent years, go-getters like Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay and other young, enterprising female creators have taken the initiative to promote and finance their own endeavors instead of waiting for these opportunities to fall from the sky.
Operating independently may have been perceived as a pipe dream in the past, but now, with the advent of social media and various movie streaming outlets like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, aspiring writers and directors aren’t at the mercy of major corporations to disseminate their work. Moreover, many viewers, particularly those below age 30, are opting to stay home and stream content on their smart phones as opposed to paying the customary $13 admission charge to see a 90-minute film.
Streaming video services, mainly Netflix, have been undermining broadcast television and cable channels for years—but movie theaters may be coming under the gun as well. Movie attendance dropped by a surprisingly sharp 5.1 percent in 2016 according to new data, reports BGR.com, the website Boy Genius Report. More importantly, viewers aged 14-24 account for a stunning 15 percent drop-off in movie-going. These numbers have caused analysts to believe that young people are simply drifting away from old entertainment consumption patterns, seduced by video streaming on a variety of platforms. This tectonic shift has opened the door for independent filmmakers and writers to connect with a wide-ranging, international audience without having to lobby for the support of major production companies.
A tectonic shift
“If you don’t like what’s being put out there [in film and televsion], don’t whine about it, produce and market your own material,” says actress and aspiring filmmaker Saadiqa Muhammad. “There’s no excuse. We have too many options now to work independently. And quite honestly, as Black women, we have always been able to survive and succeed on our own.”
In 2014, Muhammad’s YouTube series “Moms,” which is based on her varied experiences as a single parent, earned “Best Comedy” at the San Diego Black Film Fesitival. She explained that one of her personal challenges is providing for her teenage son while also carrying the financial load of her independent projects.
“I’ve had to ask myself, ‘do I pay for headshots or my son’s braces,” she admitted. “I’ve had to come out of pocket for everything I’ve done so far. It’s been tough, but I don’t want my work to be diluted by anyone. I like being in control of my own destiny.” She added with a laugh, “Crowdfunding helps.”
Rather than combing the Hollywood landscape for a suitable backer to monetize the development of their projects, many writers and filmmakers are turning to platforms designed to help them acquire funding from the public. This growing trend emerged after former President Barack Obama passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS) in 2012, allowing individuals or companies to solicit investments through web-based corporations, explained members of a panel at last year’s Digital Hollywood conference. The process is referred to as crowdfunding, or crowdsourcing in some respects, and it’s become the go-to method for circumventing traditional avenues of securing an investment (i.e. panhandling at Sony Pictures, Universal or Warner Brothers). Between April 2009 and October 2015, a whopping 47,809 film crowdfunding campaigns were launched (via Kickstarter and Indiegogo.com, two of the internet’s most frequently used funding portals).
Even some of Hollywood’s more established patrons have dipped their fingers into this massive honeypot, including Don Cheadle, F. Gary Gray, Whoopi Goldberg, and Spike Lee.
Despite these ventures, the ever-present impact of negative stereotypes of Black women in all industries undoubtedly creates barriers in terms of development and advancement. These barriers can come from actual social or institutional prejudices, or self-limiting attitudes caused by the perceptions of others.
Perception is a tricky thing
Perception is a very tricky thing. It’s the murky, gray region that separates fiction and reality. For several decades, this obscure space has been occupied by African American women. As a result, they’ve been forced to vacillate between two opposing realities—the first of which reflects actual truth, versus the alternatives provided by the media. Negative imagery of Black women appears twice as often as positive depictions, Essence reported in 2013. The magazine interviewed more than 1,200 people, who recalled a barrage of shallow stereotypes—gold-diggers, hypersexual Jezebels and angry Black women—saturating pop culture.
“We probably have more diversity of Black female characters on television than ever before,” says author Tamara Winfrey-Harris. “The problem is there’s nowhere near the diversity that our White counterparts have. We’re still not allowed to be fully human in the ways they are.”
Winfrey-Harris, a longtime journalist and blogger specializing in race and gender interpretation in culture and current affairs, will release her first book this spring entitled, “The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative for Black Women in America” which challenges stereotypical portrayals of Black women and highlights the need for nuanced, complex characters.
“What I hear from a lot of (Black women) is, ‘When I read these articles about Black women in newspapers and see people talking about us on TV, that doesn’t seem like me. That doesn’t represent me,’” Winfrey-Harris says. “We have a very reductive picture in the public consciousness.”
Issa Rae, creator of the hit HBO series “Insecure” and winner of this year’s American Black Film Festival (ABFF) Rising Star award, says that she began writing her own content because she couldn’t identify with the imagery on film and television.
“What’s been painted of mainstream media’s Blackness, their definition, I don’t fit within that. So I’m in this awkward definition of Blackness,” she told The Huffington Post’s Marc Lamont Hill.”Black is supposed to be cool. Black is sassy. Black is trendsetting and I just don’t feel that way. It’s almost limited in a way, and I feel like Black is so much more than that. Sometimes I feel like we’re not even allowed to do that. We’re not allowed to be other.”
‘Awkward Black Girl’
Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl” won a 2012 Shorty Award for Best Web Show. She has been named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list two years in a row, has collaborated with Pharrell Williams, secured a book deal with Simon & Schuster, and is currently developing “Non-Prophet,” a half-hour comedy for HBO with controversial funnyman and cable television personality Larry Wilmore.
Her latest venture, “ColorCreative.tv,” develops and produces video projects by writers who are historically underrepresented in this category, providing a built-in platform and audience to propel them to television success by circumventing the traditional pilot process, reports FastCompany.com.
“I started Color Creative to give opportunities to talented women and writers of color,” says the 29-year-old Los Angeles native. “I get tired of hearing that we don’t appeal to a ‘broad audience,’ whatever that means. We’re providing opportunities and showcasing stories that aren’t being told anywhere else.”
She continued telling Fast Company: “Default characters are always White. Even with “Selma,” the huge part that Ava [DuVernay] played is that she transitioned the script from being Lyndon B. Johnson’s narrative in helping Martin Luther King to just being Martin Luther King and SNCC and SCLC’s story and how they took ownership of getting their voting rights. There was no White gaze, there was no White person helping them to make this happen for themselves—and it wasn’t rewarded [by the Academy]. They think that they’re groundbreaking every single time that they nominate a Black person but they’re not. Not really.”
DuVernay, who’s directorial contribution to “Selma” was not recognized by the Academy in 2015, causing many to lament her exclusion from that year’s list of nominees, recently told NBC News that although she has achieved more success than most women in her field, the doors of opportunity remain scant for people of color who desire to work behind the camera, especially African American women.
“Sure, that’s all Hollywood is—locks. A whole bunch of closed doors. Any film that you see that has any progressive spirit that is made by any people of color or a woman is a triumph, in and of itself. Whether you agree with it or not. Something that comes with some point of view and some personal prospective from a woman or a person of color, is a unicorn. Because truly the numbers that were just announced by [the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism] are dismal when it comes to women filmmakers, even worse, horrible, horrific when it comes to women of color filmmakers.”
She added, “When you just imagine that there’s one type of voice that’s really being pushed to the forefront is the White male voice. In terms of cinema, it’s really clear that the rest of us are locked out. So it becomes imperative that people-audiences that want to see that, fight for it, push for it. Support it when it comes, but also artists just become really vocal. So, yeah, it’s a whole bunch of locked doors.”
DuVernay’s new OWN drama “Queen Sugar” has quickly established itself as a model for an industry struggling with diversity. The cast is predominantly black, the writer’s room is even more diverse and DuVernay picked an all-female slate of directors to helm the show’s first season.
Most of the seven directors DuVernay hired for “Queen Sugar” had never done episodic television before. (One exception is Neema Barnette, who and was the first African American woman to direct a sitcom.) Directors for forthcoming episodes include indie filmmakers Kat Candler and Tina Mabry, and actress-director Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who starred in DuVernay’s first feature film, “I Will Follow.”
Richardson-Whitfield, who over the years has built an impressive resume working in front of and behind the camera, says that it’s important for women in her position to always be on top of their game and adaptable to change. “I take my job very seriously because I know that if I’m not great at it, they’re gonna judge every woman who comes after me based on how I perform,” she explained during a recent fundraiser conducted by Spelman College alumnae, where she was honored for her charity work and participation in various organizations that support women’s rights. “That doesn’t happen to men, but if I mess up, then the next woman is going to have it harder. My job in this business, and in life, is to be outstanding.”
“As a Black artist, every time I sit down with mainstream media, I’m asked about issues of race, identity and culture,” Duvernay told Makers.com. “No one asked what they ask my White male counterparts, which is: ‘Where do you like to put the camera?’ ‘How did you come up with that palette?’ ‘What was your conversation with your cinematographer?’ ‘How did you cast that person?’ I never get asked just film craft questions.”
Although there are more African American women working behind the scenes to create opportunities and open doors that wouldn’t otherwise exist for minorities, it’s still not enough to account for the tens of thousands of working Black actresses who struggle to secure roles that will allow them to explore the full range of their abilities.
In a report released last year, the Directors Guild of America revealed that just 17 percent of television episodes were directed by women in the 2015-2016 television season—a slight increase from 16 percent the previous season. The numbers were even more dismal when it came to women directors of color who accounted for just three percent of the more than 4,000 episodes analyzed in the report.
Of course, the barriers for female directors aren’t limited to television. Last year, San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Tevision and Film reported that a mere 9 percent of the top 250 domestic grossing films were directed by women. The numbers are so stark that earlier this year, the ACLU reported that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had launched an investigation into Hollywood gender discrimination.
“Black women have always been categorized as the gold-digger, or the ghetto hoodrat—there’s nothing in between,” explained actress and filmmaker Keena Ferguson. “When I’ve pitched my projects to some of the major networks, they encouraged me to “urbanize” my characters, to make them more palatable to their viewers, many of whom don’t know any better. As a director, I’m not interested in perpetuating stereotypes. I want to explore that gray area. I want to tell stories about all types of Black women, not the ones who’re deemed interesting or controversial enough to make a profit.”
Ending the stereotype
She added “You can write a script that shows the varied colors of Black women, but if you take it to a network they immediately wanna make a change, or they say ‘I don’t believe that.’ If you go walking into a studio with your hand out looking for someone to finance your project, then you’ll have to compromise the integrity of your Black characters in some form or fashion. It’s the name of the game. That’s why so many of us have decided to operate independently. It makes finishing a project a lot harder, especially when you have to finance it yourself. But at least you won’t be stripped of your morals and creative freedom.”
In 2014, prior to the tidal wave of success that she has achieved in recent months, Oscar-winner Viola Davis said that 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’s Next 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.”
A new report from Forbes has unveiled this year’s set of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, but the list of 10 women leaves Black actresses out. For the second year in a row, Jennifer Lawrence lands the top spot on the list, pulling in $46 million in the year from June 1, 2015 to June 1, 2016. Melissa McCarthy comes in second with $33 million while Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Aniston take third and fourth place with $25 and $21 million respectively in earnings.
These reports highlight the substantial pay gap between actors and actresses, but it also reflects the fact that a Black actress has not been on the Forbes list for at least a decade.
“Black women have the hardest gig in show business,” Chris Rock told the New Yorker for a profile on Leslie Jones back in January of this year. “You hear Jennifer Lawrence complaining about getting paid less because she’s a woman—if she was Black, she’d really have something to complain about.”
Rock isn’t necessarily lying. Black actresses such as Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Gabrielle Union and many others have had to accept supporting roles for decades in order to receive the opportunities they’re offered now.
“That’s why we have to open our own doors,” expalined Ferguson, who recently hosted a screening of her pro-choice documentary “Lindon Passing.” “We need to continue to make art because there will never be a clear path for us. That’s by design.”