Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hollywood in Black and White

We see them. For a moment they’re on movie screens, televisions and the covers of magazines. They portray strong mothers, sassy siblings, supportive girlfriends, caring wives and the stuff of many a fantasy in our imaginations.

Then, in an instant they’re gone.

Who are these mysterious females? African-American actresses. Every generation including mine has had a series of beautiful sistas who are touted one minute as someone who will become the next household name. Then in a year or two, after a few memorable performances in a handful of films or TV shows, they disappear from the spotlight and their names are forgotten by everyone.

Light skinned or dark skinned, fat, or skinny, short, tall, young, or old, award winning or reviled, I noticed that the same pattern transpired in the careers of most of the sistas I researched. A short surge of popularity, followed by a quick fade into obscurity. In most cases these ladies had the talent to take their craft to the next level, but there was no work available for them. Why?

It turns out that there were numerous reasons why most Black actresses weren’t working as regularly as their white female counterparts. As I explored the barriers sistas faced in finding employment in Hollywood it painted a picture of four Tinseltowns: One Black, one White, One Male and one Female, separate and unequal. Compared to everyone else, Black actresses faced the most obstacles in their career paths, and that’s why their careers didn’t have the longevity or diversity of their white female counterparts.

The first of these obstacles is an access to screenplays written by African-American screenwriters for African-American audiences. Currently out of 14,000 registered writers in the Writer’s Guild of America, less than two percent are African-American. And out of that number of 14,000 less than 500 work in a given year. And out of those 500 working writers only a literal handful are African-American or minority.

Because of this severe shortage of screenwriters of color, African-American Actresses’ have next to no access to scripts or anyone willing to write material tailored towards their strengths. Most of the few African-American screenwriters who do work are male and tend to write material for male protagonists because it’s easier to sell scripts with a male lead than a female one. The price of a screenplay can be as much as three to five percent of a film’s production budget, so it’s often more lucrative for a screenwriter to write a script with a white male lead than a black female one. Three to five percent of a $75-$100 million budget for a script featuring a white male lead character pays a lot more money to a screenwriter than three to five percent of a film with a $2 to 10 million budget written with a black female lead character.

Because there is so much more money to be made writing roles for White male, White female, and Black male leads, than Black female ones, the parts for Black actresses that are available are often small roles that are underwritten and underdeveloped. Without writers dedicated to crafting and tailoring material to fit a specific black actress, most Black actresses often are stuck playing the same roles over and over again.

The second obstacle Black actresses face in developing their careers is the lack of support for African-American films from executives in the movie industry. In a business environment that is 98 percent White and male, many executives will not support films with African-American female leads out of fear they won’t be profitable. While there have been great successes in mainstream African-American films with female leads like Waiting to Exhale, Set it Off, Soul Food, and Precious movie executives can point to numerous financial failures in recent African-American films they’ve invested in, and use these flops as a reason not to invest in films featuring African-American female leads.

Without the support of studio management to assist in developing their careers, most African-American actresses have no access to financing for projects they want to develop or a network of theaters to distribute them even if they get them produced. Oftentimes, if African-American actresses want regular work (not necessarily quality projects) they have to go outside of Hollywood to work in independent films. Many of these low-paying low-budget projects (some pay as low as a few hundred dollars, others pay nothing at all) have limited exposure. Unless these films have a serious financial backer like Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry, who have the money to get them distributed into theaters, the only way audiences see these movies is on home video or at film festivals.

The third obstacle African-American actresses’ face in their career path is competition from their Black male counterparts. Some Black male leading actors fear that by having a black female leading lady as their co-star their film project will be labeled a “black” movie and not perform well at the box office. So they will insist upon having a female co-star that is Hispanic, White or Asian in the hopes of selling to a broader audience of moviegoers. Some will go as far as insisting upon their entire supporting cast isn’t black so the finished film would be more competitive at the box-office.

The final obstacle African-American actresses face in their careers is a lack of support from African-American audiences. Even when studios do release projects with Black actresses in lead roles, there hasn’t been much of an audience of ticket buyers in the African-American community. From critically acclaimed films like Akeelah and The Bee, Oprah Winfrey’s Beloved, and The Secret Life of Bees, to critically panned films like Phat Girlz, films featuring African-American female leads do not perform well at the box-office. The failure of these films at the box office doesn’t encourage anxious studio executives who consider African-American films to be a tremendous risk to make more films with African-female American leads, or to tell stories featuring the experiences of African-American women. Without the audience there going out to support the films, executives feel there is no real reason for studios to produce them.

In spite of these numerous obstacles, many sistas persevere. They fight hard for every role, and put forth the best efforts possible in their performances. While many of my sistas don’t have the wealth or fame of their white female counterparts, they make the performances in the roles that they do receive have a lasting impact on viewers like myself.

Listening to the interviews of numerous black actresses telling their stories about struggling in Hollywood was the main reason I was inspired to write All About Marilyn. I wanted to detail the racism, sexism, and misogyny that prevented black actresses from having the careers their White contemporaries enjoyed. While I’ve read articles in Ebony and Essence that told readers about the plight of black actresses, I felt audiences needed to be shown some of the experiences a black actress dealt with on a daily basis. I felt if readers met a character like Marilyn they could relate to and identify with, they’d understand the how the business of Hollywood colors what we see onscreen.

My hope is that Marilyn’s story will spur African-American audiences to start going out and supporting African-American films again. I’m also hoping that more African-Americans start learning the crafts of filmmaking and screenwriting, and focus on careers behind the camera. There are a million shades of brown in the Black community, and I’d love to see those stories color the experience of what I see onscreen.


E. W. said...

Thanks for this post Shawn.

I can certainly concur with your final reason for the middling popularity of black films. In my most lay-man opinion, I believe it has to start with our community first. Especially if we can cultivate a surge of interest in film *making* instead of film *watching.*

I know there are several people who denounce Tyler Perry, I'll be honest I haven't seen too many of his movies, but you have to respect someone who took a chance create the films he wanted to see. He said to himself, "I want to make movies about my perception of black life/culture." and he did.

Honestly, I don't have a background in film, but there are so many actresses that I respect, Regina King for example. Love her! But she barely gets any roles. I'm actually writing my second manuscript for a sci-fi/fantasy novel that has a black female protagonist.

Amongst my influences for the story was Aaron McGruder of "The Boondocks" fame. Another guy who decided to take the risk and tell a story he didn't see anywhere else.

Anyways, good luck from another fellow aspiring writer.


Shawn James said...

Great to hear from a fellow writer.

I really would like to see more brothers and sisters getting out there and learning the craft of filmmaking and screenwriting. I'm hoping that this book gets black community excited about screenwriting.

There's a lot of great black actresses out there who could be amazing onscreen. I'd love to see Regina King more often; her work is amazing. I personally feel the sistas don't get their due when it comes to quality scripts. So I felt I had to write one.

I have no issues with Tyler Perry; in fact I give him props for taking the risk and getting his stuff out there. I understand that he's making films that he likes for his audience. Filmmaking is an craft where everyone has their own style and approach to storytelling. I feel that if I want to tell my stories about the African-American experience, I need to get writing.

You're writing a sci-fi novel with a black female lead? Awesome! My first self-published book "Isis" is a fantasy novel that features a Black female lead character and a strong supporting cast of black women.

I often felt that fantasy and sci-fi was an under explored genre for African-American writers. I feel more African-American writers need to "get out of the box" and explore other genres like sci-fi, fantasy and westerns. Your story sounds great; if it's going to be written in the "Boondocks" style it's going to be a fun read. Whenever you get it published I'd love to get a copy. A former comic fan myself, I love fantasy/sci-fi stories.

Thanks for the support,


Ed Wilson said...

No prob.

Tyler is definitely cool in my book too!

Thanks for the reply!