I think the bottom of the totem pole is African American women, or women of color. I think they get the least opportunities in Hollywood.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Melanie Pantin rushed out of her Koreatown apartment to catch the Los Angeles Metro “Red Line” for an audition out in the San Fernando Valley. She specifically was up for an “infomercial” in Studio City, which would require little of the theatrical skills the New York Film Academy (NYFA) alumnae has honed over the past few years. She initially trained at the school’s Manhattan campus before transferring to its branch in Burbank.
With her luminous eyes and easy smile, the native Trinidadian says she has had a generally positive reception from African Americans in this country (“they love me,” she insists) her voice occasionally slipping into the lilt of her Caribbean homeland (“it comes and goes,” she says). On a professional level, she admits being a woman of color relegates her to supporting roles, as those casting for leads—even student films or low budget productions—generally seek out White actresses.
“When I go onto these casting sites and look at the (character) breakdowns (a brief analysis of the main speaking parts used for casting calls), more than 50 percent specifically request Caucasian females.”
Pantin has had consultations with an instructor at NYFA to work on her accent, but doesn’t want to lose it completely.
“I want to be able to turn it on and off, and I’m trying to find that balance,” she says.
In this, her roommate and fellow NYFA grad Sia Foryoh may have an advantage. Born in Sierra Leone, and cast out during that country’s civil war at the tender age of four, she has survived a two-year separation from her parents, and being bounced around Guinea and Senegal, where she reunited with her family before moving on to England, then leaping over the Atlantic to finish high school in Canada and beginning studies at the Vancouver Film School (VFS), before transferring to NYFA.
Along the way she has picked up five languages: Creole, Kissi, Mende, French, and of course English, with all the attendant standards of correctness.
As an expatriate, Foryoh has a unique insight into the the racial dynamic’s of America, and the stigma of being able to string grammatically correct sentences together.
“Caucasians are shocked that I am educated and speak the way I do,” she reveals, adding that those on the other end of the racial spectrum have their own reaction to her physical appearance and her conversational voice.
“When the Blacks ask me where I am from, they start to think that I am ‘too good’ for them, or that I was around a lot of White people.”
Recently, Foryoh had an audition for a direct-to-video project wherein the three men doing the casting, all of African descent, were surprised when she started speaking, slow to reconcile the voice they were hearing to the person standing before them.
They are just two of the thousands of attractive young women who flock to Hollywood every year, hoping to become the “next big thing.” Those who are serious about their craft will not rely on their good looks, but will invest in acting classes and expensive tutorials with dialogue coaches in order to be ready for that preverbal “big break” which, if not propelling them to stardom, will open the doors towards steady work and a comfortable living. For Foryoh and Pantin, this intense competition is compounded by their “otherness, both as foreigners and Black women.
Malcontents in a season of success
“African Americans have always been the ‘dark other.’”
-from an interview by Erika Alexander in “Madame Noire”
Unlike these new comers, Erika Alexander is a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood hustle. With 47 credits on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), she is one of the fortunate few able to earn her living in a dramatic career that includes tenure as a regular on The Cosby Show and Living Single.
Still, the TV and movie veteran was dissatisfied about what she sees as unwillingness by show biz “gate keepers” to cast Black folks in anything other then stereotypical roles.
She acknowledges entertainment as a “cutthroat business” for everyone regardless of race or gender.
“Disappointment is part of the gig,” she says.
“All artists, especially artists of color and women, must come to terms with the limitations of this industry and our promotion, or lack of promotion, in it. It’s the law of supply and demand.”
Yet and still, she believes improvements can easily be achieved given a little prodding by the “gate-keepers.”
To vent her frustration, Alexander focused on one of her favorite TV dramas, the 1960s period piece “Mad Men,” a show set in the fast-paced advertising industry, where “Negroes,” as they were known during that time frame, appear irregularly as domestics or clerical characters. She set out to write a script, one she knew would never be bought or aired, in which the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, is forced to go uptown to Harlem to engage a Black ad agency in order to reach the lucrative African American consumer base.
She then posted it online to show that an integrated cast could successfully be introduced into the series for dramatic effect. “The show already had good bones,” she said, “I just put some dark meat on them.”
Over a month has passed since the 2014 Academy Award festivities, proclaimed as a banner year for Black performers in Hollywood. The triumph of a Black-themed motion picture, 12 Years a Slave, was the icing on the cake for a film season proclaimed as a turning point for Black filmmakers, and the movies they generated.
Even before the ceremony, the public’s appetite for variety was whetted by the annual “Hollywood” issue of Vanity Fair, in which six of the 12 movie stars featured in the three-paneled gatefold cover, shot by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, were Black people. Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan (The Daily Beast, Newsweek, New York magazine, The Washington Post) summed it up succinctly.
“Diversity is important,” she quipped, “diversity sells.”
Before one gets complacent in the afterglow of Oscar hoopla, remember that there have been earlier, “banner years” for Blacks in cinema. In 2001 the two top individual awards for Best Actress and Actor were won by Black performers Halle Berry and Denzel Washington (who beat out fellow nominee of color Will Smith), causing less jaded Hollywood onlookers to herald it as the dawn of a new age of diversity in Tinseltown. Alas, a few months after the applause died down, the profile of minority participation declined as well.
Pantin says that every audition is different. Sometimes she gets no script or just the most basic information about a character, meaning she must rely on her improvisational skills.
One solution to the lack of quality roles is inventing your own opportunities. For Pantin, whose acceptance into NYFA hinged upon a bio/essay she submitted with her application, it means creating new projects that include characters of color. “That’s part of the reason I write, to create my own opportunities,” she says.
Towards this same end, Alexander has collaborated with her husband, artist/screenwriter Tony Puryear, to produce the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Concrete Park,” a sci-fi epic in which youthful members of the underclass, many of them of color, are shipped from the overcrowded Earth to a mining camp on a distant planet.
View from the top
Anne-Marie Johnson (In the Heat of the Night and “What’s Happening Now!!”) enjoyed a relatively easy entry in the 1970s and 80s. Speaking on the liberal fervor in vogue then, she remembers “…back then it was comfortable to say things are not okay.”
As a result, she says “the door was wide open for African Americans,” due to the efforts of power players like Fred Silverman and Brandon Tartikoff. The running joke was that NBC stood for “Negro Broadcasting Company.” Today, she notes a false image of liberalism currently in existence, due to high profile ascension in the ranks of the previously underrepresented. The racial issue not-with-standing, Hollywood isn’t great for women, period, regardless of color.
“Even when a woman makes it to the apex of the food chain, as Sherry Lansing did when she became president at Fox in 1980,” Johnson points out, “she does not wield the same power and influence as her male counterparts in similar positions.”
Existence in the lofty hierarchy of the show biz elite is precarious despite of gender, but White men enjoy a safety net of sorts. When male executives do underperform, they are likely to receive lateral transfers, or even promotions.
During her career, Johnson also toiled as an activist and union participant, serving as vice president of the Screen Actors Guild circa 2005-10, which gives her a unique perspective from which to comment on employment practices in Hollywood.
Ice Cube so eloquently stated in the lyrics to his “Race Card” track, “everything in the world ain’t Black and White.” For all neglect experienced by the descendants of the African Diaspora as they scrounge to make a living in the entertainment venue, they still tread on a flower bed of ease compared to others in the minority community.
Johnson says the prospects are even worse for Asians and Hispanics, and even they are blessed when compared to America’s indigenous people.
“Native American actors are almost nonexistent in the entertainment business. It’s pathetic.”
In the event one does speak out about the inequities of the trade, they face severe repercussions, as Johnson observed following both the 2000 commercials strike, and the 2007-08 writers’ strike. In its aftermath, several of her colleagues paid for taking a stand by being driven out the industry entirely, forced to seek out their living in other, completely different professions.
The present situation, she believes, is a matter of quality versus quantity, citing the proliferation of venues like Black Entertainment Television (BET), and other programming on cable and the internet. Does she believe things are better?
“Yes, without question. Are things satisfactory? No.”
Conforming to Society
As a prolific television director who’s worked in nearly every genre, Oz Scott acknowledges the tendency of Hollywood to present itself as a bastion of progressive acceptance—and simultaneously bow to the conservative taste makers lest it upset its profit margins.
The industry is quick to pick upon on fads, but unwilling to introduce them into markets where it is not certain they will succeed. “If it’s Black it’s an ‘urban film’ and urban films don’t travel well,” meaning their profitability might not extend to Europe and other markets.
And yet, Hollywood is but a product of a pervasive American culture, as Scott notes, “…we (as a society) are so beauty conscious.”
As such, opportunities for actresses are concerned with “the ingénue and her best friend” and after that “the ingénue’s mother.” It goes within saying that ingénue is generally White, but given the blessings of a progressive society, her best friend may now be of another ethnicity.
Much of the focus at this year’s Oscars was on ebony-toned Lupita Nyong’o. This in turn meant another rehash of the long-term debate in this country over skin color and self-esteem. Most bankable stars of African descent have been lighter hued—from Dorothy Dandridge to Halle Berry—and arguably further back to Nina Mae McKinney, the striking actress whose star shown briefly in the 1930s and 40s.
Nyong’o, on the other hand, is celebrated for her silky dark (not milk!) chocolate complexion.
In this, speculation has risen about Nyong’o’s future as a commercially viable property. Johnson insists that winning the Oscar did nothing to advance the careers of Octavia Spencer (Supporting Actress, 2011), Mo’Nique (2009), Jennifer Hudson (2006), or even Halle Berry (Best Actress, 2002). Indeed, the latest (August, 2013) Forbes listing for the highest paid actresses yielded no ladies of color, light or dark.
In Nyong’o’s case, she has another marketable asset as fashion icon, revealed in a nifty bit of product placement during the Oscar telecast, when she reached into her hand bag to produce a blue and white tube of Clarins HydraQuench Lip Balm (sales for this $24 product reportedly went through the roof shortly after the ceremony). Since then, she has gained an endorsement for the Miu Miu women’s clothing line, graced the covers of scores of magazines, and in perhaps her biggest success, became the new “face” of the French beauty brand Lancôme.
This means Nyong’o is not dependent on the Hollywood merry-go-round for a paycheck, and can be selective about the roles she chooses.
Taking it too personal: Art as a Business
“The lady doth protest too much…”
-from Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 1602 by William Shakespeare
Those who belly ache perhaps have the wrong outlook says Cheryl Francis Harrington.
With some 60 odd credits in her filmography on IMDB (including 35 episodes as “Ms. Mambo Garcelle,” on The PJs animated series), Harrington has had a successful career. To fuel her artistic passion, she has successfully pursued side jobs as a caterer, personal manager, various positions in real estate, waitressing, and her present position as a notary to facilitate in her words, the move from “futon to mattress.”
Those who gripe fail to see the reality of Hollywood as a business, she believes, noting that the industry is slowly changing, exemplified by the success of Desperate Housewives, which in her words “…changed the dynamic for character actresses. These lead actresses were much older then the typical ingénue” generally favored in the average sitcom (all of these leads were White, with the exception of Latina actress Eva Longoria).
Ebb and flow
After 10 years in the business, casting director Natasha Ward has weathered the ebb and flow of the whims of industry taste makers. Yet and still, she admits to certain generalities. If it’s an urban film, she is directed to hire scores of actors of color. If it’s a mainstream movie, she may have an opening for one, usually a guy.
“When it comes to African American actors, production companies tend to pull from a tried and true pool of performers who fit the look that (they think) society is going to accept,” she says.
This in turn reflects the Hollywood tendency to stick to reliable vehicles proven to be profitable, hence the popularity of sequels and spin-offs.
As this article was written, she was casting for 20 openings (two of them Black) for The Night Before, a romantic comedy. The week before, she was concentrating on staffing up According to Him and Her, a celebrity-driven battle of the sexes for “Centric,” a general interest spin-off. For this she was tasked to ensure that 50 percent of the cast was Black.
For commercial work, the demand reflects the shifting tide of cyclic tastes.
“One season, they might want the light-skinned curly-haired girl,” she goes on.
“A few months later, they want the dark-skinned girl with the natural.”
Perhaps because of this, Ward believes that Lupita Nyong’o’s status as “flavor of the month” will open tons of doors for the Yale graduate of Kenyan descent, enabling her to be considered for roles normally reserved for her white sisters. Sure enough, as this article went to print, Nyong’o appeared on the cover of People Magazine as the world’s most beautiful person of the year. Whether this will be the start of a permanent change remains to be seen.