What’s it like to be Black and Latina in Hollywood? We won’t truly get an idea until somebody makes a movie about it, or creates a television series.
The 1994 film “I Like It Like That” was the first movie I ever saw that touched on the subject of what it was like to be a Black Latina. The film was written and directed by Darnell Martin (“Cadillac Records,” NBC’s “Grim”) from the Bronx and of mixed heritage (father’s Black, mother’s Italian). In her late 20s at the time of the films debut, Martin was touted as “the first African American woman to make a major studio movie.”
“I Like It Like That,” set in the New York barrio, starred Lauren Velez (“Dexter”) as the disgruntled wife of mixed heritage. She was a Black Latina who wanted to better her situation for her family and immature husband. Oscar winner Rita Moreno played Velez’s mother-in-law who absolutely hated the fact that Velez’s character married her son. Moreno would complain about her granddaughter’s hair because it was kinky and hard to comb. And she’d make the point that she had pure Castilian blood, not mixed like her daughter-in-law.
It seems in real life Lauren Velez, who is Puerto Rican, faced that same kind of bias. In 2011, Velez told Essence magazine, “Although I’m Afro-Latina, agents said I had to pick one (race).” Velez was often told she couldn’t go to castings for Latina roles because she was Black.
The Black Latina Movement, an online advocacy groups, states that Latinas being hired based on skin color is not an action perpetrated only by White directors, but by Latino directors as well. They continued the internalized racism practiced by members of the Latin and the Black communities works to cripple any effort to get the American public to see diversity within Black, Latino and Black-Latino cultures; particularly at a time when successful directors of color are becoming more apparent in Hollywood and have an opportunity and access to realistically display ethnic experiences.
Fox’s “Empire” created a buzz in their second show of the new fall season by discussing creating a Latin girl group. It will be interesting to see how this scenario plays out.
Tatyana Ali is a familiar face on the Hollywood scene. Making her debut on the hit Will Smith sitcom “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” at age 11 in 1990, Ali is now forging her own path. Yet she says, “There’s often this misunderstanding that I’m trying to be less Black by bringing up my ethnicity.” Ali’s mom is Panamanian and her father is Trinidadian. And because of that mix, she has “hair” trouble. Ali says her hair texture often left her feeling like an outsider.
Ali feels like her story is not often told in the Black community, where we tend to regard people with “good hair” as more beautiful and desirable. In a 2014 interview with Vlad TV, she said she felt “separated” from family members whose hair was different than her own. “[Just that term, “good hair,”] is crazy,” she added. “Caribbean people do it even worse. They’ll say crazy things like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s so dark but she has good hair.’”
Perhaps the most talked about and busiest working Black Latina in Hollywood is actress Zoe Saldana. Her father was of Dominican ancestry; her mother is Puerto Rican. Born in New Jersey, reared in Queens, she and her family moved to the Dominican Republic where they would live for the next seven years, when she was 10 years old.
From blockbusters like “Avatar,” and other futuristic films like “Star Trek,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Saldana has become a force to be reckoned with.
However, Saldana as Nina Simone in the upcoming film “Nina” has not been met with praise, but shock and bewilderment.
Journalist and television Commentator Marc Lamont Hill wrote, “There is no greater evidence of how tragic things are for dark-skinned women in Hollywood than the fact that they can’t even get hired to play dark-skinned women.”
Nina Simone’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, is reported as saying about her mother, “She has a reputation for being difficult, loud and violent, but why?” Kelly said of her mother in a recent interview, “We all have a story. My mother suffered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and people told her, her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide.”
Check out Kelly’s riveting documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” it’s An honest and excellent documentary, that may leave you speechless and heartbroken. You can see it on Netflix. Kelly hopes some of that mystery will lift with the release of the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” based on a poem by Maya Angelou.
“Nina” is scheduled to be in theaters in December.
Gail can be reached at email@example.com.