Over the last decade, the demographics in Hollywood have shifted, thanks to an overwhelming push for better on-screen representation by actors and the audiences watching them at home. More than ever before, we see increased diversity in our television shows and feature films. But, if you ask the women of Black Hollywood, the industry still has a long, long way to go.
T Magazine gathered seven of the most successful Black actresses, including Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, Kimberly Elise, Halle Berry, Lynn Whitfield, and Angela Bassett, to discuss the importance of sisterhood in their profession. Many of them had met before — Black people always find each other at work — and those who were meeting for the first time bonded almost immediately. That instant connection is a result of their shared experience as Black women working in an industry that wasn’t made with them in mind.
“I feel like I’m a part of a group — I feel a sisterhood,” Oscar-winner Davis told T Magazine. “At the end of the day, I don’t think you can get anywhere without connection, especially in a business that we keep criticising as being deprived of Black narratives.”
She’s not wrong. From her perspective as one of the leading ladies in Shonda Rhimes’ TGIT megaverse, Davis recognises that Hollywood hasn’t fully grasped the concept of representation. Despite an increase in the number of projects casting Black people and other people of colour, much of the effort feels like executives are just trying to fulfil a diversity quota; the stories often aren’t centring the experience of marginalised people.
The complaints about many of the roles written for Black women run in the same vein: they're rooted in trauma or lean too heavily on stereotypes about Black femininity. Stories like Precious, The Color Purple, and For Colored Girls are important — the pain of misogynoir deserves to be told — but that can't be all we see.
"What I see Hollywood do is feature one or two of us, and they'll ignore the rest of us like we don't exist," Elise, star of The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, explained. "It gives the illusion that we're moving forward, but it's really disempowering the collective."
"There's so much more than we can do," added Blige. "Whoever decides to give us these jobs, they need to look at us past being Black actresses— just look at us as actresses."
Works that explore the lives of people of colour are usually the result of filmmakers of colour taking matters into their own hands. Unfortunately, they aren't too often paid the respect that they're owed. Take last year's Queen & Slim, for example. A collaboration between Black creatives Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas, the action drama followed the tragic love story of a Black couple (played by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) on the run after a date gone wrong. From its costume design to its soundtrack to its intentional casting of two dark-skinned Black actors in the lead, the film was Black to its core. But come award season. Queen & Slim was paid dust. Matsoukas blamed what she called Hollywood's "archaic system" for the disinterest in the movie.
"They don’t value the stories that represent all of us, and those stories are so often disregarded and discredited, as are their filmmakers," she said matter-of-factly of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in conversation with Variety. "I don’t have a lot of faith in any institutions in this country because they have always discredited and disregarded work by women and people of colour."
These actresses would likely agree with the director's passionate claims; there aren't enough seats at the table for Black women. Fortunately for us, more Black women are creating their own tables, big enough for everyone to sit around.
"You have more actresses of colour who are now producing," stated Davis, who produces under her company, JuVee Productions. "That means that we're now understanding that we have to be the change that we want to see."
"We're finally understanding that we are stronger together," chimed in Berry, the only Black woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Actress. "There doesn't have to be one of us...if one of us [goes up], we all go."
As usual, Black women are paving the way — for themselves and the next generation.