Inarguably, the most powerful, wealthiest celebrity on the planet is Oprah Winfrey. An African-American female. But if you look at a list like the Forbes 100 Most Powerful People in Hollywood or a similar list ranking actors and actresses, the only other African-American female you might find is Halle Berry, who hasn’t released a movie in three years, and not even she can successfully open a movie by herself. In fact, the only African-American female that I can think of that’s ever really successfully sold a movie on her own was Whoopi Goldberg in the early 90s, although Queen Latifah has given it a shot and Beyonce likes to think she can (and maybe she’ll be able to in the future). There are a number of successful cross-over African-American males — Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx — but, by and large, African-American women are role players or romantic leads in ensemble movies, or they’re relegated leading roles in urban films.
And we supposedly live in a post-racial world.
This fact dawned on my the other day, on a long car trip, when my wife — to kill some time — asked, “What are the five best movies featuring an African-American leading actress?” (And yes: We play “Seriously Random Lists” in the car; I should turn it into a board game and make a fortune). I thought long and hard about it, and while I could think of a few notable ones — Monster’s Ball, The Color Purple, What’s Love Got to Do with It? — I couldn’t think of any I’d be truly excited about putting on a Five Best list. Sister Act? Obsessed? Granted, yes: There is a black woman second-billed in the biggest movie of all time, Avatar, but she … uh … was blue the entire film. Black women play black women in films — usually either a historical black female figure or someone living the so-called black experience. Does Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, Ellen Page, or Cameron Diaz play a white woman? No. They’re given female roles. Black women, on the other hand, are given black female roles. You want to think of exceptions? Go for it. Now, name me five great exceptions?
We may be living in a post-racial world, but it’s not a color blind one. Precious is the perfect example: Two very strong female performances of actresses living the so-called black experience (way to harden those stereotypes). And every time they were mentioned or up on stage during the Oscar telecast, who did the cameras cut to for reaction shots? Black actors, of course. Because apparently it was a film only black people could relate to, while white people loved it because it was “so authentic.” Authentic? Cause that’s the way all black people live? Impoverished and pregnant with the baby of their mother’s boyfriend?
Sadly, studios, and the marketing people behind movies, are still selling race. You know why great black actresses like Taraji P. Henson or Sanaa Lathan are making Tyler Perry films? Because there aren’t very many other roles for them. Is Martin Scorsese or David Fincher or the Coen Brothers or David O. Russell or any of the other Oscar caliber directors of our day casting black women? No. Tyler Perry is, though.
According to the 2000 census, 12 percent of the American population is African-American. That’s a relatively significant demographic. But that’s not even the point: Studios shouldn’t be selling black female films to black females. They should be selling female films to females. But how many chick flicks have African-American leads? How many African-American females were in Valentine’s Day or He’s Just Not That Into You or Love, Actually? (The answer: One. Queen Latifah, who wasn’t even a love interest). And it’s not like white women won’t accept a black female as a leading lady. Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful celebrity in the world, thanks in large part to white suburban women. But where’s our black suburban women films? Oh yeah: Are We There Yet? Case closed. My argument fails. Thank you, Nia Long.
There’s no good reason, even from a marketing standpoint, not to put Halle Berry, Nia Long, Nicole Beharie, Regina King, Thandie Newton, Gabrielle Union, Sanaa Lathan, Zoe Saldana (sixth billed in Star Trek), or Kerry Washington into your white films. Where’s our bad-ass black female action hero (sorry, Pam Grier’s blaxploitation films do not count)? Is Storm the only black female comic book character we’re going to get? Where’s the DC Universe’s black female character? Where’s our tacky wedding comedy starring a black female? Where’s our gritty black lesbian drama (and don’t tell me audiences won’t show up for a Zoe Saldana/Beyonce lesbian flick)? Where’s our quirky, Juno-esque black teenage female? Hell, black females are even more underrepresented in independent films than they are in studio flicks. How strange is it that mainstream America is a step ahead of the supposedly progressive Hollywood? Casting directors need to open their fucking eyes; there are more and better female actresses out there besides Drew Berrymore, Anne Hathaway, Kate Hudson, and Cameron Diaz. Like Paula Patton. Great actress, likable, and arm-gnawingly hot.
And with that little diatribe, I bring you the Top Five Films Featuring a Black Female in a Leading Role:
5. Lady Sings the Blues (Lead: Diana Ross)
4. Love & Basketball (Lead: Sanaa Lathan)
3. What’s Love Got to Do With It? (Lead: Angela Bassett)
2. Precious (Lead: Gabourey Sidibe)
1. The Color Purple (Lead: Whoopi Goldberg)