Black History Month

Challenges Still Faced By Hollywood’s Budding Black Actors In The Film Industry Today

Jerome Gerada

In recent times, Hollywood has become somewhat of a harbour for negativity, receiving relentless bouts of media-driven criticism – often in the form of hashtag-headed campaigns that sprawl from Twitter to television news in a matter of days. Perhaps it was famously convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein who hammered the first nail in the coffin. With an array of sexual abuse allegations rising to the surface back in 2017, Hollywood’s ugly face was shamefully uncovered.

Following the heavy controversy surrounding the #MeToo movement, came dozens of Hollywood scandals. These included comedian Kevin Hart’s decision to stand down as Oscars host in 2019, after the resurfacing of various old homophobic tweets. Furthermore, there is the #OscarsSoWhite scandal, calling for greater diversity in the Oscars and more recognition for people of colour and marginalised groups. In short, Hollywood’s reputation is now completely tarnished – the Walk of Fame having morphed into an underwhelming, star-less ‘Walk of Shame’.

The 2020 Oscar’s ceremony was marred with a racial controversy that has become all-too familiar for viewers and participants alike

It’s a February afternoon in 1940s America, and actress Hattie McDaniel has just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind (1940). Incidentally, she is also the first African-American to win the coveted film award. Rejoicing in her victory, and having undeniably left an ineffaceable mark on more than just cinema history, the sense of jubilation will have been suddenly quashed by the realisation that she would be seated separately from everybody else at what was essentially a “whites-only” Oscars ceremony. This was an event defined more so by segregation than celebration.

Eighty years later, the film industry still suffers from a routine discrimination of sorts, despite an increase in diversity over the years. The 2020 Oscar’s ceremony was marred with a racial controversy that has become all-too familiar for viewers and participants alike, with major snubs including Lupita Nyong’o in 2019’s Us. In producing a spine-chilling horror performance while embodying two completely contrasting roles, many believe she made Jordan Peele’s thriller what it is – a box-office hit reeling in over $255 million in total. N’yong’o’s versatility is perhaps what immediately caught the eyes of audiences (though clearly not the eyes of the Oscar voters).

However, it is worth mentioning that perhaps this versatility should have never been in question. Taking a glance over her film career in the last decade, the Kenyan-Mexican actress displayed an incredible performance in the heart-wrenching 12 Years a Slave (2014), for which she was actually awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. When it seemed like such a successful performance would be hard to top in the future, she subsequently starred in 2018’s Marvel superhero film Black Panther, which was revered for its astronomical commercial success as much as for its significance in the world of cinema and wider society.

For many, Black Panther burst onto cinema screens at the perfect time, amid the ever-ongoing tensions surrounding Black underrepresentation in the world of cinema. With a cast line-up formed of predominantly black actors and actresses, director Ryan Coogler places each of their unique talents under the spotlight.

If we are to push for greater equality in the film industry and beyond, we must be the change we want to see on the big screen

Much of the action blockbuster’s success will have come as a result of the natural chemistry between both Michael B. Jordan and the late Chadwick Boseman, remembered globally for his impact on the film industry and Marvel cinematic universe, a testament to his marvellous acting ability.

As for Michael B. Jordan, the California-born African-American actor is no stranger to big name films, having starred in TV series The Wire (2002-2008), both Creed I and Creed II (2015 and 2018) and, most recently, the moving yet painfully relevant Just Mercy (2019), which was considered another major Oscar snub.

Bringing to life the true story of Walter McMillian (played by the phenomenal Jamie Foxx), a Black man sentenced to death in spite of his innocence – Jordan’s embodiment of lawyer Bryan Stevenson is so poignant that it resonates deeply with viewers on an emotional, heartfelt level. The indifference shown by the Academy to not only Just Mercy, but a whole host of other films that are perhaps less commercially appealing, shows how commonplace such repression and voice-silencing has become. Whether or not Jordan’s performance was worthy of taking home the award for Best Actor, it is hardy disputable that the performance merited more than just an 84% score on Rotten Tomatoes.    

One need not look too far to find equally talented Black actors and actresses much closer to home. Britain has cultivated a whole host of black and minority ethnic actors who now experience considerable success across the pond in the world of Hollywood. However, the same issues of award-show underrepresentation appear to rise to the surface once more.

When black actors are forced into stereotypical roles that assure filmmakers of the diversity and ethnic representation in their films, their roles take on a minor and wholly tokenistic feel

The last few years have seen the remarkable rise of London-born Daniel Kaluuya, whose career took off on popular TV show Skins (2007). After landing the role of Chris in Peele’s breakthrough directorial debut success Get Out (2017) – a hard-hitting, satirical social commentary on issues of race masquerading as your everyday horror film – Kaluuya watched his career sky-rocket to all-new heights. Despite his success, the English actor has admitted that he by no means wants to be “the race guy nor be remembered for filling in typecast roles.

A major challenge for Black and minority ethnic actors is sometimes having to accept the superficial, quota-filling purpose of their roles however. When black actors are forced into stereotypical roles that assure filmmakers of the diversity and ethnic representation in their films, their roles take on a minor and wholly tokenistic feel.

Among the ranks of Britain’s finest black acting talents is also John Boyega, who, as well as playing a heroic Jedi in the new Star Wars films, is a passionate race activist off the screen. Embodying Finn in what is a legendary sci-fi film saga, Boyega’s experience was ostensibly very much underwhelming. Other than the less-than-ideal reception of some of the films by displeased super-fans, his experience was tainted by having been “marketed as being far more important than he was, and then pushed aside”. Once again, this quota-filling filmmaking tactic does young Black actors and actresses no favours.

In truth, Black and minority actors should be treated as more than box-fillers, and, instead, as people with immense talent to offer to the industry. In this regard, Kaluuya and Boyega have very much lived a shared reality, which unfortunately is the reality for so many young black actors today.

This year’s Oscar wins justified the mounting of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, through the blatant underrepresentation of minority groups as earlier discussed. However, the success of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019) – undeniably the biggest winner on the night – could mark a shift in award show tendencies. Perhaps it will provoke the recognition of a wider range of talent, breaking the yearly whitewashed mould to which so many viewers, as well as actors, have become accustomed.

Looking back at Hattie McDaniel’s 1940s Oscar win all those years ago, and the segregation she suffered at the hands of the Academy, it is clear that we have come far, but perhaps not far enough. If we are to push for greater equality in the film industry and beyond, we must be the change we want to see on the big screen.

Jerome Gerada

Featured Image courtesy of wcm1111 via  Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In article video courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures via YouTube.

In article images courtesy of lupitanyongo and bipoc_directorscollective via Instagram. No changes made to these images.

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Black History MonthEntertainmentFilm & TV

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