Black Actresses Struggle to Defy Set Stereotypes


Published: September 24, 2009

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an award for her performance in the Hollywood Classic, “Gone with the Wind,” breaking the glass ceiling for minority actresses succeeding her. With the exception of Halle Berry, who didn’t win her Oscar for her lead role in “Monster’s Ball” until 62 years after McDaniel, all of the black Oscar-winning actresses received awards for supporting characters.  And even then, there have only been four of them in the Academy Awards’ 81-year history.

This little-known piece of trivia speaks volumes about the problems African-American actresses face. In a modern world where opportunities for minorities expand by the day, the entertainment industry goes on to discriminate with impunity. As opposed to being a level playing field, where everyone is given a chance to at least show potential, the movie industry resembles a food pyramid, where white male actors are given priority.

Racism and sexism have tainted the industry, causing black women to suffer the most. Essentially, for black actresses, the industry is devoid of strong roles. Historically, black women have been limited to insignificant, disposable roles like servants, prostitutes and sidekicks. These actresses fade into the backdrop instead of thriving in the spotlight.

Moreover, these parts constantly conform to the false, hackneyed stereotype of a black woman—a loud, obnoxious woman quick to whip her head, snap her fingers, or start an altercation. A famous example includes Paula Jai Parker, famous for her great work in the film “Hustle & Flow,” who has repeatedly played prostitutes and battered women.

A few talented black actresses that have managed to defy the stereotype with good roles include Thandie Newton from “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Viola Davis from “Doubt,” Lisa Arrindell from “Madea’s Family Reunion,” and Sophie Okonedo from “The Secret Life of Bees,” not to mention other great performers like Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, and Gabrielle Union. Never heard of some of these actresses? That’s because they don’t get the coverage and credit they rightfully deserve.

What good acting roles there are for black women are often handed over to highly popular music artists such as Beyonce and Ashanti due to their large fan base and profitability. This simultaneously takes roles away from more gifted actresses, forcing them to take roles not worthy of their talent.

Fordham rightfully boasts its efforts and feats in bringing diversity to the campus. Its theatre program has without a doubt opened its doors to minority students, welcoming them in ways other studios simply have not. According to the Office of Admissions, in the 2009-2010 school year, minority students make up 17 percent of Fordham’s theatre program, yielding one of the most multicultural collections of theatre students in Fordham’s history. But it is important for students to understand that discrimination is still occurring right in front of us, whether we realize it or not. America has come much too far for people to still be discouraged from their dreams solely because of the color of their skin. As cliché as it sounds, we are the future. We have the power to make change. It is simply a matter of taking action and making people care about the problems of discrimination. I asked a group of passionate students from Fordham’s theatre program about the issue and what we could do about it.

“I think a big way to make [people] care about it is to facilitate the conversation,” said Fariso Maswosue, FCLC ’10. “Why is this an issue? It happens personally, so it’s reflected in the film industry. Don’t attack. Just ask why.”

The color of our skin and the texture of our hair may tell the stories of our long-gone enslaved ancestors. Yet they say nothing about our capacity for greatness. Broadway has grasped this principle, as it has openly embraced color-blind casting. It is time for cinema to follow suit.

“It’s about diversity,” said Kalon Hayward, FCLC, ’12. “It’s about growing. That’s how you become a better person and a better human being.”

“We’re for the whole person,” said Mayaa Boatneg, FCLC ’13. “It’s Fordham’s mission.”