by Bee Quammie
Representation of Black women in television and film is a discussion point that remains at the top of the “Things Hollywood Needs To Work On” list. In 2014, UCLA’s Bunche Center of African-American Studies’ released the Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect, which highlighted the glaring absence of minorities and women in various roles in the film and television industry, spelling out the very things we see as critical consumers of media.
Across lead roles in film, cable and broadcast television, and behind-the-camera roles in writing and directing, women and minorities are vastly underrepresented when compared to their slice of the American population pie. At the center of this women/minority Venn diagram is the Black woman, whose moves in Hollywood are met with celebration and critique. Who’s earning key roles? What stories are being told? How are we exercising our autonomy creatively? How are we carving new spaces and taking seats at the table? The questions are ever-present, and the answers make themselves apparent, slowly but surely.
2014 was a banner year for Black women in Hollywood, and we’re hopeful that 2015 continues the movement. We’ve compiled a list of just a few of the Black women who are making waves in film and television. Check them out, then let us know who you would add to the list!
1. “Even if no one else sees you, I see you.” —Mara Brock Akil
2. "It's all about building a legacy. This new opportunity is something I feel that can grow." —Gabrielle Union
3. “There's room in this world for beauty to be diverse.” —Lupita Nyong’o
Black girls around the world rejoiced when Lupita Nyong’o triumphed at the 2014 Oscars, taking home the Best Supporting Actress award. What followed was appropriately called “the Lupita Effect”—she covered magazines, became a fashion industry darling, was named one of Glamour’s Women of the Year, delivered moving speeches, and gave us empowering quotes that celebrated the diversity of Black beauty. In 2015 and beyond, we will see Nyong’o back on the big screen in the film version of The Jungle Book, and she’ll star as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ifemelu in the film adaptation of Americanah, which she is also co-producing.
4. “In my opinion, sometimes TV takes a minute to catch up with our culture.” —Tracee Ellis Ross
After the abrupt cancellation of Girlfriends in 2008, fans lamented the loss of Tracee Ellis Ross on their screens on a weekly basis. We got a taste with her return via BET’s series Reed Between The Lines, but she’s cemented her place in television with her current role as Dr. Rainbow Johnson on ABC’s new hit series Black-ish. In 2014, Ellis Ross did a media tour for Black-ish, which included an excellent interview with Janet Mock on Larry King Live. In 2015, watch more of Ellis Ross’ innate comedic skills on Black-ish, for which she’s been nominated as Outstanding Actress In A Comedy Series for the 2015 NAACP Image Awards!
5. “I’ve always had an issue with the [assumption] that people of color, and black people especially, aren’t relatable. I know we are.” —Issa Rae
6. "When I came to L.A. people told me there were no film roles for black actors… I'm not a fool. I know that. But I was always confident that I knew my craft.” —Alfre Woodard
7. “I'm a black woman from America. My people were slaves in America, and even though we're free on paper and in law, I'm not going to allow you to enslave me on film, in celluloid, for all to see.” —Angela Bassett
8. “It’s time for people to see us, people of color, for what we really are: complicated.” —Viola Davis
9. “I just feel like people of color should be in every genre. So that is really my push.” —Gina Prince-Bythewood
10. “I don't understand why [other] people don't understand that the world of TV should look like the world outside of TV.” —Shonda Rhimes
Shonda Rhimes has given her mentees a new level to aspire to. It’s no longer good enough to have a seat at the table, or to be given the whole table, as ABC’s president Anne Sweeney once said of Rhimes. Rhimes has veritably taken over Thursday nights on ABC with by executive producing the primetime lineup of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder, and we can’t get enough. Her role as a powerhouse showrunner in Hollywood is undeniable, and has created hope for the widening of available roles for Black women in the industry, both in front of and behind the camera. Rhimes will continue to dominate Thursday nights throughout 2015.
11. “… Black people telling Black people’s stories. We haven’t had enough of it. I think it has created this distance between us and our souls on film.” —Ava DuVernay
Photo credits: Shutterstock; Issa Rae by Elton Anderson/Rolling Stone
Bee Quammie is a regular contributor at For Harriet.