On roles for women of color in Hollywood

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Alfre Woodard (left) and CCH Pounder (right)
The Oscar-nominated actress Alfre Woodard talked to Premiere magazine:

Do you think African-American women are getting better roles now?
You see more African-American [women] onscreen, I guess, but it’s hardly anything to crow about. It’s not just African-American women — it’s Latinas, Asian-American women. The film business remains the last bastion of close-minded and uncreative behavior in terms of the way we see human beings.
So it was ironic when George Clooney name-dropped Hattie McDaniel [Gone with the Wind] in his Oscar acceptance speech for Michael Clayton.
I don’t remember his speech.
He was trying to show that Hollywood has always been ahead of its time.
I don’t know what he meant. No other the industry is this backwards in terms of not putting the best person for the task up to the task, rather than assuming you’re a specialty act. It’s, “I’m not going to let Rosalind Chao play the museum curator unless it says ‘Chinese-American woman,'” and then they’re going to make her say, at some point, something about some noodles. That kind of bullshit.

This reminded me of something I recently heard the actress CCH Pounder (of the tv show, “The Shield,” which I’ve actually never seen) say on NPR’s Fresh Air. She told a story of wanting to read for the part of a judge, but because it wasn’t written as “black woman judge,” she had to fight for the chance to even audition:

TERRY GROSS: Now, in addition to your regular part on “The Shield,” you’ve done a lot of the crime shows. You’ve done “Law & Order” and “Cagney and Lacey ” and “Hill Street Blues,” and–I mean, so have you done a lot of victims and, you know, perps on those shows?
Ms. POUNDER: In the beginning, I did. In the beginning, I was the sniveling wife with the crying baby, selling crack for medication for her children or being accosted by her husband, abused by her husband. I spent a couple of years literally just crying on cue, and I think it was actually “Miami Vice.” “Miami Vice” I played a mother on crack who sold her child for crack cocaine, and at the end of it–I had a marvelous time, by the way, in terms of acting, I had a great time–and at the end of it I looked back and I went, `I never want to do this again,’ because I had, by this time, discovered how powerful television really, really is. Television is this incredibly powerful medium that people blur the lines between reality and fiction and take it as gospel. So I decided that after that I’m going to play some women of worth, of character, of strength, of authority, educated. Because the people who are watching me needed to see something that was far more uplifting than what I had been doing.
GROSS: So what did you do, like, sit home and wait for people to offer you uplifting roles?

I did, and I starved for about a year and a half. And I remember distinctly calling my agent and saying, `OK, well, I’m really sort of six cents in the cookie jar now, so whatever comes next, I’m going to have to take it.’ And it was a script for–not “Law & Order,” “Hill”–“LA Law,” the very first one, “LA Law.” And I got the entire script, and there was a miserable little person that I was meant to read for, and then there was the character of the judge, and I said, `I want to read for the judge,’ and I was told that no black woman had read for the judge yet, and they didn’t think they would let you in to do it. And I insisted, and my agents backed me up, and I went and read for the judge, and they were all like, `Oh, wow, I guess, yeah, she could be a judge. She could be a judge. There are black judges, aren’t there?’ That was one of the quotes I heard in the room. `There are black judges, aren’t there? I mean, that are women.’ And somebody said, `I’ll look it up,’ I remember, a young kid. And I got that job.

This is kind of like the old feminist adage that if women had waited for men to extend the right to vote, we still wouldn’t have the right. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.

Join the Conversation

  • Hara

    As a crew member:
    A.D., Prod. Supervisor, Prod. Manager
    I am constantly confronted with sexism in the industry.
    It is a difficult industry to regulate.
    Most crew are freelance. Very often a new corporation is formed for a new project / film.
    My real name looks a lot like a male name (one letter different). I surprise people when i come in for the interview. The look on their face never ceases to amuse me.
    The film industry is so far behind in terms of the women’s movement, there are several blogs, journals and paper’s about it.
    Racism towards women is more obvious and more pronounced than it is towards men in film.

  • susanstohelit

    This is one of the things that drives me crazy about Hollywood – that a role is assumed to be white by default unless specifically written for a person of color. In certain situations, yeah, a white person should play that role – like, a biopic of Hillary Clinton. Or if it’s specifically about the white experience. But most roles could be played by people of color, or changed slightly to accommodate women/queer characters. If casting agents would take a modicum of effort to look past their assumption of white straight dudes as the norm, think of how much diversity we could see on tv and in the movies. Good for CCH Pounder for standing up and getting this role.

  • alixana

    ‘Oh, wow, I guess, yeah, she could be a judge. She could be a judge. There are black judges, aren’t there?’
    Wow, I think that quote wins moron of the century.
    Are people REALLY that ignorant?

  • Kate

    Susanstohelit, I totally agree with you and have noticed that a lot. Anytime there is a non-white actor in a movie or show, it’s because they were written as a usually stereotypical racial minority (sexy Latina, drug-dealing black guy, etc.).
    Unfortunately, now white people are even taking *those* roles! Like Angelina Jolie in “A Mighty Heart,” or Anthony Hopkins in “The Human Stain.” I’ll put it delicately: FUUUUUUUCK that.

  • alixana

    I was sitting here thinking about this (work is boring today, and everyone seems to have taken Friday off except me), and I’m wondering how many roles that DO go to minorities today were originally written that way. Did Christina Yang on Grey’s start off as just Christina, and then earn an Oriental last name when they cast Sandra Oh? Or did Shonda Rhimes originally envision “Asian-American medical intern”? I have no idea how it all works.

  • Thomas

    As an aside, I’m a Shield watcher, and CCH Pounder makes the show. Her character is the show’s moral center, to the extent there is one, and her acting has uniformly been brilliant.
    It’s really pathetic that actors as talented as Pounder have trouble finding roles that are not stereotypes. Pounder as judge? Absolutely. (When she read for that role, Constance Baker Motley and I believe also Amalya Kearse were on the federal bench in NY, as well as many WOC state judges, and I’m sure more in NY — and there are even more now.)
    I’m a litigator, and Pounder just exudes authority. She’s a totally believable, no-nonsense judge. So obviously the casting people were blown away and saw right away that she coudl do the role. The problem is that I doubt it much affected their preconceived notions. They may just think, “Well, CCH Pounder, Epatha Merkerson and Alfrye Woodard can play positions of authority,” and then go back to assuming that judges, generals, cabinet secretaries and executives will be played by white men. How about revisiting the assumptions? How about going into casting for the judge, executive or general with the expectation that the actor who embodies the character’s personality will get the role, without limiting it by race or sex unless the plot imposes that limitation (and even then, how important are those plot elements …)

  • indyKat34

    Well, I agree that the amount of black women in movies and tv shows are outnumbered by whites.
    However compared to the 2005 us census statistics blacks in general only account for about 13% of the u.s. population., specifically, black woman account for only about 7%. So while they are not seen as often on t.v. as whites, this may be more representative of the actual u.s. population, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
    As far as the type of role. The days when blacks were predominately cast in immature, dis-empowered, morally inferior roles, passed away decades ago. Ironically, those morally inferior, moronic immature roles are mostly given to white males today. For research, see- just about every movie, tv. show or commercial currently airing.
    I have found that this reality is something feminists and minority rights activists don’t like talking about or admitting too much. I guess the logic of “two wrongs don’t make a right” is a hard one for some to deal with.

  • Liz M

    alixana, I’m so glad someone brought up Grey’s! Basically Shonda Rimes wanted to cast as many people of color as possible because it was important to her to have a diverse cast. I believe the woman who ended up playing Cristina originally auditioned for the role of Bailey, so yeah, I think they incorported race AFTER they decided which actor was best for the part regardless of which race they were, which is awesome. Also, the actor who played Dr. Burke originally tried out for both Dr. McDreamy AND Dr. Burke, lol.

  • Liz M

    indyKat34, I think I see what you might be referring to – are you talking about TV shows like Everybody Loves Raymond or King of Queens where the dad is kind of this oafish goon who’s always wrong? I can think of a lot of instances where it’s true that the white guy is kind of the token clueless person. (Then again, those guys have hot wives who are WAY more competent than them, so those shows still bug me…)
    As far as movies go, I still feel that what this article said was true. Generally in movies if there’s a role that’s minor and not that important – a taxi driver, a doorman, a sidekick, etc. – it’s a guy. The best example I can give is Star Wars – there are almost NO women in those movies except for the main characters. Same with, say, Tropic Thunder – they could have had more women in the workroom for that movie at least. Villains/antagonists are almost always male unless the role specifically calls for hyped-up female sexuality – like in the Batman movies, we get Poison Ivy & Catwoman. The random goons of say, Iceman’s were all guys – couldn’t they just make half the actors girls? I see your point but I feel like you’re in such a hurry to contradict where we’re saying that you’re overlooking quite a lot.

  • Roja

    thank you for writing this. I have a big problem with representations of people in the media.
    Women of color, women of ethnic minorities, non-american women, older women, gay women… are all under-represented and misrepresented.
    This is no surprise since women in general (even the most demographically desirable ones) are under represented and misrepresented in the media.
    It is very interesting how they assume any role is a man’s role unless specifically mentioned. This is sometimes in the subconscious. I noticed a few weeks ago that when I’m driving I assume all other drivers are men… then I decided to count the number of men and women drivers that we passed on the freeway on time. Very close to half of the drivers that I counted that day were women… so I make an effort to re-imagine the gender of the driver in front of me now:)

  • indyKat34

    Liz M, I see your point as well. Movies should equally represent woman in all types of roles, and movies that include only hyped up sexualized roles for woman, are wrong.
    And believe me, I am not in a hurry to contradict anyone or are overlooking any important feminist points of view, however, as an M.R.A. I, not surprisingly, have some opinions that run in stark contrast. In the end, we should all understand though, that M.R.A.’s and feminists are fighting for the same general goal, even though many times we will have to agree to disagree.

  • Human Bean

    One more point, actually. . . Since film and tv are artistic media, why -not- have a woman of color play Hillary Clinton? A good actor or actress doesn’t have to physically resemble the person they are portraying in order to make the role work. Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan, right? (I’m sure there are better examples but that’s the most recent one that came to mind). There’s no good reason to think that any role should be restricted to only being played by those with a certain skin tone, not to mention age or shape as well!
    Now if only I had an inside line to some casting directors to convince them of this!

  • SianaLinotte

    As someone who worked for several years in independent film casting, I would like to point out to the commenter above that the casting directors/associates are not the only people with a say in the casting of roles. The director and producer generally have input as well. There have been many instances where I’ve had to argue with directors (usually writer/directors) because who I thought was best for the role in terms of acting ability didn’t fit their “vision”. This was almost always (but not exclusively) in regards to the casting of actresses.

  • talon23

    indyKat34, in reference to men getting the stupid oaf roles, I think you have to look at the principles of comedy. In general people want to watch statuses reversed; it’s not funny to make fun of the court jester, it’s funny to make fun of the King. It’s funny to see a child reprimand their parent, or a gas station attendant tell off a millionaire, because in real life we all know that the former has the real power. So making the white man, the group that runs the country, the intelligent straight man isn’t as satisfying.
    In addition women and people of color are so underrepresented that they become the sole representation of their group, and mocking them makes people feel uncomfortable. White men have the freedom to be silly and stupid and unlikable because there’s a smart sophisticated, powerful white man, if not next to him, than on the next 20 channels.
    And even if POC are representing their overall population percentage, there are many shows where they are underrepresented for he specific reality of the show. Look at Friends, were they live in a magical black-less NY.

  • ShifterCat

    “In general people want to watch statuses reversed; it’s not funny to make fun of the court jester, it’s funny to make fun of the King.”
    That was brilliant, talon23. This blog was saying something similar, but in regards to outright bullying humour, not simply poking fun.

  • closet librarian

    I saw CCH Pounder in an Ibsen play “Hedda Gabler” in San Diego, and she was fabulous. For those who aren’t familiar with Ibsen, he was Norwegian, and wrote during the last part of the 19th and early 20th century. The character and the role is challenging, but she nailed it. Needless to say, this is not a role that is usually filled by minorities. Such a pity that people who are wonderful actors are under-utilized simply because of narrow-mindedness.

  • http://tanaudel.wordpress.com tanaudel

    In Australia, I see a fair proportion of British television and cinema, as well as Hollywood, and I’m constantly struck by the difference in the way people of colour, minority groups and people from other nationalities are presented. In British productions it isn’t perfect, and it is often very problematic, but compared to American television & cinema it is far more common to see main and minor characters played by actors who aren’t white Englishmen, and with no fuss. Police and detectives, neighbours and friends, random passersby. When I’ve been watching too many Hollywood productions, it is sometimes a conscious jolt to go back to British programming and be reminded that – no, just because x is not white doesn’t mean he-or-she must be a drug addict/terrorist/lower-class foil.

  • kennedym

    I honestly don’t think there are enough women of color in Hollywood today. Mostly all the women of color in Hollywood today are portrayed in not so positive images on television. Most of the women of color that’s on the Hollywood sence are portrayed as rape victims, whores, single mothers, and other not so positive images. This gives people reason to think so negatively of black women. Futhermore, it only stereotypes black women even more. I think that this should change amediately. I think that if these women take a stand then directors will not be able to portray them in such horrible images.