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.

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