As the 2017 year in cinema comes to an end, a time when studios unveil their most prized possessions – i.e. Oscar bait – and experts publish their respective Academy Awards predictions lists, a glance at both (studio Oscar potentials and pundit predictions) immediately tells us that there isn’t a single black actress in contention for the top trophy, the Best Actress Oscar.
One might be shocked to learn that, with regards to Hollywood filmmaking specifically, the number of studio-backed theatrically released films in the USA with black actresses playing leading ladies, can be counted on a single hand. It must be noted that women, in general, are among the under-represented, but it’s significantly worse for women of color; in this specific case, black women, given Shadow and Act’s stated interests. So for those who’ve been paying attention, it may not be so shocking to learn (or at least it will not be when next year’s Oscar nominees are announced) that there isn’t a single black actress who will compete for the Best Actress Oscar in 2018. The top contenders, based on sites like Awards Circuit which collects predictions from critics, pundits, and actual Oscar voters, are: Meryl Streep for The Post, Saoirse Ronan for Lady Bird, Margot Robbie for I, Tonya, Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water. Even the lower-tiered groupings of potential best lead actress Oscar nominees lack performances by black actresses; the sole mention being Natalie Paul (Crown Heights) who shows up towards the bottom of the list of 40 actresses. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that her stock will move any higher without a ton of help, which she’s not really getting.
Not that black actors (male) have it markedly better, but there were several more black actor-led Hollywood studio films released this year than the very few with black actresses in leading roles (Get Out, Detroit, The Dark Tower, The Mountain Between Us, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Fist Fight, Sleepless, and All Eyez on Me to name a few). But this isn’t a competition between black actors and actresses, who continue to be relegated to mostly supporting roles – the supportive, though sometimes no-nonsense best friend; the sympathetic teacher; the motivating social worker; the caregiver; the spiritual being; the girlfriend or wife, etc; see Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water as one high profile example this year. In fact, black actresses have found far more success in leading roles on the small screen, in performances showcasing a variety of representations of what it means to be a black woman, with volume and across genres. For example, CBS launched its standalone streaming service CBS All Access with 2 vastly different shows that star black actresses in lead roles: the dramatic The Good Fight (starring Cush Jumbo) and the science fiction series Star Trek: Discovery (starring Sonequa Martin-Green). It’s almost as if CBS is making up for the many years it’s been *recognized* as one of the least diverse TV networks in terms of programming, via its All Access streaming service, which, by the way, also recently announced a Jordan Peele-led relaunching of the Twilight Zone franchise. If it continues on this path, CBS All Access may find itself competing directly with black TV networks for eyeballs.
You’ll find a similar breadth in terms of leading black female representation on the small screen that’s sorely missing from the big screen, on the OWN network (Queen Sugar, Greenleaf, The Haves and Have Nots, and more); there’s also Taraji P. Henson on Fox’s hit series Empire; Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji in HBO’s Insecure; on ABC you have Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Tracee Ellis Ross in Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Black-ish respectively; before it was canceled earlier this year, WGN America’s Underground showcased the talents of black actresses in prominent roles; TNT’s Claws stars Niecy Nash; the black TV networks all have their own female-led series and movies, including Being Mary Jane and The Quad on BET; of course we can’t forget about those foreign series that were picked up for American television broadcast, like Chewing Gum (Netflix) starring Michaela Coel, and the legal drama Undercover (BBC America) starring Sophie Okonedo; also Thandie Newton starred in the BBC One police procedural series Line of Duty which was acquired by Hulu.
And there’s more – from Hannah John-Kamen as a hard-living bounty hunter in Syfy’s Killjoy, Kellita Smith as the tough zombie-fighting Lt. Roberta Warren in Z Nation (also a Syfy series), to Logan Browning as Samantha White in Dear White People, and DeWanda Wise as Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It, both based on hit feature films adapted as series for television, as Netflix original productions. I could go on, but you at least can see from the several mentioned here that if you’re looking for a wide variety in representations of black women – specifically black women’s lives unfolding in lead performances on screen – television is where you’ll find them. It puts film to shame. And many of these series feature black women in key creative or influential roles behind the scenes as well, and are supported by (majority black) female viewers who have proven to be fiercely loyal when appreciative of content that’s put in front of them – a loyalty that can mean big ratings and ad dollars for a network; also a loyalty that translates to the big screen, but is still sadly, if puzzlingly untapped.
So what were the studio-backed films released theatrically in the USA this year that starred black actresses as leading ladies? I can name just 3: Girls Trip (Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish), Kidnap (Halle Berry), and Everything, Everything (Amandla Stenberg). To be sure, there were a handful of independent films that premiered on the film festival circuit and were acquired for distribution, including the aforementioned Crown Heights, as well as Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis’ Félicité, which both feature strong performances by leading ladies. Another independently financed and produced film released in 2017 was Til Death Do Us Part (starring Annie Ilonzeh), which was released by indie distribution company, Novus. And there are a few others. But, unfortunately, these are films that haven’t been, and likely will not be seen by most Americans. The marketing budgets for each was likely a pittance compared to the millions a studio can spend on a single film, and none of them screened widely enough. Unlike the 2,400+ screens that Girls Trip, Kidnap and Everything, Everything all made splashes on, Félicité’s widest release was on just 2 screens, while Crown Heights was unveiled on as many as 91 screens, with Til Death Do Us Part topping them both with 562 screens, although still significantly less than the average distribution of the 3 studio releases. And while the number of theaters that carry a film isn’t the sole indication of how successful it can be, its reach is certainly of importance, especially with regards to the cultural impact that results when members of a typically ignored audience are presented with rare representations of themselves that affirm their societal essentiality via a myriad of depictions – as lovers, as desirable, as leaders, innovators, superheroes, royalty, visionaries, intellectuals, soldiers, rabble-rousers, mothers, sisters, daughters, even the proverbial girl next door and much more – showcasing the breadth of experiences that exists in real life, and making these experiences central to narratives that unfold on a giant screen in front of millions.
Keep in mind that around 700 movies were released theatrically in 2017 (with 3 more weeks to go as of the time of this publishing). The optics with regards to the percentage of the 700 that featured black women in lead roles, are simply terrible. Representation matters. And I must once again highlight the stark difference by comparison, when it comes to the varied and voluminous depictions of black women’s lives on television. Surely even as pressured motion picture industry decision maker pledges to inclusion are met with some reasonable skepticism, one would expect a 2018 studio theatrical release schedule that dwarfs 2017’s volume in terms of the number of films featuring black actresses in lead roles – from a dismal 3 to, dare I say, double that number at least? Or maybe 9, perhaps? 12? Higher? Too much to ask? Am I getting greedy? Maybe not. While 2018’s studio feature film calendar isn’t entirely set yet (there are always new additions, date changes, etc), much of it is firm, and based on what is currently public, my research tells me that there will be a minimum of 13 Hollywood-backed feature films with black actresses in starring/leading lady roles: Proud Mary (Taraji P. Henson), A Wrinkle in Time (Storm Reid), Acrimony (Taraji P. Henson again), Rampage (Naomie Harris), Traffik (Paula Patton), Widows (Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo), Sweetheart (Kiersey Clemons), Step Sisters (Megalyn Echikunwoke), The Darkest Minds (Amandla Stenberg), The Hate U Give (Amandla Stenberg again), Little Monsters (Lupita Nyong’o), Fast Color (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the still untitled next installment from the Cloverfield cinematic universe (Gugu Mbatha-raw again). That’s already a minimum of 10 more than seen in 2017, or at least 4 times the number of this year’s offerings.
Again, there likely will be others that we don’t yet know about, or that aren’t dated at this time (like the Harriet Tubman film starring Cynthia Erivo, which was announced in January of 2017, although it hasn’t begun production yet; and Tika Sumpter starring in the drama/thriller The Pages, which is listed as currently in post-production, although it doesn’t appear to have Hollywood studio backing). So until further announcements are made, I’ll leave these *in Limbo* titles and others out for now. There’s also a chance that I may have just missed a studio title or two during my research. But I’d say that the above list includes the majority of those that fit the criteria. There are several projects at some stage of development/production that very well could be released in 2018.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther features several black actresses in what appear to be prominent roles, but until we learn more about the breadth of each character’s arc (which likely won’t be until we see the film next year), I have to assume that it’s ultimately Chadwick Boseman’s film.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that there will be even more films financed and produced independently, outside the studio system, that will premiere in 2018, starting with a few set to debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January (the festival continues to unveil its lineup for the next event as of the time of this writing), and others we’ll certainly hear, read and write about, including a handful that have previously been profiled on this platform, like S&A contributor Nijla Mu’min’s Jinn, and Ms. Black & Sexy herself Numa Perrier’s Jezebel – both black women artists making their feature film directorial debuts, telling personal stories starring young black women. For all the reasons mentioned above, and others we’re not currently aware of, we should be excited for what’s to come in 2018!
There’ve been numerous in-depth reports, like those from UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, which reveal that content with ethnically diverse cast members and writers, attract much larger audiences than those with less diversity in their cast and crew. While it shouldn’t be a surprise, it might take studies like that, as well as continuous emphasis on the direct correlation between cast diversity and audience statistics (and hence each company’s bottom line), to convince studio decision makers that there is indeed enough of a reason to consider being more inclusive.
The overall complexion of the world and balance of power – specifically in the USA – is shifting faster than some would like in the era of Trump, and it’s an ongoing phenomenon that should not be ignored, especially if creating content for a mass, mainstream audience. We all want to see ourselves on screen – at least I certainly think so. Quite a bold concept, isn’t it?
It was in 1945 when research was first used to aid in defining black people as consumers. The study was initiated by the then Afro-American Newspaper Group, in collaboration with the Urban League. A summary of the findings confirmed that black people were a viable market segment (who knew?), but the racial attitudes of the time prevented most marketers from pursuing the opportunity to fully exploit that very viable population. Over 70 years later, with African American buying power said to be something like $1.5 trillion annually (some of that going into the bank accounts of entertainment companies), it’s perplexing that many in the film industry are still very much ignoring the African American market in all its diversity, which is key. There’s a lot of money to be made, and even more to be gained from that market, if only more decision-makers were willing to take what would likely be considered risks for them.
All that said, the last 12 to 24 months in TV history have certainly seen a more concerted effort by the networks to produce content targeted at black women audiences – especially within the coveted 25-54 ratings age range – as that specific audience has proven itself more than a worthwhile risk worth taking, by delivering and continuing to deliver solid (and in some cases record) ratings for the networks that have shown, and continue to show interest in attracting them. And I’d like to think it’s only a matter of time before the film studio arms of the parent companies who also own the TV networks, and who are still seemingly uninterested in that audience, come to the realization that, as the old western saying goes, “There’s gold in them thar hills… there’s millions in it,” especially if ticket sales (and, in essence, their bottom line) are of importance to them.
Consider that Girls Trip is one of the top 25 grossing films of the year (out of around 700 theatrical releases), made for $19 million (far below the average Hollywood film budget), grossing over $115 million domestically. It’s also the 3rd highest grossing film of 2017 that tells a story centered squarely around the lives of female characters, with Wonder Woman and Beauty and the Beast the 2 films ahead of it.
So might a time soon come when every film studio’s schedule includes reasonable consideration for films of all genres and budget ranges centered primarily around the lives of black women, or feature black women in meaty starring roles? The evidence suggests that those who currently have no plans to, might be foolish not to reconsider, starting in 2018.
I’ll leave you with this humorous, incisive take on black women in Hollywood: