On May 28, Tambay published an article titled An Inquiry Into The Plight Of The Black Actor…, in which he called on working black actors to share their thoughts on the the challenges they face in the industry, as well as to respond to long-standing and ongoing criticism of choices black actors make, by black audiences, and some times from other black actors. I was going to respond to that post but remembered that I actually wrote a very related piece a year ago. I asked Tambay to share it again because I believe it directly addresses his inquiry, as well as many of the questions and comments that were posted in response to his post. It’s just my own personal experience. Other black actors may say something different. But here again is the piece I wrote a year ago.
I’m a black actor. I love what I do, and I’m incredibly thankful to be in a position that allows me to earn a living doing what I love. I’m not what you’d call a star or a “name” actor by any means. I’m nowhere close to being that. But I work consistently on TV, films, commercials, and even web series. Jobs that actually pay unlike many of my friends who are also actors who haven’t been as fortunate as I have been. It’s not always about talent, you see. I think I’m talented, but I’m also humble and can say that some of my friends are even more talented and capable than I am, but they just haven’t caught the breaks that I have for any number of reasons, whether it’s that they don’t fit a needed type, or don’t have whatever look a project or director or casting director might want, or, as ridiculous as it may sound, don’t have any connections, or “ins” that can help shoot their head shots and resumes to the top of a list. Not that that’s how it always is (nepotism, cronyism, whatever you want to call it) but it shouldn’t be a big surprise to know that it happens.
It’s tough what we do. I’m not looking for sympathy, but it takes a lot of courage and strength to be an actor, being completely vulnerable and putting yourself in a position to be praised, or criticized, or ridiculed, loved, and despised.
It’s even tougher if you’re not white. Not only are we limited in the amount of work that’s available to us within an industry dominated by roles for white men and women, on TV and film (although white men primarily), and the work that is available isn’t always the most desirable, we are also often intensely scrutinized by black audiences especially, for the roles that we do take, and frequently find ourselves having to defend a job that we accepted, if only so that we can continue working and making a living.
It’s doubly frustrating to feel like you’re caught in the middle of a battle, when one side doesn’t consider you worthy of a part simply because of the color of your skin (especially the more juicy, complex, interesting roles), or your own story bankable enough to fund, and the other side condemns you for the work you are able to get – the one side that you hope will be the most empathetic of the two, given that they are you, and you are them.
I work in an industry in which people who look like me are still invisible, despite any racial progress that’s been made in the last 50 years. Don’t believe the hype, if you’re one of those that do. We aren’t anywhere near anything that looks like a post-racial America as some media might have you believe, just because we have a president whose father is Kenyan. And so the roles that are available for working actors like myself (those who’ve managed to have some success, but aren’t anywhere close to being what you’d call stars or “names”), are still very limited in terms of volume and variety. And so we take what we can get, as long as we can look at ourselves in the mirror and feel at ease with the work that we’ve done.
It’s very easy to play armchair critic, and I’m sure this post won’t change everyone’s mind. But I read this site on a daily basis. It’s become my Deadline, my Variety, my Hollywood Reporter. I still read those sites to, don’t get me wrong, but when I come here, I feel at home. I know I’m getting what the other sites publish, but in addition, and this is the crucial part, I get what those other sites don’t cover. Those indie films by black filmmakers in this country and outside that Nikke Finke probably won’t bother writing about. I get the mainstream and I get the indie, and I get the international Diaspora, which I love. Tambay may not even know this, but myself and other actor friends of mine have auditioned and been cast in projects that we first learned about on this site. I know black filmmakers read it. I know black actors read it. I know producers read it. And so on. It’s a valuable source for black people in the business like myself.
And I say all that to add that, wow, the comment sections sometimes can be vicious. Let me just say that y’all go HARD! No-holds-barred. You keep it real. Friends tell me to stay out of the comment section, but I can’t help myself. Like I said, when I come here, I feel like I’m at home. I want to know what my people are saying, thinking, feeling about the work that we do. Yeah, some comments are just plain spiteful, but there are also those that are very logical, smart and insightful, which I appreciate and I’m sure others do to. This is a site that attracts a nice range of folks, from the academics to the cinephiles to the average film lover. And that’s great. And while we all should be able to take criticism, some of it shows some lack of awareness for how the business works, and the trials and tribulations of actors. Black actors in this case. It may be a surprise, but folks like myself, actors looking for opportunities, we are very aware of our blackness (trust me the industry reminds us of that daily), and by that I also mean that we know when a role is foul or questionable in terms of its depiction of black people. For some actors, they don’t care one way or another, and they’ll take whatever they can get. I can’t knock those folks. We all have different motivations for doing what we do. I’ll just say that they shouldn’t be surprised though when there’s criticism. But I’ll say that for me and my friends who are actors (I can only speak for us), we do care about the work that we do and the images we are putting out. We don’t carry that around like a burden wherever we go, but we’re always aware and thinking. We want to do good work. But we also want to just work. And sometimes that might mean bending your rules a bit, to not only collect a check but also because there’s always a chance that that role could be something that leads to something else, something better. So you weigh all the factors involved.
I have no problem playing a butler, or a slave. It’s a job. Obviously it depends on context and the story being told. I’m open and try to be flexible; although I’ve turned down paid work before because I was going to have to do something in a role that I just couldn’t bring myself to do. I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in a mirror and be at ease. But I don’t have an instant knee-jerk reaction to every casting notice I’m sent, or every role that I’m called in for, or offered. I, and my actor friends, consider each role on a per project basis. So my immediate impulse isn’t to run the other way if the first word for the role on the casting notice is “slave” or “maid” or “butler.”
Think of it like how directors like Steven Sodebergh’s career is often described – one for them, and one for you. Sometimes 2 for them, and one for you. Sometimes you have to take a role that you don’t really want, because it means that you’ll be able to do something else that you really want to do. Or at least, there’s the possibility. You survey every factor, like who the director is, who are the starring actors involved, what the production or distribution company or studio’s end vision is for how the project will be released, and of course the story, and how your character fits into it, if at all. And for someone at my level, often the characters I play don’t really have any real influence on the main story, especially at the studio level. But when I’ve done indie films, I’ve had more substantial parts.
And that’s the other thing when I say, do one for them and then do one for you. An actor like myself may take a bit part that the audience won’t even remember in a big budget studio film, for the paycheck, and then we’ll go do a lo-budget indie film for nothing but credit and tape. So that paycheck from the studio for that bit part keeps you above water until the next check, because you’re getting no money for the indie film. But you do the indie film because you want to do work that fills your soul, and is enriching. And often indie filmmaking is where actors of color have to go for that kind of nourishment.
But you weigh all the factors, and if the math computes, you have to consider the job. Sometimes you don’t exactly have all day to think about whether you’ll take a job or not. There are plenty of hungry actors behind you just waiting for their chance, so you can’t always be a prima dona.
Yes, I understand your frustrations with the limited depictions of black people in movies today. But don’t you think that these are frustrations that we as actors share as well? This is what happens when like I said before, you’re invisible in an industry. Every single black film or black role is very heavily scrutinized, and I understand why. There isn’t much else for us. I get it. It makes sense. And, trust me, something that my friends and I often talk about while hanging out, is that, if I were an A-lister, I would not only be very selective in the projects I choose to star in, I would be developing projects for myself, and if I had to, I’d also finance them myself. I mean, if I’m making $10 million a movie, and I’m making a movie a year, I’m sure I’ll be able to find $1 or $2 million to produce a “smaller” film with me starring, and maybe even an up-and-coming director directing, so that I can give them a shot.
Obviously, as I said before, everyone’s motivation isn’t the same. So I can’t knock how any actor maps out their career. It’s theirs, not mine.
So I guess what I’m trying to say in all this rambling is that, slow down a little bit. Don’t be so quick to judge and be down on black actors in Hollywood especially. There are many different kinds and each has his/her own motivation for doing what they do. For every star actor/actress, there are many thousands of unknown names and faces who you might see in a bit part here and there, in a TV series or film, a commercial here and there, who are toiling away in obscurity, looking for not even their big break. They’re too busy just trying to set up the next gig so that they can keep working and earning a living. A small living, but a living nonetheless. Some of us are creating projects for ourselves, whether it be web series, or learning how to write and writing screenplays for ourselves, and then working to get the money to get them produced, which is always a struggle. Some are able to find the financing from family, friends or independent financiers, others use sites like kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise money, although not everyone is successful. So for those folks who ask why we don’t create projects for ourselves, my answer is that many of us are. But it’s still not a sealed deal. I’m nowhere near rich. I’m lucky that, annually in the last few years, I’ve been able to earn enough of a salary to pay my rent for my Brooklyn studio apartment, put food in my refrigerator, keep my light and gas on, pay my cell phone bill, and internet, and after all that and then some, I have a little left over to put away. But it’s lean living. I have to be frugal with my spending, because, you know what, I can’t always guarantee where and when the next job will come. And so self-financing a film for myself isn’t something I’m readily able to do. But like I said, I’m still one of the lucky ones in that I’ve been able to find work consistently thanks to my diligent agent who doesn’t skimp and puts me out there for everything in TV, film, commercials, print, stage, web and wherever else there’s a need for actors. What helps is that once you get one job, the others tend to come. Although that’s not a steadfast rule.
So find those who you appreciate and cheer them on, and support them fully, no matter what. We really do appreciate that support.
It’s a tough business that we’re in. Yes, I know I chose this path, so I can’t really complain about where I am, because it’s a career I chose for myself knowing fully well what the challenges were for folks like me. But it’s work I love and have loved to do since I was a teenager many years ago, and trust that a lot of folks at my level are busting butt daily trying to get in where we fit in, supporting each other, working together when we can on our own projects, and just plain surviving. So chill out for a minute or two, and don’t be so quick to judge who we are, what we do, why we do what we do, and instead find those actors you like and support them all the way. Not to sound cliched but change is going to come. The industry is going through radical changes in terms of how films are financed, produced, cast, distributed, marketed, and exhibited. No one, and I mean, no one knows what all this change is going to result in, in another 5 to 10 years. There are those prognosticators, but all I can say is that I’m very encouraged by the changes we’re experiencing, and what I think it means for actors (and filmmakers) of color, who are now (more than ever) in positions of power and control, enough to independently finance, and distribute their films and web series completely outside the studio systems, and be financially successful doing so. They may not be millionaires, but you’ll be surprised at how well some folks have done for themselves.
In closing, obviously “A Black Actor” isn’t my real name. I could use my real name but there’s a risk in me doing that here. Let’s just say that I thought it best to maintain my anonymity because I want to keep working, but felt compelled to share these thoughts with you all.
I’m an actor, and not the most eloquent of writers but I hope all of what I said here makes sense.
I thank Tambay and Shadow & Act for giving me the platform.