nia-long-pride Actor Samuel L. Jackson on the onslaught of Rappers/Singers on the big screen, 2002:

Nia Long, voices her opinion on the matter, July, 2009:

Kudos to Sam and Nia for going public with their thoughts on this growing trend, one that happens to disproportionately affecting Black actors. Since Hollywood thinks a musician with limited (or non existent) acting experience is more suited to portray a character in a film than, well, an actual actor, many brilliant African American artists face a career deferment, while aspiring actors consider a career in hip hop as a means to make it to the silver screen. The fact is that there are countless thespians full of raw talent, versatility and an undeniable reverence for their craft. A real thespian is willing to make endless sacrifices to fulfill their dreams. True, there are folks who pursue acting as a means of self-glorification, but for this rare breed of performer, fame and fortune is not the driving force, but the result of perseverance, dedication to the art form, and the pursuit of excellence.

Nia Long knows of what she speaks. I’ve admired her work since she was holding it down as “Kat” in the soon to be defunct soap opera, “The Guiding Light.” Since her rise from the stagnation that is daytime drama, Nia’s proven to be one of the few actress from our community who is not only extremely gifted, but has maintained her integrity throughout her esteemed career. Ms. Long represents a unique class of movie stars who distinguish talent from celebrity.

Granted, singers and rappers are artists in their own right, but during a time where theatrical expertise takes a backseat to image and marketability, numerous pop stars that cross over into the world of film/TV are devoid of skill and technique (take Diddy, sorry, Sean Combs, for starters). Much like Hollywood, commercial success in today’s music industry is inundated with gimmicks, originality is on the decline and longevity is all but absent from the equation. This phenomenon pervades many genres of the music biz, but ironically, a culture once brimming with musical innovators has been co-opted by corporate America, and robbed of it’s ingenuity.

These days, marketability trumps creative genius – massive profit is the law of the land. “Back in the day,” the vast majority of high grossing performers were considered the best in their craft. Presently, the industry that once strove to cultivate timeless material, now appears to despise true artistry, in favor of the more marketable, lackluster “it girl/guy.” It’s understandable, then, why some rappers and singers seek to venture into the realm of film.

One can look at this trend from various perspectives. Some rappers/singers cling desperately to stardom. You’ll often hear these particular celebs blabber about becoming a movie star as if they’ve decided to take a trivial hobby to the next level. Egos are getting out of hand. Performing in front of the camera for a 3-minute music video does not an actor make. When I lay out the better part of a $20 bill to soak up an inspiring cinematic experience, the last thing I want to watch is 50 Cent, who’s got the acting skills of a low grade porn star, mumble through his lines when I could be reaping the benefits of a tried and true thespian.

It’s clear that there are folks from the music world who possess solid acting skills that have made a (financially) successful transition from the recording studio to the film set. Will Smith brought me to tears in the final scene of “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Queen Latifah has made her mark as well. But the question remains: To what extent did their rap careers enable to them reach such stratospheric levels of fame and fortune as actors? With all due respect, rapper/singers turned actors are not on par with the likes of Don Cheadle, Angela Bassett, or Jeffrey Wright. I’ll never forget the feeling of disgust when in 1995, Whitney Houston received top billing over Angela Bassett and Lorretta Divine in “Waiting to Exhale.” Whitney’s on screen performance at best was rigid and uninspiring, but that came secondary to her credibility as a pop superstar.

A Question of Quality

It’s my sense that many pop stars aren’t devoted to their craft, and use a career in film (modeling, fashion & perfume lines, etc) as a vehicle to feed their insatiable need to stay relevant. Pop divas, for example, have become nothing more than living dolls who are instructed to be “as vague and opinion-less as possible, [as to not] offend the masses [and] sell a higher number of records.” How tragic that it is these vapid individuals that are often the highest paid people in their field? Furthermore, if rappers and pop starlets lack the passion to work towards longevity and the enhancement of their craft, the very same empty values would surely filter into their selection of roles and on screen performances.

The following statement made 30 years ago by an editor of the late New Times Magazine is akin to a prophecy that may provide insight into the barren state of entertainment affairs:

“Celebrity is no longer a device for marketing music or films. It has become the product itself. Years ago there was such a thing as a celebrity “craft” — which was the talent a person was famous for. Now there is just celebrity “rating”; the craft has become the ability to utilize a PR machine to the max without possessing any specific talent whatsoever. ’There are almost no famous people anymore; only celebrities. That’s because, fame is too suggestive of steady achievement. Almost anyone can be a celebrity.”

It’s important to note that the main culprit is not egotistical, Oscar-obsessed rappers and such. It’s hard to blame a musician for accepting a major role offered by a top director. The Hollywood machine itself is liable for perpetuating this trend that continues to marginalize hard working African American actors – the old ‘divide and conquer’ routine.

Films featuring musicians with poor acting skills damages morale in Black Hollywood (and dare I say Black America). In the end, it’s the only studio execs and the recording artists themselves who benefit from this system. Real actors are keenly aware of the impact of their on screen presence, and take pride in their portrayals. Film stars wield the power to create, and conversely, to subjugate. We need our actors’ stars to shine and permeate this system that rewards mediocrity. I’d like to end this rant with an insightful comment that illustrates Nia’s controversial message. Prolific actress, Angela Bassett, once said:

“I’d like to see more good, uplifting stories made that would challenge and improve our self-esteem as Black people. Enough has been put out there to make us feel bad about ourselves. When I read some of the scripts that come across my desk, I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a conspiracy or something out there to kill our spirit. We’ve certainly accomplished a lot as a people and I would like to see those stories made I really love the artistry of performing and it gives me a great high. That’s what keeps me going.”

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