Black women in Hollywood

It’s that time of year again. Hollywood studios are flooding airwaves and movie houses with films that signal their best hopes of garnering hearts and minds and eyeballs before award season begins.

Last week, nominations were announced for both the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes, and while many celebrate the acknowledgement of Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), Idris Elba (Mandela & Luther), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave & Dancing On the Edge), Oprah Winfrey (The Butler), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave), and Kerry Washington (Scandal), others are wondering if this year’s crop of well-received Black films signal an actual shift in Hollywood or if this is yet another one-off celebration of Black filmmakers.

Veteran journalist Hillary Crosley writes:

It was arguably a banner year for black films, with major films like 12 Years a Slave, The ButlerBest Man Holiday, Black Nativity and Kevin Hart’s Let Me Explain successfully gracing the box officeBut there was something missing from this acclaimed mix — black women.

As Oscar season approaches, the clues to who will be nominated for Academy Awards often come through recognition at other shows in the run up to Oscar night, like the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards. But, as USA Today reports, if the SAG nominations are any indication, only Oprah Winfrey and Lupita Nyong’o (for their roles in The Butler and12 Years A Slave, respectively), will be in the limelight this year. Let me repeat that: As of right now, there might be only two black women all aglow on that 2014 Oscar red carpet with a nomination to speak of.

To be clear, this is nothing new.  While many celebrated when both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were serious Oscar contenders back in 2012, others (including Davis herself) pointed out lack of roles written for or about Black women.

USA Today breaks down the numbers: 

Of more than 250 box office releases so far in 2013, fewer than 50 have featured a black woman in a leading or supporting role. Among the 10 highest-grossing movies of the year so far, only one — Star Trek Into Darkness — starred a black woman. Kasi Lemmons, who directed Black Nativity, is the only black female director who has released a major film this year.

Here’s the thing. Hollywood has never fully embraced Black folks, so why should we expect it now?

Although it would be nice to have major studios producing more films with Black audiences in mind, we can’t sit around and wait for them to do so, either. Instead, we need to adapt a FUBU—for us, by us—approach and do it for ourselves.

Thankfully, women like Lena Waithe, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, Kasi Lemmons, Issa Rae, Numa Perrier, Tonya Lee, and Oprah are not waiting around for Hollywood to create roles for Black women.

Last September, Lee brought the film adaptation of children’s book The Watsons Go to Birmingham to the small screen, and recently news broke that Ava DuVernay signed on to direct the Oprah-produced, MLK biopic Selma.

But we need more.

While Black filmmakers continue to lobby for mainstream access, we need to support those who are bringing our stories to the screen with or without Hollywood’s help.

Instead of merely asking Hollywood, “where the Black girls at,” we need to be actively supporting those who are not waiting around to be recognized.

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