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Where Have All the Black Girls Gone?

Mark H. Harris

If a black woman ever needs reminding of the dearth of black female leads, she need only ask a white person what actress she most resembles. Chances are she'll hear 'Whoopi Goldberg' at some point.

If I've learned anything about women from a lifetime of watching movies, it's that they're inextricably drawn to the sight of a penis. Maybe that's because I watch porn. What I do know for sure is that women don't like to be ignored � like when Dirk Wellhung is in a threesome, he makes sure no one feels left out. But I digress. Women hate to be ignored. Especially when they're my wife, and I'm ignoring her for porn.

But ignoring women � black women � is all that movies seem to do nowadays. Sweet, sweet porn aside, black women have become an endangered species in Hollywood. Not that they were all that prevalent to begin with, but now casting agents have discovered viable alternatives in the "other" � any minority other than black. Latin, Asian, Inuit, even white women with tans have scooped up roles that would traditionally be reserved for black women, leaving nary but the dreggiest of dregs.

Did Eva Mendes have to play Denzel Washington's dependable wife to Sanaa Lathan's philandering backstabber girlfriend in Out of Time? Did Roselyn Sanchez have to play the sexy vixen rescuing Cuba Gooding, Jr. from the shallow, catty Vivica A. Fox in Boat Trip? And what in the name of Al Jolson was Jessica Alba doing playing anyone black in Honey?

Hitch illustrated all too clearly the economics of hooking up black lead characters with "others". Studios don't want to piss off black people by putting the black lead with a white person, but if they have two black leads, then all of a sudden, it's a "black film" that can't open in more than 400 Magic Johnson theaters. So, as the reasoning goes, a nice, tan Latina won't seem like such a sellout to blacks, and whites won't feel like they'll get shot if they see it in the theater. It's Hollywood's "Two Drop Rule":

  • One black person = Equal opportunity, Affirmative Action, whatever; we need a black character!
  • Two black people = Niche film. Run ads on Soul Train and open in less than 1,000 theaters. Consider a tie-in with Kool Aid.
  • Two black people + a budget = Oscar-skewed biopic. Make sure Roger Ebert's wife sees it.

So, one black actor is ideal, and if there's a choice between the black lead being a man or a woman, in the immortal words of James Brown, it's a man's world...And hit her where she won't bruise. While things have "progressed" to the point where you can count on two hands the number of black men who are allowed to headline a non-black film � Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Sam Jackson, and maybe Bernie Mac, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, or Jamie Foxx � you can count the black female leads on two fingers: Halle Berry and maybe Queen Latifah. If a black woman ever needs reminding of the dearth of black female leads, she need only ask a white person what actress she most resembles. Chances are she'll hear "Whoopi Goldberg" at some point.

Things started out well enough for black actresses, with Hattie McDaniel winning an Oscar decades before Sidney Poitier got his, but over time, the black female stigma has proven too powerful. They get double-barreled social discrimination: race and gender. Sure, everyone secretly likes to feel a little oppressed now and then, but when you actually are oppressed, it's pretty annoying. While black men have been increasingly celebrated in cinema for being trendy, tough, sexually potent, athletic, and in the case of some rappers, borderline retarded, black women aren't allowed to expand beyond characterizations normally relegated to reality show divas. Do any positive black female stereotypes even exist? Even Arabs get to be "rich". This world would be a better place if we learned to reserve our stereotypes for those most deserving, like the poor and the Floridian.

Perhaps nowhere is the rigidity of black female roles more apparent than in on-screen romance. Films like Save the Last Dance, Jungle Fever, In the Mix, and even the House of Wax remake have paired black men with white women, but rarely do you see the reverse. It's as if black women are incapable of tenderness or amorous feelings. (Granted, the cold-fish climactic kiss in The Bodyguard didn't help matters, what with Whitney Houston's fear that smooching a white man would give her vaginal albinism.)

Halle Berry � who's been allowed to survive as Hollywood's token shining example of "See, we like black women!" � is one of the only real exceptions. Her tan Barbie doll looks have allowed her the freedom to have on-screen relations with every non-black man from James Bond to Billy Bob Thornton, but she's still largely relegated to sex pot roles devoid of genuine feeling; witness her Oscar for Best Interracial Butt-Screw.

The quality of black women's roles have reached dire proportions. There's something inherently wrong with the fact that there've been more movies this decade starring Nick Cannon than Angela Bassett. And as great as Kimberly Elise was in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, it doesn't make up for the fact that the main draw of the film was a dude in a dress. The way I see it, there are a few options that black actresses can pursue:

Solution #1:
Kick black actors' asses. The few who might actually have some say in casting haven't always shown much sympathy for the cause: Will Smith in Hitch, Ice Cube in Next Friday, Denzel in Out of Time and Training Day. Jada Pinkett needs to climb up on her husband's shoulders and box his ears. Does he not care that his wife can't get a job unless he gives it to her? Does he not care that the less work she gets as an actress, the more work she gets as a singer? I'm sure Denzel's wife must've told him that if he puts Eva Mendes in one more movie, she'd cut him off at the knees.

Solution #2:
There's no quicker way to get a black man's attention than to not date a black man. Ask Garcelle Beauvais, Kerry Washington, Aisha Tyler, Thandie Newton, or Tyra Banks. The goal is twofold: one, you'll get noticed by the few black men who have some pull in the industry. Two, you'll infiltrate the non-black power structure; it's the Hollywood way (Near Vine way; take a right past the hooker.).

Solution #3:
Being black in America is like being gay in that you can't be "a little black" or "a little gay", so the solution is simple: try not to look black. Witness: Vin Diesel, The Rock, Jennifer Beals, Mariah Carey, and Rashida Jones. And if you can't pass for "other", at least try to be light-skinned enough to play the love interest in an Eddie Murphy film.

Solution #4:
Boycott. Who are they gonna get to play their attitudinal hookers, their attitudinal welfare mothers, and their attitudinal authoritarian cock blockers (loan officers, judges, DMV workers, et al.)?

Solution #5:
Try not to make movies like Woo, B*A*P*S, or Glitter.

Hopefully, my advice can help black actresses gain some leverage in the industry and put a positive black female face on Hollywood so that black women worldwide will take pride in these roles and feel more secure about their future in this world.

Then maybe my wife will have sex with me again.

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