Last night’s episode of Oprah’s Next Chapter was one I was excited to watch when I heard about the line up. Alfre Woodard, Viola Davis, Phylicia Rashād and Gabrielle Union sat with Oprah for the hour-long show to discuss personal perspectives and stories as black women in the entertainment industry, and the conversation was revealing and honest. Gabrielle Union opened up about her jealousy of other women of color in the entertainment industry. She discussed her acceptance speech for the Fierce and Fearless Award at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon. The rawness of the speech launched the center of the conversation.
“We’re in a crisis mode…not only in the number of roles, but the quality,” Davis said. Union admits this has made for contention, especially on her part, as she acknowledged in her speech. The question is whether or not the bonding and understanding among black actresses Union spoke of can be realized in spite of intense competition for few roles.
The conversation turns to one about the perception of black families in film and television. Rashād notes that after The Cosby Show, there has been a majority of shows that go against the positive portrayal of black families. “The black middle class has never been portrayed realistically,” Woodard says.
Oprah adds that in conversation Tyler Perry, he’s said “people write what they know”. Davis responds that “when we write we’re always aware of how we come off…if it veers off course to where it…airs our dirty laundry…it isn’t written.” She adds that “at times we celebrate the image more than the artistry.” Union acknowledges that the continuing trend of stereotypes is because that’s what’s profitable. Taking chances with alternate portrayals of black characters is financially riskier. To that point, Davis says that it was because of the maid role in The Help, and because of the film’s success that she had the leverage to create her own production company. So to that end, archetypal roles have led to broader opportunities for black actresses.
There’s so many layers to this conversation on Next Chapter that can’t be complete in one hour, but what I found to be encouraging is the sincere passion to the calling these women have as actors. The desire to tell stories is what makes these women, and others like them, persistent. That persistence and increasing cooperation among black actresses is what these women hope leads to more varied, realistic roles for women of color in Hollywood. As a black woman aspiring to report on entertainment, I hope for the same.