A Golden Age for Black Hollywood? Stars Share Their Thoughts

by | March 5, 2014 at 12:33 PM | Black Entertainment, Black Entertainment Originals

Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends 7th Annual ESSENCE Black Women In Hollywood Luncheon in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo: Getty Images/ Kevork Djansezian)

What a year to remember.

The 2013-2014 film season will undoubtedly go down as a highlight for black TV and film. Lupita Nyong’o won her Oscar as did Steve McQueen, as a producer for “12 Years a Slave,” and John Ridley for penning that movie’s screenplay. And there were other great performances, too. Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Michael B. Jordan, Naomie Harris and Idris Elba are among those who offered soul-stirring takes in critically-acclaimed films.  And the small screen has been browning with strong, non-stereotypical portrayals such as Nicole Beharie on Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” Michael Ealy on Fox’s “Almost Human,” Gabrielle Union on BET’s “Being Mary Jane,”  Tika Sumpter on OWN’s “Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots,” Sasheer Zamata on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and of course, Kerry Washington on ABC’s “Scandal.” The browning effect was so noticeable that Essence magazine teamed with filmmaker Tyler Perry to host Essence Black Men in Hollywood dinner as a precursor to its annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon. But what now? Were the last year’s successes, often hailed as a renaissance or golden age, a fluke or a preview of more to come? XFINITY caught up with your favorite entertainers and Hollywood insiders during the 7th Annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon who shared their thoughts on the subject.

  • Nicole Beharie, star of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow”: I feel really fortunate to be a part of that shift. We took a risk and every day people just keep showing up. It’s really about the audience. Because everyone says to [black actors] that we’re not valuable or that we can’t make a certain kind of money internationally and all of that kind of stuff. So now we’re letting people know that we are viable and people will tune in.
  • David Oyelowo, star of  “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the upcoming film, “Selma”:  I think it is our responsibility to make it permanent. I think we’re definitely in a moment right now where by we’ve made huge strides. I think we’re in a moment that has been created because black directors, writers, producers and actors–probably out of frustration–have just decided to make their own films, tell their own stories and the world is paying attention. The mistake would be to now expect it to just carry on without us continuing to push hard.  The lesson that has to be learned is that no one is going to do it for us; we have to do it ourselves. The fact of the matter is people want to see themselves on film. If the studios are run by white, middle-class men, that’s what’s going to predominate what we see in films. So if we’re not going to be given power within the studio system, we’ve got to have our own studios, we’ve got to make our own films, we’ve got to distribute our own films and tell our own stories.
  • Robi Reed, veteran casting director: I definitely think there is a shift happening and I think the contribution is just timing and things, when they are supposed to happen, inevitably, they do. I think with more African Americans behind the camera and having a voice, and wonderful companies like BET giving a voice to wonderful creators like Mara Brock Akil (“Being Mary Jane”) who creates characters that she is familiar with. And on a mainstream level, people who give opportunities to people like Shonda Rhimes, who are then true to what they know, inevitably you’re going to have those roles in front of the camera.

Lupita Nyong’o and other celebs at the 7th Annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon

  • Nichelle Nichols, veteran actress known for starring on “Star Trek”: There’s no way but up for us. We’ve had so many people who came before us, as I coming before you, that gave so much to television. “Star Trek” changed television forever and I’m so honored to be a part of that.
  • Yvette Nicole Brown, stars on NBC’s “Community”: It’s been a lot of years when they cast a show and then they would cast someone of color as an afterthought. And we really are not afterthoughts. Build a show around us and see what happens. Every black talk show host is doing well, every black game show host is doing well. There’s a reason. Any time a black person guest stars on a talk show or guest co-host, they do well. Why is this? America wants to see us. So they need to cut it out and let us play. Right?!
  • Brandy Norwood, singer and actress who stars on BET’s “The Game”: I definitely agree this is a renaissance. Don’t you feel it? It feels like change and opportunity are all around us. We’re too great to be ignored.
  • Ava DuVernay, director of “Scandal” episode  and upcoming “Selma” movie:  I don’t think there’s a shift. I think we’ve always been making some beautiful things and now some folks are taking notice and we’ll continue to be here long after they stop taking notice and maybe they’ll continue to take notice, we’ll still be here. It’s really about recognition and noticing that’s outside of us. All we can do is our best work and continue to be very focused on our art.
  • Tamera Mowry-Housley, actress: It is happening. It is so beautiful to see. I hear Eve has a television show with ABC in production. Rashida Jones has television show, Viola Davis has a television show with Shonda Rhimes and ABC and I hear Tracy Ellis Ross has a television show, I believe with NBC. My sister, Tia Mowry-Hardrict, has “Instant Mom.” So it is happening. I think with Kerry Washington coming out with “Scandal” it has opened up amazing doors for us and I am so happy to see these amazing, beautiful black women killing it.
  • Common, rapper and actor who starred on AMC’s “Hell on Wheels”: I love it. I think it’s a way for us to express our creativity and greatness. Think about how many talented people, black women and black men, who can contribute greatly to the arts? When you look at “12 Years a Slave,” that’s a classic movie, that’s like one of the greatest movies. When you see the performances in it, you’re not like, “This is a great black performance,” you’re like this is just great work. I think for us to see those artists doing that great work, it gives us that inspiration.
  • Holly Robinson Peete, veteran actress who starred on CBS’s “Mike and Molly“: It’s what they call cyclical. So it goes around. When I was on “21 Jump Street” in the ’80s, I thought, oh, we’re going to have a lot of African American women on TV at least and then that went away. It took almost 30 years for us to have Kerry Washington on a one hour show. The good news is that we’re making money and the color is really green. So I think it’s going to be good.
  • Issa Rae, writer and producer of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” who has deals with ABC and HBO: I think that television is in a golden age. I think there’s amazing cinematographers and directors flocking to television, it’s only natural that actresses who weren’t getting as many opportunities in film would flock to television. I think it’s a great medium to express yourself purely and raw in a way that we haven’t been able to before. It’s so exciting.
  • Gayle King, TV personality: I just want whatever this is to continue. Is it a shift? Is it a renaissance? I certainly hope so. I just want it to continue, whatever that is.
  • Joy Bryant, actress who stars on NBC’s “Parenthood” and starred in “About Last Night”: I think it’s more of a sign of progress and what should be happening. I’m not really sure it’s necessarily a renaissance. I don’t think we’ll know that until a couple more years from now and then we can look back and say, “2013, 2014, that was year.” It’s too soon to tell. It’s a sign of how things should be and where they should be going. And I hope it’s not a trend; I hope it’s not a fad. I hope that it’s sustainable and we keep breaking down barriers and people continue to get opportunities that are well-deserved and very, very necessary. It’s about damn time, honestly.
  • Danai Gurira, playwright and actress who stars as Michonne on “The Walking Dead”: Of course it’s not temporary. It’s pretty much our job to continually do more and do better. And we have to really consolidate our gains, it’s very important to do that. The question is who is in charge? That’s the question. And we have to remember that we can be in charge and we can create the work and we can create the opportunity. You know, Steve McQueen, as far as I recall, is of African descent. You know, we can create those things. It’s not about, oh, are we going to lose it tomorrow? Why would that happen if we keep doing our thing.