The “black actress” stepped into the spotlight last year, as Nia Long called out Beyoncé Knowles and other singers for taking roles; Tyler Perry released yet another film starring newcomer Taraji P. Henson; and Precious gave its stars, especially Mo’Nique, a chance to shine.
The November 5 release of Perry’s For Colored Girls puts the issue of black women in cinema back into the national conversation — even if it fails to redeem Tyler Perry. So I decided to posit an answer to the question: where are all the black leading ladies? Below: 1) why this question?, 2) a list, 3) the state of the black leading lady, and 4) how I came up with the current crop.
I. Where is the Black Julia Roberts? One Route to an Answer
Easier asked than answered! The question is really more provocation than anything. At a certain point, comparison between races is irrelevant: is Will Smith the “white” anyone? He’s Will Smith! The question, however, does open up an interesting discussion. Julia Roberts, like Meryl Streep, can do a lot: from Duplicity and Eat Pray Love to, now, August: Osage County. Roberts can choose her roles and she almost always plays the lead. What black actress could do the same, now or in the near future? The real issue leads us to ask: of the potential black leading ladies today, who is on top, who isn’t panning out, and why?
The list is ranked by the percentage of an actor’s total roles where she gets to play a leading lady. The point is to gauge the industry’s confidence in an actress’ bankability. I also added the box office grosses based on the actor’s “leading lady” films (IMDB Pro, Box Office Mojo); but this list isn’t organized by B.O. Other lists add up an actor’s total grosses over all her films, but this is misleading: you can have an incidental role for a film that made lots of money. So I added up all of an actor’s roles from 2000-2010, from low-budget to big-budget films. A “lead” role was defined as a major character integral to or featured in the marketing of the film; the character has a back-story or is key to the plot. More on method at the bottom.
There’s always folly in trying to quantify and list something. But I like lists not because they tell “the truth” — I wouldn’t put too much stock in the particular order below. Lists prompt discussion and reflection. What do these actors say about America? About Hollywood? About black women? So: let’s get to it!
II. Our Black Leading Ladies?
Beyoncé Knowles tops this list mainly because of selectivity. The mega pop star doesn’t need to work in film, she chooses to. It seems Nia Long had a point about musicians taking film roles. Almost all her roles, except for the Pink Panther, I would characterize as leading, mainly because she often out-stars her co-stars. Would Cadillac Records have made even its measly $8 million without her? Jennifer Hudson was the breakout star of Dreamgirls, and the source musical might’ve sold tickets to the over-40 set, but Knowles put young people in seats. After the success of Obsessed, Knowles solidified her place as a movie star, and, hey, her acting is getting better — if reviews of Cadillac Records are to be believed.
Sanaa Lathan made it up here for choosing prominent roles in small films. She’s headlined a number of prominent black films — Love & Basketball, Something New, Brown Sugar and The Family that Preys — and took a role like Wonderful World opposite Matthew Broderick, which nobody saw. Alien vs. Predator provides the bulk of her total grosses at $170 million. Lathan still has potential to be a big star, but she’ll need a good role in a well-written film. I’m concerned her villain role in Family that Preys might’ve marked her as the “bitch” to black audiences. She’ll need something solid to raise her profile again.
Halle Berry could’ve had a perfect score, but I decided not to give her X-Men I, II and II, which is controversial I know. I did, however, give her Die Another Day; despite being a “Bond” movie, she was one of the more prominent Bond girls and was displayed in the film’s marketing (everyone remembers the bikini!). Catwoman was the industry’s $100 million vote of confidence in Berry’s star power, one that didn’t pan out. Berry has yet to fully recover from the bomb, but she has a host of projects planned for this and next year, including the much-anticipated film adaptation of Cloud Atlas and a bevy of films of different genres including thrillers, actioners, and comedies. Berry had come dangerously close the Megan Fox and Jennifer Aniston traps: known more for getting photographed and doing promotional campaigns than for doing films. But as she ages, she’s going to need to prove her chops once again if she wants to “Meryl Streep” into the latter part of her career. UPDATE: And it appears as though she’s already started! Berry is promoting her performance as a woman afflicted with multiple-personality disorder (including a racist one!) in Frankie and Alice to the Academy! With the film apparently receiving warm critical attention, could this be Berry’s return to Oscar gold and leading lady stardom?
I only included Mariah Carey because her role in Precious, which was either quite good or just passable depending on whom you asked. She wasn’t a lead, really, but she did act well enough to start some chatter about her future in film — remember she was originally supposed to be in For Colored Girls. Carey’s Glitter really gives her all of her grosses, which says something. Her other lead roles are in films no one has ever heard of: WiseGirls and Tennessee anyone? She might be too old to beat out Beyoncé, but if she ever wanted to stop singing, she could make a go for it acting, given the right roles and a good story.
I was surprised Queen Latifah wasn’t at the top of the list, but it’s only because she works, often and consistently. I counted nine lead roles, from movies like Last Holiday and Just Wright that are clearly selling her and her alone, to ensembles like Mad Money and co-starring roles like Bringing Down the House. Other than that, Latifah plays a lot of maternal, best friend type roles — like an artist/activist in Hairspray and a prison officer in her Oscar-nominated turn in Chicago. They’re good roles, and she does them well, but I wouldn’t call them leading roles. Other than that, she occasionally plays the perfect professional, in films like What Happens in Vegas (therapist) and Stranger than Fiction (writer’s assistant). Unfortunately for Latifah, Just Wright did not do well in theaters, and was her biggest attempt yet to “Julia Roberts” herself into an adorable, romantic lead, instead of just the woman you like to have fun with (the ultimate BBF). Still, perhaps more than any black actress out there, Latifah sells her movies; she plays an integral role in the marketing of almost any film she’s in, meaning she really earned that nearly $700 million total.
I’m really bullish on Jennifer Hudson. So far, I think she’s still resting on her Dreamgirls laurels, but who wouldn’t? It’s by definition a career-making role. Other than The Secret Life of Bees, she’s been fairly quiet, for obvious personal and professional reasons. Nonetheless, she’s signed on to play Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, in a forthcoming biopic Winnie, which sounds like the perfect substantial, buzzworthy role for her. She’s also lost weight, which unfortunately does matter in Hollywood (in my opinion she was lovely before), and she’s getting photographed so people still care about her. Her acting appears to be improving, and if she can channel it into a blowout performance in Winnie, she could be a Diana/Whitney/Beyoncé-style dynamo: singing and acting all the way to the bank.
Is it just me, or is Thandie Newton really still famous for Mission Impossible? I don’t know. Anyway, I gave it to her, since it put her name on the map and was a big part of the film — that’s a judgment call I’m willing to take back. Anyway, her other lead roles are small. In bigger films, she tends to also play the love interest or just a nice girl: Norbit, Riddick, Pursuit of Happyness (ok, sort of), 2012 (sort of). She was pretty good, surprisingly so, as Condoleeza Rice in W, so she can act. For Colored Girls puts her back in the mix after Crash, and she has a couple more movies coming out.
Gabrielle Union is nothing if not productive! Union has averaged two films a year over the past ten years, almost all of them targeted squarely at the black community. She has done a few art-house films — like Neo Ned with Jeremy Renner — but nobody saw them. Despite counting over 20 films, I couldn’t find many big grossers in the bunch. Union’s limited film market has effectively taken her off the list when it comes to big Hollywood roles currently nabbed by Halle Berry, Kerry Washington and the other “pretty” women. While Union has held prominent place in a number of marketing campaigns, she might not be able to shift her persona beyond the average, sometimes likable/sometimes bitchy black girl, always a love interest (girlfriend, mother, “fun buddy”). It’s done her quite well on television, but the film industry isn’t giving her much to work with.
Kerry Washington is probably, in my mind, the natural heir to Halle Berry: beautiful, sophisticated, with some acting chops. Her big roles have too been in small films, and she has yet to get “that role” that defines who she is and what she can do. Last King of Scotland and Ray let people know she was a serious actress, not just a pretty face. And she offers nice support in big films like Fantastic Four and Mr. and Mrs. Smith: she doesn’t hurt but doesn’t sell tickets either. While she hasn’t been given a chance to shine, there’s no evidence she lacks the potential, and perhaps For Colored Girls will give her the appropriate launching pad. Meanwhile, I saw her on Broadway in Race, and while she didn’t blow me away, she met expectations, which is hard in live theater.
With a rare Oscar nomination under her belt, Sophie Okonedo has the privilege of artistic credibility. What she doesn’t have is any track record of marketability. Nonetheless, she’s clearly talented and able to do bigger projects. Her starring role in the recent film Skin was a wise move, giving her a major role with a lot emotional work. Critics loved it, but nobody saw it. Still, she’s versatile: able to play mother, girlfriend, warm and even action star (though Æon Flux was a critical and commercial flop). The jury’s still out on Okonedo: she definitely belongs in films, but time will tell if she’ll stay an indie darling or if she’ll branch out big into Hollywood — if she chooses to.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Zoe Saldana’s career so far is how often she’s cast among men — lots of men. As a lead, she’s held her own in actioners like Takers and The Losers and comedies like Death at a Funeral and Guess Who. Unfortunately, in her biggest films, she’s been playing smaller, “love interest” roles: Uhuru in the latest Star Trek and a blue person in Avatar. Saldana ranks lower because she, like Queen Latifah, works quite frequently, with over 20 films in the last decade. Like a Taraji P. Henson, she’s newly on the rise. Unlike a Sanaa Lathan, though, she tends not to get cast to lead black films, instead playing a broad range of secondary characters in independent films, from the “best friend,” “girlfriend,” or tough professional. Nonetheless, Saldana has some serious buzz around her, marking as one of the few women in Hollywood who can play it tough like Angelia Jolie (the others: Natalie Portman, Kate Beckinsale, Mila Jovovich; with potentially others like Rooney Mara coming up). Acting in sci-fi films was a smart move, as the fanboys tend to be loyal: ask Angelina “Tomb Raider” Jolie or Sigourney “Alien” Weaver. She looks nice in those Calvin Klein commercials, but can she keep her male fan base while bringing in the women she’ll need to carry her through bigger roles?
I got some scoffs for including Nia Long on this list. Part of my criteria was to look at who has led films in the last ten years, and Long’s heyday was clearly in the 1990s. Nevertheless, she still works, and was recently on the cover of Ebony looking rather fabulous, I’d say — she’s kept her fans in the community. Can Long come back in a big way? Never say never. My guess is she needs a strong role to prove her acting chops as a mature actress, coupled with a rom-com, which is where people seem to want to see her. She’s got one of each coming up.
If there’s one thing it seems Mo’Nique does not care about it’s Hollywood, famously refusing to shill for the Oscar she recently won. She seems happy to host her BET show in Atlanta, which, along with Tyler Perry’s 34th Street, seems to be the place for black people in film looking to shun the industry. Who can blame her? She’s been doing this a long time, with little hope of being Halle Berry. Now she gets to talk to all her friends, support entertainers who don’t get support, and keep it positive (have you seen her show? It’s all about community support). But her performance in Precious was a revelation, one of the best of decade in my opinion, so I hope a good script comes her way and gives her another chance to shine. Right now, her career’s been limited to mostly black comedies where she plays comic relief.
Taraji P. Henson
Taraji P. Henson is a rising star, and I was surprised she wasn’t higher on the list. But her low position is mainly because her star has only recently risen. Before I Can Do Bad All By Myself and Not Easily Broken — and yes, her turn as mammy in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — she spent most of her time playing side roles, as the “best black wife ever” in The Family that Preys, more “down” girls in Hustle and Flow and Talk to Me, and a tough lesbian Smokin’ Aces. While she’s proven very marketable to black audiences, mainstream cinema still isn’t giving her much to do: her turn as a police officer in Date Night seemed to epitomize that. Yet, post-Oscar, she’s getting cast in serious films (Once Fallen) with serious actors (Tom Hanks, Larry Crowne) and has another starring role in a film (From the Rough). Her future for now is bright.
I was surprised Viola Davis was so low on this list! Another Oscar nominee, Davis has serious buzz around her too, but as yet she hasn’t really been given much to do, save The Architect, which critics merely liked. Instead, Davis seems to play an awful lot of professional, serious women, characters without much of a back-story but who are good at their jobs: see Madea Goes to Jail (social worker), Knight and Day (Intelligence official), Syriana (CIA boss), etc. They’re respectable roles, just not very memorable. She’s got BBF locked down — see Nights in Rodanthe and Eat Pray Love — also maids and mothers — Doubt, Far From Heaven and Get Rich or Die Tryin’. But Davis can act. She needs a movie!
III. The State of the Black Leading Lady
It’s hard to be a woman in Hollywood. It’s hard to be black in Hollywood. So, obviously, it stands to reason it’s hard to be a black woman. It can be boring to hear — “black women have it tough, huh, what else is new?” — but it’s true!
One good place to start is New York‘s new “Star Market,” which is a great resource for people wanting to know more about how stars are made and unmade by the throngs of publicists, casting directors, producers and studio execs in Hollywood. One theme from the feature rings clear: it’s much tougher for women. The 2000s haven’t been bad to black actors and actresses: stars like Will Smith and Queen Latifah rose in power; 22 actors and actresses were nominated for and 7 won Academy Awards — in the previous 70 years, only 36 had been nominated and 6 had won. But the overall picture for black women is less rosy than for their male counterparts: most black-led independent and mainstream films are centered on men.
It’s hard to assign blame. Surely, the industry’s partially at fault: too few black/women directors, screenwriters, people above/below the line. But the industry also responds to what America wants, and year after year, movies led by white/men top the box office. Every once in awhile, something shakes the conventional wisdom — Sex and the City, or films by Sandra Bullock , Tyler Perry and Will Smith — but the conventional wisdom more or less remains because Hollywood is congenitally cautious. Once again, who’s to blame? Most films fail, and job security is hard to come by, so how much can we blame industry workers for not taking risks? I don’t know. Let’s talk about it.
Nevertheless, a small group of black women have been given a chance and few have proven themselves marketable; many of them — six on this list — have Oscar wins and nominations. None of them can touch $4 billion Will Smith, but a number can pull in audiences. We’ve come a very long way, but we have a long way to go!
IV. How I Went About It
How do you measure star power? There are many ways to do it. For the black actress, so often overlooked, the issue of measuring value is particularly acute. I wanted to come up with a way that honored the diversity of roles these actors played that still highlighted the imbalances in the industry. Hence the focus on “leading” roles, and the downplaying of other factors — like salary, box office gross and average production and marketing budget (which are the real industry standards).
Most black actresses do not get to play leading roles, even fewer get leading roles in blockbuster films. For this reason, I thought it was important to count equally roles in independent, art-house and blockbuster films — so a leading role in a Tyler Perry film counts as much as a leading role in a Michael Mann film. Even still, most of the women on the list, nine out of fifteen, spent most of their time not in a leading role. Even some of those with scores over 50% have to be qualified: Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Mariah Carey do not work that often, nor is acting their primary profession.
I started counting what films each actor had been in, relying on IMDB Pro. I also tracked the budget and gross of each film using BoxOfficeMojo and IMDB Pro — and of course information on either wasn’t always available.
I categorized the actor’s role in each film based on five “types:” Leading Lady, Best Friend, Mother/Family, Love Interest and Professional.
Leading Lady – Integral to or featured in the marketing of the film. The character has a back-story or is integral to the plot.
Best Friend – A character who is a friend, confidant, or villain who is there only to serve emotional fulfillment on main character.
Mother/Family – Mother or family. Includes “mammy” and “strong ghetto mother” types: a maternal figure or a guide of some sort, there to emotional/psychologically fulfill leads.
Love Interest – A character who is there as love interest to fulfill romantic, sexual needs primarily of the lead or other major character.
Professional - A character who is valuable primarily for their expertise or profession, intended to further the plot and journey of the protagonist.
Basically a “leading lady” could be any one of those types, or a character without any specific type, but the crucial aspect was the actor’s role in the film’s marketing, prominence in an ensemble cast, or being the integral attraction in the film. This is not to diminish the importance of supporting roles, which are some of the best parts, but if we’re invested in creating stars, the fact is that stars lead. So I gave Mo’Nique a “leading lady” for Precious, because her performance basically sold the film, IMHO. Queen Latifah’s role in Valentine’s Day too counted as leading lady, because she was a big star in a big cast. But Halle Berry didn’t get an LL for X-Men (I’d say the franchise, plus Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Anna Paquin really sold the films). In the end, all this is subjective, so feel free to disagree and change my mind!
I should say that the original list was much, much longer. I started by generating a list of actors in film and television who have worked or been buzzed about for about throughout the 1990s and 2000s. That list got to about 40 actors. Too long! So then I decided to focus on film, where there’s more money and a higher profile, and to limit it to the 2000s, for the sake of my sanity. That led me to the 15 actors above. Missing from this list are whole bunch of actresses who either a) did most of their work in 1990s; b) mostly do television; c) are, sadly, too old to really deliver films anymore; d) don’t work consistently. Some of them, however, could still be huge, or are huge in their own right, but I’m only one person!
The actresses I did not look at for time and other constraints: Anika Noni Rose; Jill Scott; Jada Pinkett-Smith; Paula Patton; Alicia Keys; Janet Jackson; Angela Bassett; Vivica A Fox; Tia and Tamera Mowry; Kimberly Elise; Raven-Symoné; Lisa Bonet; Regina King; Janet Jackson; Robin Givens; Whitney Houston; Aisha Tyler; Lynn Whitfield; Ruby Dee; Vanessa Williams; Alfre Woodard; Phylicia Rashad; Sherri Shepherd; Audra McDonald; Loretta Devine; Gabourey Sidibe.
Aymar Jean Christian researches visual culture — including web series, television, and film — at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been published in publications like Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and scholarly journals like First Monday and Communication, Culture and Critique. For more information, visit my website.