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In the Name of Kwanzaa: Where are all the Black Actors/Actresses?

dorthydangridge

Kwanzaa is an African American holiday that begins the day after Christmas and continues until the first of the January. It is a celebration of family, community, and self-love. A beautiful holiday with great principles that emphasize bringing in your new year with thoughtful consideration about how to keep love flowing through your life. While the celebration itself is over, it’s never too late to recognize these principles in your life, or if you share my interest in popular culture… it’s never too late to locate these principles in the pop-cultural milieu… or not…

If you’re like me, then after watching BET’s The Game on Tuesday night, you’re asking what in the name of Kwanzaa was that? It was offensive at best, but it did inspire me to ask questions like: where are all the Black actors/actresses? Is there anything we have to look forward to besides more of the same types of representations of Black people on television and in movies? Whatever happened to moderately decent movies that Black people were in? Were there ever any? Does Friday count as a good Black movie? Or maybe Set it Off? Is F. Gary Gray a good director? What about these new and upcoming Black directors?  Will Tyler Perry give them a shot? What’s a “good” Black movie and do have I to rely on BET to tell me what it is?  BET is owned by Viacom… what do they know of Black representations and do they care to represent Black people with dignity and complexity?

So… in the spirit of Kwanzaa and its seven principles, I’m going to tackle these new questions addressing issues of Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

Let’s start with the first question: Where are all the Black actors/actresses? I’ll save the rest of my frustration and my rants for my new Blog Series on Black Actors/Actresses and Directors – In the Name of Kwanzaa.

So let’s get to it.

Where is…

Nia Long lent her voice to The Cleveland Show, the spin off of Family Guy, as Roberta Tubbs in the first season. She’ll be in Martin Lawrence‘s new movie, Big Momma’s House 3. Another Blacktress, Sanaa Lathan also lends her voice to The Cleveland Show as the voice of Donna, Cleveland’s wife.  Eddie Murphy is counting his millions from being the voice of Donkey in the Shrek series.

Lathan is slated to be in a new movie called The Middle of Nowhere directed and written by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay directed the documentary My Mic Sounds Nice, a documentary about females in hip-hop, that aired on BET. The upcoming film will include Ruby Dee and Phylicia Rashad.  Halle Berry is taking care of her daughter, but she also has a few upcoming movies to look out for.  She gives a so far well-received performance in the upcoming Frankie and Alice which also stars Phylicia Rashad as her mother.  You can catch it in theaters February 4, 2011.  I’ll let you know what I think, of course.

Regina King also did some voice work, lending her voice to Huey and Riley Freeman on the Adult Swim cartoon show The Boondocks. Making the move to the small screen, King also plays a detective on a brilliant cop show called Southland on TNT. It may possibly be my favorite cop show on television since Law and Order: SVU is no longer in production.  And while we’re on the topic of lady cops, remember the girl who played the cousin who slept with Teri’s husband in Soul Food?  Well her name is Gina Rivera and she played on TNT’s The Closer for a few seasons as Detective Daniels.  Vanessa Williams, who played Teri in Soul Food is a household name again playing the role of Wilhemina Slater in Ugly Betty and now staring as Renee Perry in Desperate Housewives.

Vivica A. Fox was in Soul Food as well. What is she doing now? She’s not dating 50 Cent anymore, but she has been in Je’Caryous Johnson “hit” stage plays. Her most recent project, Cheaper to Keeper is touring now and features Brian McKnight. She was in another Je’Caryous Johnson play opposite Boris Kodjoe called Whatever She Wants. Boris Kodjoe as you recall was in a canned television show called, Undercovers. And where is T-Boz… but she doesn’t act? That’s what I said, until I found her in a play… Je’Caryous Johnson’s Marriage Material.  Fox was also in Set it Off with Jada Pinkett, before she was Mrs. Smith.  Will Smith is bringing back Agent Jay in Men in Black III and Jada Pinkett Smith is bringing back Hawthorne on TNT.

Every Black man who’s been in a movie in the past 5 years got shot in Brooklyn’s Finest including Don Cheedle and Wesley Snipes.  Cheadle landed the role of War Machine in the Iron Man series along side Robert Downey Jr. and will revive his role as War Machine in the newest comic book turned live action movie, The Avengers. And Snipes — who would have been an even better War Machine and probably should have been in The Expendables, is in jail for failing to file his tax returns.

Terry Crews, the dad from Everybody Hates Chris (the only Black television show in the past 5 years that I LOVE) was in The Expendables though and got to play alongside the biggest and oldest action stars on the planet.  He’s also in Ice Cube’s show Are We There Yet? Tichina Arnold is best known as Pam from Martin but most recently for her brilliant work as Rochelle on Everybody Hates Chris.   Arnold played in a television movie called, Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story in 2008 based off the real story of Lena Baker, a Black woman who was sentenced to death in 1945, the only woman murdered by the state of Georgia by electric chair.  She’s also in BET’s new show, Let’s Stay Together.

Remember that other cop show from the 90s that stared Blacks and Lations, New York Undercover? And remember Malik Yoba, who played Detective J.C. Williams? Besides Tyler Perry movies, Yoba was in an absolutely horrible “sci-fi” television show with way too big a budget for its first year and had too many bad ideas mixed together.  It was called Defying Gravity. Meant to be something like Grey’s Anatomy, but in space, it ended up not doing so well.  Speaking of rip offs, most of us know that Friends got their concept from Living Single, one of my favorite television shows in the 90s. Where are they now?

Queen Latifah got her production company, Flavor Unit Entertainment off the ground and BET is airing its first project, a television show called Let’s Stay Together and Latifah will be rolling out her own creation, a show featuring Laura London (from the movie ATL) called Single Ladies (I wonder if it will look a lot like Living Single).  I can’t speak to its quality, but Let’s Stay Together was the show that premiered on BET after The Game this week which didn’t feature any big names, but the guy who played one of the boyfriends on Sister Sister, RonReaco Lee, is a lead character.

Erika Alexander has been doing really small screen work for a while, but was a speaking extra in a Denzel Washington movie, Deja Vu, a few years ago. The guy who played Kyle, T.C Carson, was in a Christmas commercial recently a part of the singing chorus. Kim Coles has done some television movies, but was also the host of Pay it Off on BET. She also guest hosted a couple of episodes of The View. And the other Kim, Kim Fields, the daughter of Chip Fields who was Penny’s (Janet Jackson) mom on Good Times, is working at Tyler Perry studios in Atlanta on the set of Meet the Browns and is credited with directing at least one of the episodes. Fields also hosts a BET special, Lens on Talent.  And more recently is directing Let’s Stay Together.

Umoja (Unity)

I could keep going but I think you get the point.  Almost all of these actors are connected to one another in some way, either through stage work, small screen, or the big screen.  And with the exception of those “cross-over” actors/actresses like Denzel, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, most of them have not had Hollywood work besides that which Tyler Perry has had his hands in.  And if you look closer, you’ll notice that none of the women I’ve mentioned have done Hollywood, big picture movies in the past 5 years without Tyler Perry with the exception of Halle Berry, Nia Long, and Jada Pinkett Smith and of those three only Halle Berry has had a lead role.

What’s going on?

I can’t answer that question, but I do know that there are brilliant film makers out here who are dying to make movies that feature people of color in a variety of roles and don’t recycle archaic notions about the way people are “supposed” to be, but complicate notions of what it means to be human in general. I’ll leave you with Nikyatu Jusu, a film maker who recently won the Shadow and Act film Challenge for her screenplay, “Black Swan Theory.”

Here’s the trailer to her project,  Black Swan Theory [Teaser].