Hollywood is no BFF to black women

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Most AfterEllen.com readers and indeed most observant consumers of pop culture
are aware of how rare quality film and television roles for black actresses
tend to be. Just yesterday, Sarah blogged about the
women of Soul Food
, who have gone from lead roles in a compelling
drama to primarily supporting roles, and earlier this week the LA Times
spoke up with an article about Hollywood’s
love for “black best friends.”

While the article doesn’t necessarily break entirely new ground (Spike Lee has been talking about the related
magical negro” phenomenon for years), this unfortunate “BBF” trend —
the casting of a black woman as the “the wise, loyal and often sassy sidekick” to a leading white woman — deserves all
the press attention it can get, in the hopes that it will change. Just think about it:

I love Wanda
Sykes
in anything she does, thought Stacey Dash
as Dionne was Clueless Cher’s better half, and am becoming a fan of
My Boys best friend Kellee
Stewart
(now that her character’s story line has moved slightly beyond
finding a man to fly to Italy with her). I also think that sidekicks are often
more interesting and appealing than lead characters (hello, Willow).

But I’d be even more thrilled to see these women in lead roles, and when
I try to think of instances in the reverse — black women with white best
friends — all that comes to mind is Peter, Rudy’s pal on The Cosby
Show
, and I don’t think that counts, no matter how cute they are.

The article references many other examples — The Nanny Diaries, Alias, Miss Congeniality 2 — and
acknowledges that the trend is both a Hollywood “in-joke” and a more serious problem; there are no starring roles for black women on major network television this fall,
and Halle Berry‘s Oscar win hasn’t opened up many doors in the film world. It’s been quite a while since Berry herself had a hit, and I’m guessing it
has more to do with a lack of options than her ample talent.

Even on Grey’s Anatomy, the fantastic Chandra Wilson plays the character who “tells it like it is,” so while Dr. Bailey
is the creation of Shonda Rhimes and
part of one of the most integrated casts around right now, she’s still beholden to the stereotype of black women as
“experts in the ways of the world” who “comfort, warn or scold” their white best friends. Yes, I’d listen to Bailey or Wilson tell me just about anything, but that’s not the point.

Stewart of My Boys says that “to call this a trend or to say an actress was cast just because of her ethnicity is to negate her contribution,” and the article
describes how Aisha Tyler won her role on whiter-than-white Friends based “strictly on talent.” I understand what Stewart is saying and I’m happy for Tyler,
but to me, ignoring the pattern is patronizing and
wrong, implying that black actresses have the ability to support but not to lead. I hope we can all agree that’s just bollocks.

The same cultural forces that resulted in a certain now-famous feminist publishing under
fabricated initials so as not to alienate boy readers are at work here:
many black audiences will watch predominantly white programs and movies, but once a lead is black, most white audiences are lost. And since Hollywood is all about selling rather than
promoting any sort of cultural progress, black actresses are stuck.

Tyler says that “this trend feels like a consolation prize, but at least these roles are available,” and observes that
“the more roles there are for African Americans, the better.” What do you think, readers? Will more BBFs eventually garner starring roles for black women, or are things going to stay the same? And who would you like to see take the lead?

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