Outside the Lines – Black Lesbian Roles

Gabrielle Union is a lesbian, y'all. Sanaa Lathan is bi.

All right, already. Not in real life (that we know of), but both are now playing gay onscreen. In the movie Running With Scissors, which opened nationwide last weekend, Union stars as Dorothy Ambrose, the love interest of Deirdre Burroughs (Annette Bening), the over-the-top, Valium-popping mother of the film's main character. In the vibrant colors of the '70s, Union looks ravishing during her very brief eight minutes on screen.

Lathan has a 12-episode run as Michelle Latham, Larry Hagman's much, much younger girlfriend, on FX's Nip/ Tuck. On Oct. 3, Jacqueline Bisset stroked Lathan's breast, just before the two engaged in a juicy lip lock.

Gabrielle UnionUnion doesn't tip the velvet in Scissors or kiss or even hug Bening. But when she drapes her silky brown arm lightly across the back of Bening's chair or softly rubs her back, it feels big. And Lathan and Bisset's vinegary dalliance is only one of several lesbian-themed story lines dreamed up by Nip/Tuck's gay creator, Ryan Murphy (who also directed Scissors).

But seeing Lathan kiss another woman feels very, very big.

Playing a lesbian shouldn't be a big deal for a straight actress anymore, for God's sake. As we know, nearly every actress on The L Word is straight, as is Jennifer Connelly, Catherine Deneuve, Salma Hayek, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman and Kate Winslet, as well as Bisset, Bening and other A-list actresses who have played bisexual or lesbian characters.

A love scene with another woman is no risk anymore; in fact, it can enhance a Hollywood career, demonstrating award-bait edge. Look at Oscar winners Hilary Swank and Charlize Theron.

But maybe not for black actresses. Rarely have black women played gay. You can count the number on the fingers of one hand. There was Queen Latifah in Set It Off. (Hush up — I know what you're thinking!) Jennifer Beals, of course. Nicole Ari Parker (Soul Food, Remember the Titans) early in her career in The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.

Whoopi Goldberg's controversial onscreen kiss two decades ago in The Color Purple and 10 years later in Boys on the Side. Kerry Washington (Ray, The Last King of Scotland) and Nia Long desperately seeking sperm in She Hate Me and The Broken Hearts Club, respectively.

The saucy girl next door of black film, Long has starred in hits like Big Momma's House, The Best Man and Are We There Yet? But her career-turning role in 2000's mainstream movie Boiler Room has been largely forgotten. She most recently appeared in Alfie with Jude Law and Susan Sarandon, receiving limited screen time and forced to wear an unbearably hideous afro wig.

So are Union and Lathan destroying their images by being lesbians onscreen? Hell no. In fact, it might help both of their careers, which have fallen far short of the enormous potential of each of these actresses.

Both are members of Hollywood's African-American elite, an extremely small sorority of successful young actresses. These are the women who are on the covers of Essence and Ebony, and have flashy lead roles in black movies. But after Oscar winner Halle Berry and nominee Latifah, the list starts to dwindle.

And most have had few appearances in mainstream movies — starring or otherwise — the kinds of roles that can propel an actress into the Hollywood stratosphere.

Vivica A. Fox, who famously prompted Bill Clinton to ask "Who's the black girl?" when he saw her in Independence Day as Will Smith's hot, stripper girlfriend, has also had a rocky career.

She starred in Set It Off, Two Can Play That Game, Booty Call and Juwanna Mann, but has struggled to cross over to the mainstream. Despite a star turn as a murderous mama in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1, most recently she was a contestant on ABC's Dancing With the Stars, a truly desperate career move — and she was eliminated, to boot.

Jada Pinkett SmithJada Pinkett Smith has starred in at least a dozen black movies, including Woo, Bamboozled, Kingdom Come and The Nutty Professor. Despite rave reviews in Collateral with Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise as well as the The Matrix and Ali, her most recent role has been the voice of an animated hippo in Madagascar.

Power to her for keeping her schedule light to focus on her family — including two kids of her own, a stepson and hubby Will Smith, and her metal band, Wicked Wisdom — but come on!

Of the other talented, well-known young black actresses — Kimberley Elise, Regina King and Thandie Newton to name a few — not one has achieved the success she deserves. And even the black roles, generally as a male star's wife or girlfriend, are limited and shrinking. Many of the black female money roles have been snatched up by men.

Think Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion and Big Momma's House. Black male actors are even grabbing roles from White Chicks.

Sanaa LathanSo what of Lathan and Union? Lathan muscled her way into her first starring role in 2000's Love & Basketball, but has never lived up to the early promise. She has carried black movies like Brown Sugar, Disappearing Acts and, most recently, the disappointing interracial love story Something New.

She starred opposite Denzel Washington in Out of Time in 2003 and made a splash onstage as Sean P.'s sister in Raisin in the Sun. But her mainstream resume is sketchy — unless you include the cheesy Alien vs. Predator.

Union, a beauty with killer dimples and a marquee smile, has lit up the screen in a series of "mean girl" roles beginning with Love & Basketball and Bring It On.

She also starred in Two Can Play That Game, Deliver Us from Eva and 2005's failed black remake of The Honeymooners. Given her beauty, brains, talent and charisma, it's a shame she hasn't been able to make the mainstream leap.

Maybe these LGBT supporting roles will help both Union and Lathan and allow directors, casting agents and the public to appreciate their gifts and their edge. Maybe next time, these actresses will take on lead roles as lesbians.

But of course, somebody's got to write those roles. (Yoo hoo, Angela Robinson.) And somebody's got to get those films made. (Hello, somebody!)

And maybe Union and Lathan will even get an onscreen smooch — with each other.

Linda Villarosa is a former editor of The New York Times and executive editor for Essence magazine, and has authored and co-authored several books. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her two children and her partner, Jana.

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