Where are all the black women in film? That's a question USA Today has asked several actresses after only one black woman was nominated for her a Golden Globe in any film category. The solution, perhaps, is a principle long ago adopted by Scandal and Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes.
"When I cast the pilot of Grey's, Shonda didn't give anybody a last name," Rhimes' casting director Linda Lowy tells the newspaper. "She just said, 'Linda, I want you to cast it the way you see the world.'" Season 1 included four actors and actresses of color out of a total of 9 main cast members, something rarely seen in 2005 when it debuted. Chandra Wilson even screen-tested for the role of Miranda Bailey alongside Kristin Chenoweth. "[Wilson] sees Kristin sitting there and she must have been shaking in her boots, and then [Wilson] got the part. I'm telling you; it was a rip in the universe," Lowy says. "Kristin Chenoweth is a genius, there's no doubt about that, and would have been great in the part, but, all of the sudden, it's like the waters parted and the world opened up and we saw the possibilities of what we could do if we took it another way." Wilson credits Rhimes with not only launching her career, but also for having her direct nine episodes of the ABC series.
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"Shonda and Grey's have given me the opportunity to become a director, and that's something that I hadn't really envisioned for myself, other than directing for theater," Wilson says. "Now I've got this résumé of television credits that I can carry forward into the next opportunity."
On the big screen, representation of race is clearly lacking. USA Today points out at that out of more than 250 box office releases to date this year, fewer than 50 have featured a black woman in a leading or supporting role. Among the 10 highest-grossing movies of the year so far, only one — Star Trek Into Darkness — starred a black woman. Not to mention Kasi Lemmons, who directed Black Nativity, is the only black female director who has released a major film this year. Black actors and directors, on the other hand, are seeing success at both the box office and with awards season. Three black men were nominated for films in the lead and supporting categories as well as a nomination for Best Screenplay and Best Director.
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"We're in deprivation mode, because listen: me, Alfre [Woodard] and Phylicia [Rashad] ... we're in the same category," Viola Davis recently said on Oprah's Next Chapter. Whereas if you take a Caucasian actress, you have the ones who are the teens, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and they're all different. There's roles for each of them, but when you only have two or three categories for black actresses — you want to work. It's a natural instinct. If you throw a piece of cheese in a room full of rats, they're going to claw at each other."
Geena Davis recently wrote her two-step cure for Hollywood sexism that could also be applied to race. In her Hollywood Reporter piece she says, "Step 1: Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. With one stroke you've created some colorful, unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they've had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it's not a big deal?"