Not long ago, Living RomCom wondered: Why do today's romantic comedies lack strong, dynamic women in their leading roles? Then Sex and the City opened huge, and at least for a Hollywood minute, studios were rushing to get projects with strong female leads into the pipeline. Meanwhile a related, equally vexing question has been hiding in plain sight.
Entertainment Weekly's staffer Margeaux Watson addressed it recently, with her Commentary: It's Time to Put Black Actresses in Hollywood Bluckbusters. Saying that she likes Will Smith as much as anyone black or white, Watson is nonetheless irked by a significant casting choice made in a string of Will Smith vehicles. Noting that in Hancock [*SPOILER*], Smith is romantically paired with Charlize Theron, she takes aim at a sensibility she perceives to be endemic of a larger issue:
Why is it that once an
actor like Smith reaches A-list status, Hollywood never seems to pair
him with a black actress in a potential blockbuster? From Denzel
Washington (Training Day) to Dwayne ''The Rock'' Johnson (The Game Plan),
leading African-American actors have been increasingly matched with
non-black love interests. The sci-fi comedy Meet Dave (out now) finds
Eddie Murphy romancing Elizabeth Banks, while Smith is paired with
Latina actress Rosario Dawson in his next film, Seven Pounds (out in
December). It's obviously a strategy to make these films as accessible
as possible to all audiences, but I think it also expresses an implicit
fear: A film featuring the coupling of a black actor and actress is too
''urban'' for the masses.
Watson makes it clear that she's generally fine with interracial couples on screen:
...in fact, that's a nice sign of progress. My beef is that Hollywood opts for these couples again and again. The result? Black actresses are getting the shaft, and reality as I know it is not getting portrayed on the big screen.
Watson notes the Usual Suspect exceptions (e.g. Halle Berry, Queen Latifah), and asks:
Why can't black actresses play lead roles
in benign romantic comedies like 27 Dresses and Made of Honor — or Hitch?
Here's the real hitch: Until women like Nia Long and Gabrielle Union are
cast opposite big guns like Smith and Washington, they'll never gain the
recognition they need to open their own films. And until that happens,
well, I'll always have Dreamgirls.
And here's synchronistic evidence (via a Dreamgirls-related blog post passed on to me by writer friend Erika Kennedy) that the cinematic plight of black women isn't limited to three dimensions:
Evidently one of the biggest plum roles for a woman in movie history has gone not to Beyonce Knowles or Jennifer Hudson, but to the third Girl in that group -- actress Anika Noni Rose is slated to voice Princess Tiana, the first black lead ever featured in a Disney animated feature (The Princess and the Frog). While this is progress of a sort, the road to cartoon royalty has had some wince-worthy bumps in it.
Apparently the original script for Princess had as its protagonist a black chambermaid working for a spoiled white Southern debutante (kind of reminds me of Jennifer Hudson, the first black woman given a significant role in the Sex and the City franchise, playing... personal assistant to Carrie Bradshaw).
As the Jezebel blog reports it: [According to Arifa Akbar in today's Independent], Disney's original storyboard is believed to have been torn up after criticism that the lead character was a clichéd subservient role with echoes of slavery, and whose name [Maddy] sounded too much like "Mammy" – a unwelcome reminder of America's Deep South before the civil rights movement swept away segregation.
The rewritten Princess has gone another way, as we say, with a character named Tiana, 19 years old and no longer a servant, who lives in Jazz Age New Orleans. But as Jezebel rightly asks: How is it that Disney "can't draft a politically-correct film about black people?" Meanwhile, as another blog takes note, Tiana "is now slated to live happily ever after with a handsome fellow who is not black – with leaks suggesting that he will be of Middle Eastern heritage and called Naveen."
So, let me get this straight: We've got a strong black female lead (albeit animated) in a Disney romantic comedy (i.e. a potential blockbuster)... who's not going to end up with a black Mr. Right?
Holy Full Circle, Batman! Looks like we can accept a black man vying to take up residence in the White House, but on screen at least, a black woman can't be coupled with a black man in a movie that's supposed to be "for all audiences."
Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me (and I'd be curious to get the insightful Quiet Bubble's take on the subject). Is our supposed progress on the issue of race in America perilously gender-lopsided? Are we generally less progressed than we like to think? Living RomCom wants to know.