Race Card: When Will Actresses of Color Break Out of Supporting Roles?

Nadra Kareem Nittle
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Gabrielle Union. Wanda Sykes. Stacey Dash.

What do these three actresses have in common? They've all played roles that fit into the black best friend archetype, otherwise known as BBFs. These characters exist to comfort the white heroine when she's down, to egg her on when she needs motivating or to tell her off when she loses integrity. Sometimes, though, these characters aren't black, but other women of color. Think Keiko Agena's character Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls or Mindy Kaling's character Shira in the new film No Strings Attached.

So, what's the problem with these characters? For one, they perpetuate old racial stereotypes. They amount to sort of updated mammies. They may not be maids, cooks or other domestics, but they function first and foremost to be caretakers to the white leads.

As Los Angeles Times writer Greg Baxton explained in a 2007 article called "Black Best Friend—Buddy System":

They live or work with their friend but are not really around all that much except for well-timed moments when the heroine needs an eating companion or is in crisis. BBFs basically have very little going on, so they are largely available for such moments.

But the problem with these friends of color roles isn't just their stereotypical nature, but that their persistence means that studios are unwilling to bet on someone such as Mindy Kaling to perform in a leading role. Kaling, for example, has worked as an actress, writer, producer and director and has a cult following, thanks to her contributions to The Office. She may not be as bankable as Natalie Portman, the female lead in No Strings Attached, but no actress of color will be bankable until studios make the leap and transition such women out of supporting roles and into lead roles.

In a Los Angeles Times article published two years after "Black Best Friend—Buddy System," Rutina Wesley of True Blood is praised for evading the BBF role. She counts herself fortunate for being an actress of color who landed a multidimensional role. Even Wesley faces limitations, though.

When asked the kind of role she'd like to play in the future, Wesley replied, "I would love to do something like Notting Hill. That's my favorite movie. I want to do parts that are outside of the box."

Unless studios transform their casting practices, however, there's little chance Wesley or any other minority actress will end up in a mainstream romantic comedy as a lead.

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15 Comments Have Been Posted

Black Friend Leads

It's the same way for fat women - or even just a little plus size. You won't see a size 12 woman in an lead role unless the role is related somehow to her being larger than a size 2.

I love the show PSYCH on USA - both of the lead male actors are equally important. One is white - James Roday and Dule Hill, both AMAZING comedic actors. And race only rarely comes up in the show. They are just best buds and that's it. I love that.

Actually, they aren't co

Actually, they aren't co leads on Psych. Dule Hill is considered a supporting player according to SAG guidelines and his pay is reflective of that. Psych is perhaps yet another example that proves the point of the article.

Only because it's rare for a

Only because it's rare for a show to have two leads. Dule's role as a prominent actor of color shouldn't be downplayed or ignored because of technicalities. Further, while Shawn Spencer is coded as white, James Roday is a fair skinned Latino (his true surname is Rodriguez, he was asked to change it I believe by producers of a different project).

However, since the article was specifically referring to females, I'd say USA's new show with Sarah Shahi (or even Burn Notice's Gabrielle Anwar, who is half Indian) is probably a better example of an actress of color in a strong leading role, rather than resigned to the role of the "best friend"

It's really saying something

It's really saying something about Hollywood's entrenched prejudice when a person of color being cast as the lead in a by-the-numbers romantic comedy like Notting Hill is an "outside of the box" aspiration.

And earlier posting on this

And earlier posting on this site--the series title I have woefully forgotten, but it was about films and feminist perspectives on them--mentioned the movie "Girls Town," which focuses on three friends of different ethnicities without allowing the black girl to fall into a supporting role.

But yeah, I've noticed it so many times in mainstream film. The main female character--the one we're all supposed to identify with--is white, thin, heterosexual, usually somehow repressed and very often blond, while the supporting "best friend" role almost always falls outside what is "acceptable" for women: she's fat, non-white, non-American, not heterosexual, sexually promiscuous an/or otherwise "crazy." It's tiresome.

The Bechdel Test Canon! I

The Bechdel Test Canon! I loved that series. And I really need to see that film, Girls Town.

Kerry Washington, April

Kerry Washington, April Grace, CCH Pounder, Ami Brabson, Thandie Newton (who could have shut down Black Swan) Jacqueline Kim, Ming-Na, Rosanna De Soto, Joan Chen, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Regina King, Lisa Nicole Carson... and so forth. To be fair, Gabrielle Union isn't the best example, as her acting chops don't exactly present the most compelling case for the point you're trying to make. That said, actresses of color have just as much right to be mediocre as white actresses, though they rarely get the chance. And certainly, Union could easy match and probably best Portman - who is charming, but no great actresses - even on her off-est of days. As for Dash, at 44 years old, those wife-to-Morgan Freeman/Danny Glover/Don Cheadle parts should soon be streaming in by the bucketload.

Women are underrepresented overall

Women generally are underrepresented in the dramatic arts. Try to find a play about a strong woman, and you're already veering into a "genre" piece or something "woman-centric." The Halle Berrys of the world are short changed in part because character-driven lead roles just don't exist for women. I think the examples above are somewhat inapt because only Gabrielle Union is a "leading lady" type, which has strict standards across ethnic boundaries. This is also troublesome, in that, as one comment above mentions, if an actor doesn't fall into the teenie tiny size 0 mould, she's going to be the "best friend" for her entire career, irrespective of race. It's important to be aware of the ways women perpetuate these stereotypes in real life. As unfortunate as it is, Hollywood will not change until it is forced to reflect a changed world.

not just movies, TV & theatre!

As a member of the dance community I will never cease to be astounded by the hoards of talented & skilled female choreographers struggling to keep a troupe together and going without recognition while the five choreographers who get a major break, get real respect, get grants, get to tour are all directed by men! No offense but where did they even find them? The powers that be had to scrape away an enormous layer of talented women to find that one talented man... how nice of them. :-(

Hollywood reflects the

Hollywood reflects the hierarchy that exists IRL, so it will be a while.

This article reminds me of

This article reminds me of that beloved (by who?) '80s movie, Flashdance, where all the main character's friends are non-characters and the black one says things like "God, I'm glad I ain't no honky."

It's a way for Hollywood to feel progressive while not actually doing anything. Think of how by all intents and purposes, Oher should be the one taking center stage in The Blind Side but is sidelined for Sandra Bullock to act spunky and stand up to evil ghetto gangsters.

The lead in flashdance is non

The lead in flashdance is non white. Actually both leads are. And both were stealth about it. Jennifer Beals is half black and half white. And her romantic lead Michael Nouri is of Iraqi descent.

and for the record, Flashdance is totally beloved by me. I suppose this helps if you're not ignorant to its charms and facts.

Who cares when Alex's darker

Who cares when Alex's darker black friend (the awesome Durga McBroom, who provided backing vocals for Pink Floyd) still talks like the sassy black friend? "These are the Niggars we like" indeed, Dave Chappelle.

Thanks for this post. It's

Thanks for this post. It's completely true and completely sad. I miss Ugly Betty, a show with a strong lead (America Ferrera) that interspersed her Mexican culture but wasn't all about the fact that she's Mexican. Unfortunately this show was cancelled after four years.


don't forget Viola Davis!

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