Some people may want to believe that, having elected and re-elected an African-American president, the racial divide is gone. That when Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke can be nominated for outstanding male artist in the NAACP Image Awards, maybe society is genuinely color-blind.
But it hasn’t even been a year since George Zimmerman beat the rap in the racially charged Trayvon Martin case. Christmas preparations in 2013 were temporarily diverted for some by debates over the ethnicity of Santa Claus. Saturday Night Live recently came under fire for a woeful record of hiring black women; in response it held a high-profile search that led to the hiring of actress-comedian Sasheer Zamata. The most recent Academy Awards nominations prompted another discussion about race in Hollywood when several acclaimed films with black casts were overlooked.
So it is still the right time for two more weeks of the University of Akron’s annual project “Rethinking Race: Black, White and Beyond,” beginning Friday. Speakers will include Ernest Green, who as one of the Little Rock Nine was on the front lines of school desegregation; NPR correspondent Michele Norris on how Americans talk about race; essayist and educator Tim Wise on “the pathology of privilege;” and others looking at the way society and racial attitudes intersect. You can find out more at http://www.uakron.edu/race.
Also in the lineup is Yvette Nicole Brown — a UA graduate and co-star on the NBC series Community. She considers herself lucky in her own career, which she will discuss at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8. But she is well aware of the complexities of race for her and other people of color, and has more than once found herself in the middle of debates about race.
One arose a few weeks ago when she was talking on an NBC special about the Paula Deen controversy — another racial lightning rod. Brown said white people should not use the n-word — and “I got tweets from people saying I was racist for saying that.
“That doesn’t make me racist. That makes me bossy,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “And I am bossy. But the bigger question is, why do you want to say it?” Indeed, Brown has broadened her comment to say no one should use the n-word, “be they black, white, rapper or southern cook” — but still was reportedly told by a Facebook reader, “It’s 2014, not 1960, get over it already.”
As if times have completely changed.
Brown still will not talk about a 2012 incident on Community in which now-former regular Chevy Chase used the n-word while complaining about writing for his character. But when it comes to race in entertainment and her career, she will talk about other aspects during her UA speech,
“I’m not going to sugarcoat things,” she said.
While maintaining that “one person cannot speak for the entire race, no matter what their race is,” Brown said in her personal choices she consciously tries to avoid stereotypes and looks for characters who in some way have a basic decency.
“I try not to make chubby people feel bad, I try not to make short people feel bad, I try not to make people from Ohio feel bad,” the former Clevelander said. “I try to check all the little boxes.”
When it comes to roles, she said, “I won’t play a character that makes it look like black people aren’t educated, or they don’t strive for bettering their life. I don’t want to play roles where it seems we haven’t grown or learned beyond the struggles of this nation. There’s a place for those stories, but I need there to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t play something where you come in and you’re downtrodden and by the end, you’re still downtrodden. There has to be something that inspires people.”
Still, whatever attitude actors can bring to the search for roles, they may run into roadblocks from the people doing the hiring. Asked if she had encountered situations where, say, casting people asked her if she could be “more black,” Brown immediately said yes.
“It’s happened a lot in auditions,” she said, “and I’ve loved to see them squirm. They are trying to find a way to say ‘be more black’ but something inside tells them that wouldn’t be appropriate. I’ve heard ‘be more ethnic.’ I’ve heard ‘more sassy,’ as if sassy was a black thing. Which I find hilarious, because no one was more sassy than Bea Arthur and she was completely white. … I think it’s kind of rude and annoying to think that with certain kinds of melanin comes sass.”
Some casting directors would be even more vague, asking Brown to “do that thing you do.” And, feigning innocence, she would ask them, “What thing are you talking about?” Or suggest they show her “how you would like the line read as a black woman.” And when she asked about that, the response was “That’s OK. What you’re doing is fine.”
But does it make a difference if it’s a person of color doing the casting? “First of all, there aren’t many African-Americans in authority positions, sadly,” she said. “So I haven’t had a lot of black directors to tell me anything, in commercials or whatever. That, I think, is the biggest oddity of this business. I know there are talented people of color in every area of this business but for some reason when I get on set, I don’t see any of them. …
“That saddens me. I believe that black people are ready, and all people of color are capable, and available, and I feel like it’s just short-sightedness that they’re not employed.”
Of course, there have been some breakthroughs, like Shonda Rhimes, the writer-producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and other shows.
“She has blown the roof off this city,” Brown said. But when it comes to extraordinarily talented people, “she’s not the only one.” Zamata is “a comedic genius,” Brown added, but — again — not the only one. Yet in Hollywood, “it seems they let us through one at a time. And it’s so infuriating to me.”
In the long run, it may be equally important that SNL added two African-American women to the writing staff, people who as Brown put it “can write from a position of knowing, not guessing.”
Nor is a discussion of race only about the black experience, she said. “What about the Asian Americans? What about the Latinos? Everybody deserves a chance to play. But can we play? Can we be the melting pot that everybody says we are? Can we all see ourselves on television and movies?”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio,com/blogs/heldenfiles. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.