“Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street?”
December 3, 2018 11:54 AM   Subscribe

From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Buffy’ to ‘Frasier’ to ‘Seinfeld’ — what happened to those lone, ‘token’ black actors? [The Undefeated] Eight talents tell stories of offensive scripts, stunt people in blackface and the heartbreak — and hope — of portraying Thug No. 2 and the dope dealer’s girlfriend.
“It’s there in the memories of the stars below: There were “black shows” and there were “white shows.” If you were a black actor appearing on a white show, you were usually alone. For some of the most visible black actors coming of age in the 1990s, it’s clear that along with the triumphs came isolation, blatant racial stereotyping and biased casting calls. As for “crossing over” to the mainstream, in the mostly segregated worlds of Seinfeld, Frasier, Melrose Place, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Felicity, V.I.P., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and more, blacks were usually relegated to bit parts or were there for a short time.”
posted by Fizz (24 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
These are great. Reading these different stories really gives you a depth of understanding of the experiences black actors have had in the tiny, constrained options Hollywood allowed. There's a lot of progress to make still but Jesus, sometimes I'm in shock (very happy shock) at how we now have such a wider range of options for actors of color, and for stories for us as viewers to get to see, compared to even just a few years ago.
posted by latkes at 12:46 PM on December 3 [4 favorites]


For the token minority actors, I feel like success still means being turned into "that guy" (you know, the guy, from that movie??) instead of becoming a star. Donald Faison was wonderful in the movie Clueless, so it felt like a step down that he and Stacey Dash ended up continuing their roles in the terrible TV Clueless while the other actors in the movie got to pursue new opportunities. (Not sure how to say it, but kicking around in my head: black actors tend to age a lot better than their white counterparts. As many have pointed out, Bianca Lawson looks like she's aged maaaaybe 5 years since doing Buffy. Getting a small break on the ageism front in no way makes up for racism that kneecaps careers from the start, but I wonder if that's one reason so many of these actors were able to keep working long enough to see the industry become more open to non-white casting.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 12:57 PM on December 3 [2 favorites]


And I cannot help but thinking of the double standard that is leveled on people of colour not just in this industry but pretty much everywhere. This is super relevant.
posted by Fizz at 1:04 PM on December 3 [3 favorites]


I would highly recommend Gabrielle Union's memoir, We're Going To Need More Wine, even if you haven't followed her acting career. This post reminded me of the section in her book that talks about her guest starring on the blindingly-white Friends, which InStyle references in this article:

----
Union, one of two black guest stars on 10 seasons of Friends, was eager to add some diversity to the sitcom. However, one of the directors alienated her on set, underestimating her experience when she’d been acting for years.

"The director was a regular, he did a lot of episodes. He went over the scene with David Schwimmer, Matt Perry, and the extras. Then he turned to me, and his tone completely changed," she writes. "'Do you know what a mark is?' he said in a singsong voice. 'You stay on that so the camera can see you.' It was like he was talking to a toddler. He assumed on sight that I didn’t know a single thing."

"His tone was so condescending, as if I had just wandered in off the street or won a contest for a Friends walk-on," she continues. "I had four films under my belt that had either opened at No. 1 at the box office at number two behind blockbusters like the freaking Matrix."
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 1:18 PM on December 3 [44 favorites]


Just here to point out that Bianca Lawson doesn't age. She's been playing a high schooler for over 20 years.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:32 PM on December 3 [7 favorites]


For the token minority actors, I feel like success still means being turned into "that guy" (you know, the guy, from that movie??) instead of becoming a star.

When I read that, I immediately thought of Gene Anthony Ray and Debbie Allen from Fame.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:00 PM on December 3 [5 favorites]


Thank you for sharing. Stories like these are why I instinctively retch anytime anyone talks about Hollywood like it's a meritocracy and not a mostly racist charade.

"So-and-so's such a great actor or actress and that's why they got the Oscar or get all those great roles!" The hubris is overwhelming.
posted by Borborygmus at 2:19 PM on December 3 [8 favorites]


Not sure how to say it, but kicking around in my head: black actors tend to age a lot better than their white counterparts.

The in-group usage is, "Black don't crack."
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:22 PM on December 3 [9 favorites]


These are great! I've been re-watching The West Wing and it's fascinating how they tried to engage with race; there are cringey moments but some of them are quite intentional. I'd love to read about Dulé Hill's experiences on that show/in TV in general.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:54 PM on December 3 [3 favorites]


This is bizarre, because I just looked up Phil Morris (for the 2nd or 3rd time) on Memory Alpha last night. People don't believe me when I say "That Jem'Hadar warrior is Phil Morris, who also played Jackie on Seinfeld, and Grant in the movie Atlantis: TLE." As much as I loved Jackie, I want more Phil in my sci-fi please!
posted by Brocktoon at 2:56 PM on December 3 [3 favorites]


Hey! His most important role was clearly as the Martian Manhunter. (I was actually really glad they cast that role with a non-white actor, probably helped by the fact that his voice actor in the Justice League animated series was also not-white.)
posted by praemunire at 3:00 PM on December 3 [5 favorites]


Gene Anthony Ray basically lived and died being Leroy, starting with the film. He only lived to be 41. I loved everything about Fame (until the movie remake) and grieved hard for him, which is unusual for me with a celebrity.

I never worked in TV but I did work in theatre in the 90's (see above obsession with Fame) and there, too, black shows and white shows. And the black shows were "experimental theatre". Bah. There's been some change on that front, from what I can see. Some.
posted by wellred at 3:48 PM on December 3 [5 favorites]


I'm just here to call out Living Single for being a really great underrated sitcom of the 90's.
posted by runcibleshaw at 4:10 PM on December 3 [18 favorites]


Is there somewhere else to read this? Either my browser can't handle their site or it's completely broken, all I am getting is infinite-scrolling headlines. It sounds interesting.
posted by neonrev at 4:46 PM on December 3 [4 favorites]


neonrev: me, too. I found a site with a few excerpts but it would be nice to read the whole thing.
posted by MovableBookLady at 5:05 PM on December 3


Mobile site seems busted, desktop mode works ok.
posted by jzb at 5:20 PM on December 3


I loved Kim Coles on In Living Color, but for some reason I never got into Living Single.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:20 AM on December 4


Is there somewhere else to read this? Either my browser can't handle their site or it's completely broken, all I am getting is infinite-scrolling headlines. It sounds interesting.

You might try instapaper or pocket, I find that if you add the article and bookmark it so it appears in that app/reader it will reformat it and make it easier to read.
posted by Fizz at 5:08 AM on December 4


the criminally underrated Frank’s Place,

pssst, it's on youtube
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:11 PM on December 4 [1 favorite]


I know an actor cast on a high-profile pilot who was replaced with another “less street” actor with lighter skin when the show went to series (and seriously, y’all have all heard of this show—it would have made his career).

Twenty years later he’s a concierge by day and doing open mics after midnight. So Hollywood racism can fuck over people both ways.
posted by infinitewindow at 6:43 PM on December 4 [4 favorites]




For the token minority actors, I feel like success still means being turned into "that guy" (you know, the guy, from that movie??) instead of becoming a star.

I just...the feeling I have now is like when my media studies professor didn't know that Living Single came before Friends..Debbie Allen is a HUGE star. She's up there with Chita Rivera as a dance legend. She directed A Different World and the reason Hillman actually resembled a HBCU. Plus she's Phylicia Rashad's sister, the Venus to her Serena if you will. She has three Emmys! Okay, I need to stop, but the idea of Debbie Allen not being considered a star rocked me to my core.
posted by CatastropheWaitress at 6:32 AM on December 7 [5 favorites]


Yikes, ditto on Debbie Allen. Uh. What CatastropheWaitress said.

FWIW, I very briefly attempted to drum up interest in Living Single on FanFare but the appetite just didn't seem to be there. Happy to start it up again if folks want to join in.
posted by duffell at 6:42 AM on December 7


Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad are sisters??! Whoa.
posted by latkes at 9:07 AM on December 7


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