Black Women and the Hollywood Shuffle

There's a reason Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels are the ones we see making movies about the lives of African-American women.

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"Now I am an illusion, just like the films. They see me but they can't recognize me." --Mignon Duprée (played by Lonette McKee), Illusions, directed by Julie Dash, 1982

Director Julie Dash's critically acclaimed short film Illusions examines the precarious role that black women play in the Hollywood film industry. In it, black women exist along the periphery of the industry, even though their talents are central to the success of the studio. Although Illusions was made almost 30 years ago, the challenges that black women face in the film industry have changed very little.

Why? Because patriarchy pretty much rules. Hollywood is thought to be this liberal, diverse space that welcomes creativity and difference. The reality, of course, is that the film industry remains overwhelmingly white and male. Just this year, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing -- even though women have been making movies for more than 100 years. Dorothy Arzner, a white lesbian, and Eloise Gist, a black woman, were both prolific presences directing films during the 1920s. But despite this history, women filmmakers of any race have yet to experience the same levels of success as men. Today only 6 percent of films in Hollywood are directed by women.

Why? Two words: money and trust. Observes filmmaker and publicist Ava DuVernay, "Hollywood is a patriarchal structure that values men. Even in the independent film industry, you have to be able to convince someone, usually a man, to trust you with his money and that he will actually make it back."

Veteran actress Lonette McKee agrees. Hollywood, she says, is no different from corporate America, where women routinely bump their heads against a financial glass ceiling. Filmmaking is a reflection on society. "We live in a racist and sexist society. Why expect Hollywood to be any different?" She adds, "Hollywood is a good ol' boys' club, and black women are not privy to entrance, and that's a fact."

But while black women in Hollywood are finding the door to the old boys' club is locked shut, there's an interesting phenomenon at work: Black male filmmakers like Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels are able to get stories about black women from script to screen in a way that black female filmmakers have not been. Ironically, it is stories about black women that have catapulted both men into the studio system and superstardom. This is not to suggest that Perry and Lee have not faced obstacles. Of course they have. But more often than not, from Diary of a Mad Black Woman to Precious, they're the ones who are telling black women's stories on the big screen.

Click on the number 2 to continue reading or check out our photo gallery of unsung black actresses.

Gibbs' comments reflect the complex issues that black women filmmakers face when trying to get films about black women made. In this economic climate, Hollywood isn't taking very many creative risks. Stories about black women are thought of as risks because they do not "guarantee" success -- that is, make money overseas. (Meanwhile, Will Smith is the biggest international box office draw.) While other filmmakers, like Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow, get to make films that perform extremely well and some that do not, most black women do not get that type of leeway or the ability to grow as artists. Some blame the business model, but there's something else at work.

Gramercy Pictures' Something New (2006) boasted an all-black, all-female slate, from Moroccan-American director Sanaa Hamri to writer Kriss Turner to lead producer (and Hollywood studio veteran) Stephanie Allain. And it had the very appealing Sanaa Lathan as its star. But the movie grossed only $11 million, meaning that it underperformed in terms of box office receipts. Contrast that with, say, Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail (2009), which grossed more than $90 million at the box office. It stands to reason that Perry will be the go-to guy to make films about black women. It helps that he helps finance his films, too.

Still, others like indie filmmaker Tanya Steele don't buy the it's-just-business argument. "People's views of black people are so narrow. People argue that it's a business model. I don't think that's what it is. I think it's what people think that black people are. Enter Tyler Perry."