When I saw that Nia Long was a trending topic on Twitter, I thought either A) she died or B) she and Larenz Tate were going to do a sequel to Love Jones.
Neither was true. But what was happening was even more compelling. Beyoncé was getting called out for her “acting” skills. In an interview with a British magazine, Long summed up the sorry state of affairs for black actresses in Hollywood in a couple of succinct and unflinching sentences. “I didn’t see ‘Obsessed,’ so I can’t comment, but it’s just not about how talented you are anymore,” Long, who was last seen on the big screen back in 2007 on Are We Done Yet? with Ice Cube, told Pride, a black online magazine based in the United Kingdom. “It’s about, ‘How much box-office revenue will this person generate?’ When you see certain people—we won’t name names—they just don’t have the skill, and no one in their team has said, ‘You need acting classes.’ If you’re a singer not an actress, you should sing. If you’re a rapper, you should rap.”
What a mouthful. Twitterers had to add their two cents, saying: “this is the most press Nia Long has had since Boyz in the Hood.” True. I’m a fan of old-school Nia Long, Mom jeans and short ‘do on Fresh Prince, “blues in your left thigh, trying to become the funk in your right” Nia Long. Yeah, that was way back in the ‘90s.
And this Tweet rang true, too: “damn, black folks be so quick to defend beyonce.” (Beyoncé fans, stand down!) But as great of an entertainer as she is, Ms. Knowles seems to be hands-off when it comes to constructive criticism, whether or not she is being called out. Above all else, like much of today’s television, it’s hard to find black women with any range in leading film roles; there are neither new faces with talent nor familiar faces with experience—because industry heads are worried about how many butts they can get in a theater’s seats.
For “Nina Mosley” to show up on Twitter as a trend, it seemed like we had stepped back into 1997. Long was hot in the ‘90s, while she was starring in every other film with a black ensemble cast. From cult classics Boyz n the Hood and Friday to romantic comedies Love Jones and The Best Man, she was the girl next door turned ooh-sooky-sooky-now on-screen beauty. But at the turn of the century, the film roles for Long, and other young black actresses who were not Halle Berry (Gabrielle Union, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun, among others), were often playing the same tired character.
Eventually, being able to act wasn’t a requisite to star in a film. Singers-turned-actresses-playing-singers—Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls; Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (1992), cashing in at $410 million worldwide; Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), heralding five Oscar nods, including best actress in a leading role—served well for Hollywood’s bottom line. But this is what they do; they sing. And that’s why we love them.
And Beyoncé is a prime example. Earlier this year, she co-starred in Obsessed and brought a mainstream name to a film that otherwise could’ve went straight to DVD. Instead, Americans spent more than $28 million in its opening weekend, pushing it to No. 1 at the box office. Who wouldn’t want to see Ms. Knowles drop-kick a homewrecker? Folks didn’t flock to the movie theaters for the plotline or her acting abilities—we know how the story goes, and we know she can’t act. (See Carmen: A Hip Hopera, The Fighting Temptations, shoot, Dreamgirls, too.) But the name Beyoncé was enough—yeah, we all know who she is, now let’s see what she can do, without the seemingly painted-on, sequined bodysuit and the mic in her hand.
But these are all my words and thoughts—Nia Long didn’t explicitly call Beyoncé out. But I have to give it to her for being honest about the state of black Hollywood. A dose of reality and constructive criticism is pitch perfect for an industry based on keeping up appearances and selling out theaters. We need more Nia Longs to step up and be real. Because the best performances should be saved for the big screen.
Erin Evans is a copy editor and writer for The Root.