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Actresses of Color Who Deserve Better Careers

Gugu Mbatha-Raw had a GREAT 2014. Will the roles be there for her? (Photo by Paola Kudaki for Elle) Here's a topic always worth discussing. Actresses of Color who deserve better careers. I made a top ten on this topic many moons ago -- 2007 to be exact over at the old blog which went like so: Anika Noni Rose, Regina King, Naomie Harris, Hazelle Goodman, April Grace, Tonya Pinkins, Audra McDonald, Gabrielle Union, and the list was topped by Viola Davis and Kerry Washington. The past eight years were very very kind to about three of them -- this was before Viola's Oscar nominations and before Scandal for Kerry and before Audra's record breaking 5th and 6th Tony Awards), but others were ignored or their careers stayed roughly the same. Do people even know who Hazelle Goodman is anymore? It will always mystify that April Grace proved she could hold her own, charisma wise, with Tom F'ing Cruise at his most intense in a stand-off in Magnolia and not come out of it with a giant career. Hollyweird.

But the subject is always worth revisiting since Hollywood changes slowly. And, to be honest, it's even a topic that applies to white and blond actresses because Hollywood is not exactly a meritocracy. Make the wrong move here, miss an opportunity there, or don't have the right agent and all the talent in the world might not make for a big career. But back to the subject of actresses of color. Remember when Lupita was in discussions for Southpaw and eventually moved on (the part went to Naomie Harris)? Having seen the picture I think we can all now agree that there's zero reason on earth, plot-wise / character-wise / talent-wise why the juicier wife part couldn't have gone to Lupita (or Naomie) instead of to Rachel McAdams. Even when Hollywood discovers someone as exciting as Lupita they don't come up with opportunities for them, opportunities that are all around if you think about it; Maybe you've noticed that the industry makes multiple HUNDREDS of movies a year.

The topic is on my mind again because Dell on Movies made a list and A Fistful of Films countered with another. Naturally, I don't agree on all of the choices. I think Queen Latifah, for example, often phones it in. Maybe subconsciously she knows that her substantial charisma will smooth over the blank spaces? But there are some obvious YES situations here too: Q'orianka Kilcher (The New World), Adepero Oduye (Pariah), and Emayatzy Corinealdi (Middle of Nowhere). I actually wonder if their names aren't part of the problem. Hear me out: I don't mean this in a "too ethnic!" racist kind of way. I've noticed it a lot with white actors, too - especially with stage performers oddly enough. Names are getting SO long and complicated. It seems that "stage names" are a thing of the past but there's something to be said for refashioning your given name towards something that's catchy and easy for the public to remember / obsess over. If it's already catchy like "Lupita Nyong'o" just keep it but if it's hard to remember and difficult to spell why not make it easier for potential fans? Just ask Frances Gumm (who became Judy Garland), Archibald Leach (who became Cary Grant) or Natalie Zacharenko (who became Natalie Wood) and so on. Every once in a while someone new changes their name to something catchier -- did you know that Brie Larson is actually Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers? -- but mostly today's actors are keeping their original names. 

For what it's worth Emayatzy has a series regular role in Amazon's Hand of God starring Ron Perlman (as a businessman who starts speaking in tongues and seeing visions) and Dana Delany as his sharp wife that drops all of its first season episodes in early September. Emayatzy plays Perlman's mistress/prostitute. Pilot reviewed here.

I'm not in the headspace today for a full top ten on this topic but I know it would include Melonie Diaz (such a welcome presence - she always pops), Carmen Ejogo (so gorgeous and talented), Kimberly Elise (just brilliant and so infrequently works in movies), Danielle Brooks (so dependably engaging on Orange is the New Black and I want to see what else she can do), Adriane Lenox (who originated Viola's role on stage in Doubt to a Tony Award), Clauda Kim (Age of Ultron / Marco Polo)... maybe you can help out in the comments with your own? 

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Reader Comments (31)

Anna Deavere Smith!

I know she already occupies a professorial/elder statesman place in the TV/film/stage scenes. But based on her delivery of Sorkin (Nancy!) and her layered, unnecessarily memorable work in Rachel Getting Married, I'd love to see her in an actual vehicle. For her! Not for Edie Falco or whoever.

Preferably something someone else has written with a really dynamic director.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

You're absolutely right about the need of a stage name.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I know it's not enough, but Viola is a major breakthrough. Smart, likable and superbly talented. I adore Kerry Washington. Lupita is also likable but already undervalued, and she just won an Oscar. Maybe more programming like Sens8 will reflect and encourage diverse casting. The movies are getting increasingly tough for talented actors, period. If you are not under 40 and in a franchise, you have limited power except for the upper tier talent. I and millions of others will support a good film with diverse casting, however, so it's an issue of matching multicolor talent with a good story, along with a significant investment by a smart team with vision. My dream.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDowney

Rosario Dawson, who mostly does genre work, always brings pathos to whatever she does. I feel like she's one role away from truly breaking out.

Naya Rivera, who proved to be more than just a pretty face, somehow always elevated every scene she was in no matter how shitty the material in Glee.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTerry

I just wanna repeat your mentions of Melonie Diaz, who I adore watching in anything always, and Danielle Brooks, who has always been my MVP for Orange is the New Black -- she manages the careening shifts of tone of her character with total believability; Taystee feels as real to me as any person I know in real life at this point and I have no idea how she managed it.

As long as you brought it up how do you pronounce Emayatzy anyway?

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJason

The names matter, not just in length and difficulty in pronouncing it, if any, but also because many in Hollywood will immediately see the name as foreign and discount the actor altogether. There's no reason an open casting call for a female character based in New York named Michelle Thompson can't be filled by someone named Lupita, Emayatzy, Adepero or Q'orianka in real life, but let's be frank, that door is shut the minute their names are said at least some of the time because it's so distinctly 'other.'

And as for a name's length, I must respectfully say it's BS a lot of the time, unless the names Cho, Perez and Wen have suddenly become incomprehensibly difficult to pronounce. If people can wrap their tongues around names like DiCaprio, Cumberbatch, Sigourney, McConaughey, and Skarsgard, surely they can make the same effort towards Nyong'o and Corinealdi.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterF

Did we lose Nicole Beharie to TV? I don't watch her show so don't know if it's good. Also Adepero Oduye, Pariah should've done for her what An Education did for Carey Mulligan. Alas, at least she still appears on screens consistently.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

Regina Taylor should be a huge star. Yunjin Kim is an amazing actress, yet her Lost castmate Evangeline Lilley is the one getting big movie roles. There seem to be more opportunities for women of color on TV then in film at the moment.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

Each list on both sites are full of worthy women who just don't get the opportunities they deserve and they make good cases for each.

I agree completely about the stage names, I understand how some people feel that its the loss of their identity to work under a different name then their birth name and that if they're special enough people will learn how to pronounce their tongue twister of a name but for the most part they are deluding themselves. The truth is if they are truly extraordinary like Barbra Streisand that will happen but it's rare. The public doesn't want to work that hard.

Case in point: actor Zeljko Ivanek. I think he's a hell of a good actor and I've seen him in many things but when I see him I always think "Oh there's that actor with the name I can never remember and can't pronounce" To make this comment I had to look up his name! That doesn't seem a desirous situation.

A well chosen stage name aside from the ease of memory can enhance a star's persona if it matches their mystique. One of the best examples is probably one of the most cliche, Marilyn Monroe. Cliche or not the name suited her far more than her given name and conjured an image that matched the actress and helped her stand out in the public's awareness.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Murtada: Sleepy Hollow has gotten so bad that I wish it would get cancelled so Nicole Beharie could move on to better things. But she's also a black actress so how many opportunities would she have?

Speaking of Gugu, I'm so disappointed that the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie cast Emma Watson as Belle instead of Gugu. Instead she's gonna play the feather duster.

August 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Lorraine Toussaint.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Hollywood does not commission racially neutral scripts for women. When Hollywood says it has nothing for nonwhite actresses they mean it in the literal sense. Only Whoopi Goldberg and Latifah are the exception to the rule where they actually rewrite scripts originally conceived for white actors.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Re: Lupita, I am not convinced she is not a one trick pony yet. I need two good/great performances by an actor before I can conclude. It's possible she's sucking in auditions. Gugu we already know is great in two very different performances plus she is hot as hell, so if she doesn't line up some great roles/films over the next year or so we'll know something it truly fucked. I second the Rosario Dawson mention - I always felt like her career should be so much bigger.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Re: names.

Frances Gumm and Norma Jeane Baker would not have been hard to spell, pronounce or remember--they just didn't meet some studio flack's idea of movie star glamour. I love the names that these actors made famous, but it's ridiculous to think that their given names wouldn't have become suffused with mystique had they not changed them (see Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Dustin Hoffman, Mary Elizabeth "Sissy" Spacek, Mary Louise "Meryl" Streep).

As for Slavic, Asian, Scandinavian and African names, I have difficulty with them myself (Cho, Kim, Wong, Li/Lee etc. excepted, of course), but it galls me that in 2015 an actress' or actor's name would still have to cater to some 20th Century WASPy all-American standard to ensure success.

Meanwhile, three cheers for Mahershala Ali, Željko Ivanek, Gugu Mbatha-Raw...and Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal...who kept their names and keep working.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

When ethnically diverse actresses are struggling in film in tv and on stage we have women like Audra McDonald, Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson proving that if given the opportunity they can rule television. There are too many actresses to list who deserve more opportunities then they're getting and sadly I don't see things changing in my time. However with the success of shows like Empire and Black-ish featuring all African American leads and a broadway show like Hamilton being a major success with a multi diverse cast and created by a none white guy. Really it comes down to people seeing these project where non white actors/actresses are heavily featured for us to see more.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

I never get what American mean when they talk about people of color. I thought this post was about African American actress, but Kilcher is Native American, right?

If Asians are included, I just want mention Tang Wei, who was born to be a superstar AND a brilliant actress, and just made a sensational Hollywood debut in Blackhat.

Of course the movie tanked (in spite of being so good), but anyone who saw that can tell she has all it takes to crossover.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I agree entirely with Paul Outlaw re: names. If we can't remember a non-white, non-Western (or Westernised) name, that's our problem - it shouldn't become the actor's problem.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Paul -- that galls me too. I don't need names to sound WASPy. I just think that, if even your fans have to look up your name and its spelling every time they want to mention you that that's a detriment. Every single time I have typed Emayatzy Corinealdi (except oddly right now --- maybe i have finally learned it ), or said it aloud, I've had to look up the spelling or think i might be saying it wrong. I loved her in Middle of Nowhere. I've only seen one episode of Hand of God but I hope she's great in that too.

FWIW I actively hate "Benedict Cumberbatch" as a stage name. Blech!

Some white people on Broadway currently that have mystifyingly chosen to keep their given names from recent playbills: Alysha Umphress (love her but i always get it wrong),, Attila Joey Csiki, Stephen Christopher Amthony (three first names, really? I actually have seen about 15 other people doing this. TOO MANY), Amra=Faye Wright, Brooks Ashmanskas (who is always great), I mean i could literally do this all day. I MISS STAGE NAMES!

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Paul -- that galls me too. I don't need names to sound WASPy. I just think that, if even your fans have to look up your name and its spelling every time they want to mention you that that's a detriment. Every single time I have typed Emayatzy Corinealdi (except oddly right now --- maybe i have finally learned it ), or said it aloud, I've had to look up the spelling or think i might be saying it wrong. I loved her in Middle of Nowhere. I've only seen one episode of Hand of God but I hope she's great in that too.

FWIW I actively hate "Benedict Cumberbatch" as a stage name. Blech!

Some white people on Broadway currently that have mystifyingly chosen to keep their given names from recent playbills: Alysha Umphress (love her but i always get it wrong),, Attila Joey Csiki, Stephen Christopher Amthony (three first names, really? I actually have seen about 15 other people doing this. TOO MANY), Amra=Faye Wright, Brooks Ashmanskas (who is always great), I mean i could literally do this all day. I MISS STAGE NAMES!

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nat: who can (without checking) correctly spell/pronounce the last name of the Best Actor Oscar winners for The Artist, Lincoln and Dallas Buyers Club? ;-)

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

@ Cal Roth: Tang Wei was awful in Blackhat, completely uncomfortable and out of her element. Zero chemistry with Thor. You're the first one I know who's liked her performance in that movie. She's unforgettable in Lust Caution, though.

I've loved Naomie Harris ever since I saw her play a film buff/Rainer Werner Fassbinder nut in Tristram Shandy. That's my kinda woman! I love her so much. She kicked ass in Miami Vice, the best part of that movie. And she's brilliant at scene stealing - she was totally the MVP of both After The Sunset and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. And she was just wonderful in August, a very little seen indie film, opposite Josh Hartnett.

The part is beneath her, but she's Moneypenny in the biggest franchise in the world. So she's doing okay, but off course she deserves to get bigger / juicier parts.

I'm completely convinced that Lupita is a one trick pony; I never responded to the trick in the first place, but the world did. Let's see how she does from here on out...

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

It's so hard for actresses of color, even the ones who fit the typical standard of Euro-centric beauty more than others (see: the sensational Lonette McKee). I'm so glad so many of the names that came into my head have already been said, especially Nicole Beharie. She did a lot with so little in Shame and it's a shame that she's stuck with Sleepy Hollow. That's one thing I can really appreciate about Orange is the New Black, but it's kinda sad that a show about women in prison is what it took to get meaty material for so many talented actresses of color.

Some names I don't think have been said yet: Tessa Thompson, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Aissa Maiga, Gina Torres, Gong Li, Regina Hall, Sanaa Lathan, Michelle Yeoh, Shohreh Aghdashloo, America Ferrera, Adriana Barraza, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Zhang Ziyi, and Lynn Whitfield just to name a few.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

can this blog also make a topic for asian actresses who deserve more recognition because there are ALOT. like gong li probably gave the 5 best performances from an actress of any nationality back in the nineties and she's still best known for miami vice.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commentermarlon

Yeah, but Gong Li was awesome in Miami Vice, too

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

There is something very wrong when Debbi Morgan could not create a film career from Eve's Bayou.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Any actress with a name like "Gugu" should automatically be a star. I'd love to read that name on every poster.
Not kidding, also she's really talented. I hope the future's bright for her.
(same with Fan Bingbing.... I don't know her, but I already love her name.)

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

I just would like to say that Viola Davis should be getting much better roles in movies. Stuff like Won't Back Down, and Lila and Eve, among others, are so beneath her talents. I just wish someone would write her the roles she deserves. How to Get Away with Murder is definitely a guilty pleasure, and she elevates the material massively, but it's not nearly enough. Hollywood wake up now!!! The same goes for Lupita, Adepero Oduye, Gugu, and so many others. Don't sideline these talents. It's such a waste.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRenton

@brookesboy: I couldn't agree more. She's amazing in that movie!

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Danielle Brooks, who I totally agree with everyone else is really fantastic on OITNB, is going to be in the Broadway remount of "The Color Purple" in the Oprah part, so that's pretty great.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Adepero Oduye was stellar in Pariah but pretty awful in 12 Years.

I agree with most everyone people are saying but for me, Lorraine Touissant is one of the top actresses. The fact that she's not even nominated for the Emmy she should be winning upsets me.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Vicki Lester!

I miss stage names too. We've got two topics going on here, and I won't even attempt the other one, but I agree quite a bit with Nathaniel on Stage Names. I see absolutely nothing wrong with them, and they often focus people's attention on the performer.

Take Doris Day. Short, alliterative, and matches her personality perfectly without being as silly as Susy Sunshine or something. She probably would have been successful as Doris Von Koppelhoff (or whatever it was) but not nearly as much.

Same goes with something like Ice Cube. Sure it's inherently ridiculous but instantly memorable. And kind of intriguing.

There are names like Barbra Streisand that are only "difficult" in one syllable. I"m not sure if it really counts. And "foreigny" sounding names like Yul Brynner but there aren't that many ways to say the name so it makes people feel smart to be able to say it.

And there might be a reason that someone like Viola Davis or Kerry Washington makes it a little bit further - the casting director doesn't risk looking like a fool when s/he pitches the name to the director.

August 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

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