I have created a new mathematic equation; I call it The Black Actress Tragedy Index. You take the number of Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys that a black actress has been nominated for and you divide that by the number of years between her most recent nomination and her first appearance in a film written or directed by Tyler Perry.
Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with black actors, especially the ones who spent their formative years studying Shakespeare, Chekov, and August Wilson instead of learning how to rap or tell jokes. Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with women, especially women over forty who don’t do gratuitous nudity and aren’t guaranteed the cover of Vanity Fair the month of a movie’s release. So for black actresses over forty who don’t sing or show their tits, Hollywood can be a tough row to hoe.
And yet, while America slept, Viola Davis earned two Oscar nominations in four years. The first for going head to head with Meryl Streep on screen and with her second, she went head to head with Meryl Streep in the Oscar race. With the exception of the Motion Picture Academy, just about everyone thought Davis would win, including Streep herself.
I hope two Oscar nominations for Viola Davis means a long and fruitful career. I hope two Oscar nominations for Viola Davis means she never has to be the black judge on an episode of Law & Order. I hope two Oscar nominations for Viola Davis means she never has to play the bougie black woman with the abusive, dark skinned husband, who falls in love with the light skinned bus driver in a Tyler Perry movie.
But I know that Oscar nominations guarantee nothing. If I was Viola Davis, I’d have Angela Bassett on speed dial. Not for nothing, but I’d love to see a remake of Thelma & Louise with Viola Davis and Angela Bassett, but instead of robbing banks like Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, they’d be in a drop-top caddie on a pilgrimage from Atlanta to L.A. to scatter Danitra Vance’s ashes on the “Y” in the Hollywood sign.
But I remain optimistic. Not only have we seen two Oscar nominations for Viola Davis in recent years, but a nomination for Gabourey Sidibe, and wins for Octavia Spencer, Mo’Nique, and Jennifer Hudson; four thick sisters, all browner than a paper bag. Looks like the red carpet is going to have to get used to women of color, women of size, women with kinky hair, and polyamorous women who don’t shave their legs.
Perhaps we’re on the slow road to change, which is a good thing. After all, the only person who benefits from Hollywood’s inability to create challenging roles for black actresses is… Tyler Perry.