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Valley Perspective

Stereotypes in Film Versus Survival in the World

Negative images of African Americans do persist, but urging black actors and actresses to avoid such roles fails to address how they are to earn a living and practice their craft.

November 26, 2000|GLORIA HENDRY | Gloria Hendry is an actress who lives in Granada Hills

Oh, here we go again! Just like it was in the early '70s, except this is 2000: African American filmmakers and educators--including theater professor Lillian Lehman, producer Robert Hooks and actor Brock Peters--taking part in a forum at Cal State Northridge on 50 years of blacks in films and how the black stereotypical characters have not changed.

Although I most passionately agree with the thesis, there are many factors to consider.

For one, the African American actor needs to work to perfect his or her craft but there are only a few places where we can hope to be discovered or hired, and those few places do not pay: off-Broadway theaters that charge admission but provide no performance pay, with the exception of an occasional small stipend; waiter and waitressing jobs that require you to perform while serving the customer but pay only for serving; and community talent contests or productions paid for by the actor in hopes of being seen and hired.

In other words, African American actors, because of the nature of this business, are always in search of work for sustenance. Most African American actors do not make a living from their craft and most likely will not become major stars because roles are so scarce.

For the African American actress, it's even worse. We mostly work as extras, stand-ins, stunt persons and body doubles.

Actors face the same obstacles of day-to-day existence that every person does, plus a few others unique to the business: photographs of oneself to reproduce and distribute, acting, singing, dancing or other specialty classes, international travel in search of jobs.

Those who can uplift African Americans should. But asking why African American actors accept roles that do not uplift African Americans is asking too broad and too general a question.

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Looking back at 50 years of blacks in films should be to enlighten folks, rather than to scorn.

Over 50 years, black actors have performed extraordinarily because they have continued to exist throughout countless humiliations and atrocities. The stereotypical characters examined at the CSUN conference Nov. 13 were stepping stones for African American people to move into the social structure all over the world. For each time period, ask yourselves what those black actors must have thought and felt while creating those stereotypical roles.

Those of us who know our African American history should inform those who do not and tell them how remarkable we were and are, as actors and most definitely as a people.

I admire working African American actors who can choose their roles. But I know they are a rarity. The reality is that most have the opportunity to audition only once in a while and are offered a role hardly ever.

If you say to them, "Don't do those stereotypical characters!" then where does that leave them? It makes their lives impossible and pushes them to despair and self-loathing.

The shortage of work possibilities manipulates each actor's decision to accept whatever is before him. I wish this were not true. But I suggest that Lehman, Hooks, Peters and other African Americans educate actors as to how great we are and from whence we came, rather than frown on our birth into the film industry. Pride and respect for those roles will cause the stereotypes to change.

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