Entertainment

These Actresses Are Sick of Auditioning for the 'Negro Woman' Role

Only one kind of role exists for women of color in the “uncomplicated, guilt-free entertainment” of historical fiction: subordination.
May 11, 2017, 5:40pm
Screencap via Django Unchained

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The need for more complicated and human roles for women of color in today's film and television is pretty obvious—but for historical accuracy in period pieces, diversity is conveniently not a concern.

Period pieces are a great way to tell stories about past times and to see what life was like for those who came before us. It also happens to be the only genre that can credit women of color as "Slave Girl," "Field Slave (Big Daddys [sic] house)," or "Negro Woman" without scrutiny. By virtue of being set in violently racist times so different than ours, period pieces unearth antiquated and deplorable race relations in which white people are powerful and other, non-white people are not.

The historical-fiction powers that be seem to think it is imperative that women of color are represented as subordinates, according to several actors I spoke to about this story.

"Everybody is intent on staying true to the era," Jenny,* a Toronto actress, told me. "We can't have a black person in this particular region at this particular time in history playing something other than a disenfranchised person because that isn't true to the history we know."

"The role I went out for [in Murdoch Mysteries_] was a character who is a black woman who wants to be a doctor; so she's having a conversation with a white woman doctor who was all surprised like, 'You can read?'" she said, about an audition for Stephen Harper's favorite show. "It felt like _The Blind Side, but it took place in the 1900s."

Actresses of color who play racialized roles in period pieces are also frustrated that some realities can be rewritten but others—like, say, their dignity—cannot. "I had an audition for a recurring role on a show where Jason Momoa was the lead. I thought it'd be a kick-ass, Fast and Furious–type show or something like that, but then I read the breakdown. It was a period piece set in the 1800s, and I was auditioning for the role of the housemaid," said Naomi, another Toronto actress. "They were willing to suspend their beliefs that a guy like Jason Momoa, with his size, could exist in the 1800s, and I couldn't be a housemaid—like, there wasn't even Creatine back then!"

Aba Amuquandoh, a University of Toronto Drama student and actress, also feels exasperated by the unnecessary housemaid roles available to her. "I have seen [casting calls] for Othello and all the female characters won't be white, but then if they're casting for the maid, it's all, 'black.' Like, what the fuck? You're telling me she couldn't have a white maid?"

Period pieces do not only simplify and reduce black characters of the past, they also enable insidious implications in contemporary pieces. The white entertainment industry that casts black people in historical roles still perpetuates images of racial subordination, which normalizes and makes digestible images of angered, black, and enslaved women within contemporary versions of such stereotypes. Naomi said she once "auditioned for a role called 'Cynthia/Negro woman;'" Aba is "often cast as the more mature, wise kind of maternal character"; and directors have instructed Jenny to be "more sassy" or "put more swagga' into it."

"It's nice they're trying to include a character that isn't white into these shows and movies, but it's always very forced and stereotypical," said Jenny. "Couldn't they just spend that time creating a more interesting story?"

If period pieces do purport to create diverse narratives, they certainly do not do so for non-black people of color—who, according to Hollywood, still don't even seem to exist today. "I don't go out for [casting calls for period pieces]," said actress Isabel Kanaan. She has been encouraged to become acquainted with all kinds of casting agents but not to bother with the ones who work on period pieces like Reign or Murdoch Mysteries. To her, period pieces are "an excuse for Hollywood—or whichever company—to keep using the same actors that they always have. And there are [no roles] for Filipino women for some reason."

Jenny said, "It's a fantasy in which people do not have to consider anybody else. They fantasize about living in a romanticized Southern era, where they own slaves and sip Juleps. It was a simpler time where [white people] are the norm, and they don't have to question it. It's uncomplicated, guilt-free entertainment."

Everyone can agree that women of color need better representation today, but in film and television history, with the exception of Jason Momoa's enormous biceps, there's no room for rewriting roles. In period pieces, actresses of color must play their parts––even if it is "Cynthia/Negro Woman."

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

*Some names have been changed to protect identities, so they can continue to work.

Follow Celeste Yim on Twitter.

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