America doesn’t have a problem with seeing black women on the small screen. Actresses like Annie Illonzeh, Lauren London, and Amber Riley are stars shining brighter with every new role. But if the black women we see on TV aren’t making us laugh or being incredibly sexy, then they’re just too real for television audiences to handle.
First HawthoRNe, the only television drama with a black female lead, got the ax from cable network TNT. Sure, the show’s ratings fell significantly from its second season, but in a crowded prime-time arena, the 3.3 million viewers it averaged is solid enough to warrant a green light for a network that has the resources.
Now, the latest slap in the face for black dramatic acting comes in the form of TV Guide choosing not to include Taraji P. Henson on its magazine cover featuring the cast of he new CBS show Person of Interest. Not only is one of Hollywood’s most notable black actors snubbed, but Henson, an Oscar and Emmy nominated actor, is the only female lead on the show. Surely, that should count for something.
If it’s not a problem of money, ratings or even race, then it’s gender. Looking back, the history of television points to James Earl Jones and his starring roles in Paris (1979) and Gabriel’s Fire (1990) as reference to black dramatic acting. It also highlights Bill Cosby’s co-starring role in the hit drama I Spy (1965), but Mr. Cosby is known best for his work in comedy.
Scores of other black males have had their runs, but when it comes to black women, Diahann Carroll is noted as the earliest success in a lead role, but her show Julia was not a drama, and after three years it too got the ax. Until Jada Pinkett-Smith and Taraji P. Henson came along, no black woman had been given such a grand television platform. Alfre Woodard, Ruby Dee, and many others have held lucrative supporting dramatic roles and guest spots, but they never had the level of authority that Pinkett-Smith did, or the post-Oscar exposure that Henson has.
The problem of being too real comes down to what characters appeal to the general audience. Socio-economically speaking, a black, lower middle-class woman is not what America wants to see. The character Christina Hawthorne was a black registered nurse and widow, and Henson’s Detective Carter is associated with the gritty NYPD. Both roles require the actresses to be de-glamorized, and therefore, they’re also undervalued.
Meanwhile, shows like Nurse Jackie and The Closer — which are similar to Hawthorne and Person of Interest in terms of target demographics, subject matter or lead roles – these shows are still going strong.
The cancellation of Pinkett-Smith’s show confirms that black women still don’t have the green light to be who we are, and Henson’s magazine cover snub solidifies the unfortunate skewed view of power on television. The sad thing is, Henson’s credentials far outshine those of her male costars, but even that’s not enough to re-arrange the Hollywood totem pole, is it? Clearly, it’s not enough to give a dramatic actress the respect she deserves.