Why do Black female artists still have to fight for respect in Hollywood?

Between history-making wins and thoroughly life-affirming speeches, Black women definitely took center stage at this year’s Emmys. And after a night like that, it’s whiplash-inducing for me to recall just how shabbily veteran actress Taraji P Henson and her co-stars were allegedly treated while filming the $100m Steven Spielberg-produced remake of The Color Purple.

Henson, a Golden Globe winner, spoke candidly to the New York Times about how much she had to fight for on the set of the Warner Bros film – not just for herself, but for all of the members of the hugely talented ensemble cast, which included Tony-nominated actress Danielle Brooks and Grammy-winning Fantasia Barrino.

“They gave us rental cars, and I was like: ‘I can’t drive myself to set in Atlanta.’ This is insurance liability, it’s dangerous,” Henson told the Times. “So I was like: ‘Can I get a driver or security to take me?’ I’m not asking for the moon.”

“They’re like: ‘Well, if we do it for you, we got to do it for everybody,’” she recalls. “Well, do it for everybody! It’s stuff like that, stuff I shouldn’t have to fight for.”

Henson’s outcry comes alongside a new report by USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative that found that the entertainment industry’s recent pledges to support women of color have amounted to little to no change.

The fact of the matter is that Hollywood simply doesn’t care about Black women. The industry still systemically disenfranchises Black female creatives, regardless of where they’re at in their careers – and they’re making no real effort to fix it.

This week, I was excited to see talented, dedicated Black women finally be rewarded for their contributions to television. (Quinta Brunson’s win for lead actress in a comedy is, embarrassingly, only the second time a Black actress has ever won in the category.) And while it’s easy to look at these individual success stories as signs of progress, experiences like Henson’s and the actual industry numbers paint a very different picture. According to the USC Annenberg report, only four women of color (3.4%) helmed one of the 100 top-grossing films of 2023. Three of those women were Asian, and one was Black.

And what’s the reward, you ask, when the “exceptions” find a way to accomplish these huge milestones? Just ask The Marvels director Nia DaCosta, who was the only Black woman to direct one of the 100 top-grossing films of 2023. DaCosta was subjected to a campaign of hate and online harassment by racist, misogynistic fans as soon as her involvement in the film was announced. And even as the pile-on continued post-production, Disney threw the MCU’s youngest and first ever Black woman director straight to the wolves, allowing false rumors about her conduct to swirl where they could have easily stepped in to defend her.

Yet as jarring as it is to read these accounts, know the numbers, and hear A-list female actors talk about having to fight for basic necessities like food and dressing rooms on the set of a major studio film, it’s also a shame to watch how the actual stories become overshadowed by these issues.

The new Color Purple has been plagued by rumors of a feud between Henson and co-producer Oprah, stemming from complaints about the on-set conditions. This type of distraction is as infuriating as it is predictable; just as we saw with 2022’s Don’t Worry Darling, the world would rather focus on the juicy idea of two powerful women supposedly feuding than look at the actual work that they’ve produced. (Oprah vehemently denies the rumors and Henson says she had the billionaire in her corner while fighting those battles about set conditions.)

It’s also not lost on me that while making a film about the strength of Black sisterhood, that very same traumatized solidarity found itself being reproduced on set among the women who were telling that story. According to Brooks, Henson was a “guide” and a “voice box” for the entire cast as they navigated the frustrating experience.

“I remember when we first came and we’re doing rehearsals, they put us all in the same space,” Brooks told the Hollywood Reporter. “We didn’t have our own dressing rooms at the time. We didn’t have our own food … [Oprah] corrected it for us … [Taraji] spoke up for us.”

In an industry where outspoken Black women are frequently labelled troublesome or difficult, Henson stuck her neck out to make sure that the people around her were taken care of, a risk she shouldn’t have had to take and a job she simply shouldn’t have had to do.

“The fact that I made it through [my career] is a blessing because a lot has happened,” she told the New York Times. This is a 25-year veteran talking. Henson is an Oscar-nominated star of film and TV, who’s produced some of the most memorable characters in pop culture, but who “was on the set of Empire fighting for trailers that [weren’t] infested with bugs”.

Henson and all the Black women who won big on Emmys night are who they are in spite of the Hollywood machine, not because of it. And for all of Black women’s accomplishments in entertainment, it’s tragic to think about what we lose when others less powerful than them are put through the industry wringer. It’s hard not to wonder how much richer our stories would be if Black women were allowed to thrive while telling them.

  • Tayo Bero is a Guardian US columnist

This post was originally published on this site