The last few years have brought about incredible progress for black actors – and writers and directors, for that matter – in entertainment. It’s not that the black community hasn’t long had an impact on cinema – rather that this impact has always been somewhat limited. For the most part, even the best of black actors have been kept in supporting roles in major films (with a few exceptions for the likes of Denzel Washington and Will Smith). And some of the most prominent roles and types of roles in Hollywood have been reserved almost exclusively for white male actors.
Again though, there’s been progress. Hollywood is changing fairly rapidly, right before our eyes. Creed, Black Panther (which may be nominated for Best Picture), and Moonlight (which actually won Best Picture) established Ryan Coogler and Barry Jacobs as two of our best current filmmakers, and helped establish entire casts worth of black actors. Get Out achieved one of the best mixes of entertainment value and critical acclaim in recent memory. Chadwick Boseman became our first black lead in a superhero movie, black women are on the rise in writing, and this year’s prospective Oscar contender list is full of films by, for, and involving the black community. I’m probably even leaving out a few things, but the big picture is pretty clear.
Even with all this progress though there remain those particular roles that seem to be reserved for white actors. In some cases this may not even be completely intentional, but it’s still somewhat glaring in an increasingly diverse cinematic world. And now that the glass ceiling has been broken regarding the superhero lead, it seems only natural to look to a few other types of roles in which there could still be a breakthrough on the horizon.
The Rom-Com Lead
Before anyone goes nuts on this idea, I realize there are plenty of black leads in romantic comedies. The only trouble is, they’re “black” romantic comedies. The films get their own category as if they’re a separate genre altogether. Nothing is wrong with making films that cater to a specific demographic, but it also speaks to the notion, whether right or wrong, that studios think a black lead might not sell a mainstream rom-com quite like, say, Hugh Grant or Ryan Reynolds. The one major counterpoint is Hitch, but as mentioned above, Will Smith is one of a few exceptions to this whole concept. It would be nice to see one fresh romantic comedy with a black lead and a surrounding cast that doesn’t lean one way or the other in terms of race or ethnicity.
The Historical Epic Subject
When it comes to historical epics, black characters tend to be either supporting characters, non-existent characters, or whitewashed ones. Off the top of my head, the most prominent black character in an historical epic I can think of is Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator, and he is very much a supporting character. For that matter, the same can be said of Jamie Foxx in the recent Robin Hood adaptation. Hollywood would do well to recognize that history is full of black heroes and significant black figures, not just with regard to subjects like politics, civil rights, sports, and music, but in the ages and places we’d consider “epic” as well.
I’ll save you the trouble of thinking through this one. In about 30-40 fairly well known films about gambling throughout history, there is nothing even close to resembling a black lead. Don Cheadle’s Basher in the pseudo-gambling flick Ocean’s 11 may actually be closest. Fortunately, this more than the rest may be a genre with some impending opportunity. The entire nature of poker and casinos is transforming on the go, with online casinos behind the change. People interested in these games now have to get used to online tournaments, understand bonus structures for deposits and payouts, and compete with unseen players, led by unseen dealers. It’s a whole new world, and one that this popular film genre has yet to explore. So here’s hoping they get to it, and with a black lead for once.
The Secret Agent
Here again, there tend to be black-specific movies rather than black leads in films aimed at a universal audience. Granted, the biggest secret agent role of all time nearly got passed on to Idris Elba, if internet rumors are to be believed, but the actor has since confirmed that he will not in fact be playing the part of James Bond. That part, following Daniel Craig’s tenure, remains open, so perhaps another black actor will land it. But if not James Bond, there needs to be another major secret agent taken on by a non-white actor.
The Teen Movie Lead
For whatever reason, teen movies appear to be almost exclusively white territory. This might be because some of the most famous teen movies are from decades past, when diversity wasn’t really a focus of studios at all (think Dazed And Confused or even 10 Things I Hate About You). Another reason could be that the widely idealized version of high school drama (see American Pie) just doesn’t speak to the experience of the vast majority of black people in the United States. In any case, we’ve essentially only seen black leads in teen movies that concern sports. It would be brilliant to see the next major film in this category feature a black actor in one of its most prominent roles.