The entertainment industry, and cinema as a whole, has developed greatly since its start. Consistent with other labor markets, Black talent has historically been excluded from this field. Inclusion came slowly, beginning in the early 1900s. Since then, Black artists have been able to climb ranks and become household names within the industry. However, Black women unfortunately still struggle to be accepted within the film industry and—as a result—often don’t reap the accreditation and monetary gains consistent with their work.
This begs the question: is the entertainment industry really doing better now?
The inclusion of Black women in cinema began with the role of the seductress. As early as 1929, the roles Black women were able to play in cinema were scarce, often limiting them to portrayals involving seduction and being a one-dimensional sexual image. On the other end of the spectrum, Black women have also long been typecast into matriarchal roles. “When she is not a figment of male fantasy, she is a product of white female thinking.” In either case, the inclusion of Black artists in cinema began rooted from harmful stereotypes and pre-existing prejudices.
The origins of Black cinema are significant when discussing the working conditions of Black filmmakers and artists today. The roles Black actors are cast in have changed from the seductive and matriarchal characterizations of the early 1900s. Now, Black women are most likely to be cast as smart, and are depicted as “working in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) occupation [more] than other women of color and white women (14.3% compared to 9.6% and 9.6%, respectively).” Despite this one positive change since the introduction of Black women in film, negative stereotypes still run rampant. In family films, “Black female characters are more likely to be shown as violent than white female characters (29.3% compared to 24.6%) and twice as likely to be violent as other female characters of color (14.8%).” In addition to this, the legacy of the seductress lives on in the frequent hypersexualization of Black women in entertainment. “Black female characters are more likely than white female characters and other female characters of color to be verbally objectified by other characters in family TV (1.4% compared with 0.5% and 0.6%, respectively).” Overall, casting decisions and character development rooted in negative stereotypes have persisted over time, but continue to adapt as media and societal perceptions change.
While facing harmful and limiting stereotypes, Black women also have to bear the financial consequences of working in such an exclusionary industry. Within the labor market, for every dollar earned by white [non-Hispanic] men, Black women earn just 63 cents. This can be credited partially to high rates of inaccessibility to higher education, but also largely to the racism that occurs in many workplace environments. Women have a harder time climbing the ranks of the workforce, and this is even more true for Black women. This disparity becomes even more unnerving when with the knowledge that Black women have the highest labor force participation rate in comparison to other women (58.8% in 2020).
When focusing on the film industry, the aforementioned disparities can end up being overwhelming. Strides have been made in recent years to increase the demographic of Black creatives in the entertainment industry. Black actors comprise 12.9% of leading roles in cable-scripted shows, proportionately reflecting the overall Black population in the United States (13.4%). This percentage has evidently seen a great increase since the first inclusion of Black actors in the film. However, behind the scenes, the amount of Black creatives in the industry still do not proportionally represent the population, with only 6% of writers, directors, and producers being Black. As a result, many projects that Black actors are hired for are not created by—nor with the involvement of—Black talent behind the scenes.
When an actor or creative’s main source of income comes from their projects, it is important that those projects receive recognition in order to be promoted to wider audiences. This recognition is typically received through awards or accreditation from industry giants like the board of the Oscars. However, the board of the Oscars is 93% male, as well as predominantly white. With such executives deciding who receives recognition for their work in film, it is much more difficult for Black women to be recognized for their talents. With the rate of successful Black creativity in entertainment being as low as it currently is overall, it’s no wonder that Black women still face increased barriers pursuing careers in film.
In the entertainment field, underrepresented Black female talent usually earn less than their counterparts. This mirrors the data of the overall Black talent employed across many positions in the film industry as well as the labor market as a whole.
Edward Mapp, Ph.D., https://www.jstor.org/stable/41163796
Elizabeth G. Olson, https://fortune.com/2015/02/13/oscar-judges-diversity-academy-awards/
Mathilde Roux, MPP, https://blog.dol.gov/2021/08/03/5-facts-about-black-women-in-the-labor-force
Ninochka McTaggart, Ph.D., Vaness Cox, Ph.D., & Caroline Heldman, Ph.D., https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/rep-of-black-women-in-hollywood-report.pdf