Look at popular 70s flicks featuring Black actors. Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams. Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Even Pam Grier and the late Sig Haig (yes, he was Armenian but still a person of color) worked on numerous films together spanning two decades.
But that was then. Now, we have this little thing called social media that allows us to share (and sometimes, overshare) our feelings and thoughts. Now, when a public figure has a camera on them to record every word, body gesture, and surrounding events, it takes PR to another level. And it either backfires or creates a new discussion for social media fans.
Recently, the black gossip universe got an earful from veteran actor Taraji P. Henson about her treatment on The Color Purple (2023) set. According to her, everything from catering to pay to transportation was below par for the entire cast until Oprah Winfrey (or possibly, other powers-that-be) made it right. With an all-star cast, this sounds really absurd but from looking at the business aspect, it may not be so far-fetched.
It's About the Bottom Line
When Taraji's career catapulted from sitcom guest spots like Half and Half to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) in less than a decade, we were happy...for a minute. While she received an Academy nod for Best Supporting Actress, the disappointment came when it was revealed that her pay was barely a fraction of what lead actor Brad Pitt received.
At the time, the community mostly knew her as "Yvette" from Baby Boy and some forgettable supporting roles in a few urban flicks. However, the crossover certainly paid off, as Henson would later star in a few prime-time shows, including the Fox network's Empire. While this seems like it would translate into long-term notoriety for a Black actor, like everything else, we have to work harder in order to be considered equal to non-Black actors. And let's not forget gender bias.
We Can't Help Who We Know But...
While I don't think an actor's work should be judged by their personal life, this is also an industry where reputation is everything. It's also who we admit to knowing...and standing up for. Late last year, a message board topic titled "The Problem with Taraji" detailed all of the men she worked with. This list includes disgraced former manager Vincent Cirroncione (he also managed Halle Berry before he was convicted of sexual assault by former clients) and Jussie Smollett.
Now, we have fellow actors Vivica A. Fox and Academy Award (c) Mo'Nique chiming in about their experiences. While the latter appears to show full support for any POC actor who may be the underdog, Ms. Fox claimed it never applied to her. So what's her secret outside of those Lifetime movies? Possibly producer credits along with acting in the occasional urban flick and those car "insurance" commercials with Ice-T.
Off the top of my head, I can't think of any recent Matt and Ben-type collaborations in the Black acting community. There was once a time when Ice Cube and Mike Epps starred in a few flicks outside of the Friday franchise. While not as memorable (but less buffoonish) esteemed actors Alfre Woodard and Sanaa Lathan have starred in several successful projects over the years.
My question is during a time when money is funnier than ever, should POC actors be obligated to share long-term success secrets? While Ms. Henson has a hair care line sold exclusively at most Target stores and has a net worth of $12 million, should she change more than her management team? An exit plan because she may have overshared how unfair the entertainment business can be?