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The plight of black women in Hollywood

Like black women everywhere, black women in Hollywood are at a profound disadvantage

Black Panther is now the most successful superhero film of all time and one of the most successful movies of any kind, ever. It has smashed box office records around the world, and single-handedly demonstrated to even the most cynical studio heads that overtly black storytelling can bring in the big bucks. But one thing it can't do by itself is fix the opportunity and pay gaps for black women.

These are problems with deep historical roots, and it's going to take sustained action on the part of audiences and filmmakers alike to fix them.

Like black women everywhere, black women in Hollywood are at a profound disadvantage. When it comes to pay equality, race exacerbates the disparity across genders, whether it's the discrepancy between women of color and men of color or between white women and women of color. As Viola Davis said: "If Caucasian women are getting 50 percent of what men are getting paid, we're not even getting a quarter of what white women are getting paid."

This goes way back — and is centered on how Hollywood historically restricted roles for black actresses.

"If you go back to the earliest days of sound film in Hollywood, the roles that were available for black women were painfully stereotyped," film professor Nic Sammond told USA Today. "You had people like Nina Mae McKinney and Ethel Waters who were incredible stars in their own right, slotted into pretty stereotypical roles."

This kind of prejudice occurred for decades, even if the stereotypes changed. In the 1970s, for example, Blaxploitation films rose in popularity and allowed for actresses like Pam Grier and Nichelle Nichols to take on roles that were more evolved from previous years — but they were still rooted in the time period's racist expectations of what black womanhood looked like. To take another example, the debut of The Cosby Show in 1984 created a ripple effect of black-led sitcoms that continued for decades, until most of these shows ended or were cancelled in the late aughts. But even in that perceived golden era for black entertainment, black actresses struggled to find roles that allowed them to portray black women as multidimensional.

This history of misogynoir — a specific form of sexism aimed specifically at black women — has had a cascading effect, not just restricting the kinds of roles black women play but the sheer volume of them, too. The result is that only 16 percent of major characters in last year's top 100 movies were played by black women.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, attorney Darrell Miller connected the paucity of roles written for women of color to Hollywood's pay disparity. "People of color concede [in negotiations] quicker because they infrequently get golden opportunities," he said. "The issue goes to the lack of diversity in the content being made. When there's more [opportunity], that shifts the ability to have real leverage for people who are fortunate enough to be there the one year they're making Black Panther."

For a recent, real-world example of how this plays out, take Mo'Nique's plight. The Hollywood veteran made public in January how Netflix offered her just $500,000 for her next comedy special; for comparison, Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle were paid $20 million each for their specials, while Amy Schumer initially received $11 million but later renegotiated for even more. In addition to the lowball offer, Netflix proposed a contract for Mo'Nique that included restrictive clauses that would have prohibited her from taking on other, more lucrative projects. And the reason they offered her this onerous, insulting deal is probably because they were pretty sure she had no choice but to accept.

That's why the only answer is more opportunity. The more opportunities there are for actors of color, the more leverage they'll have to negotiate and be paid the wages they deserve. But the roles must be complex, too; playing housemaids in The Help may have been an important part of pushing Spencer and Viola Davis to prominence, for example, but equally important is that Davis has gone on to play high-powered lawyers and complex wives elsewhere.

Creators, executives, and studios obviously have to step up. That's why it was so critical that Octavia Spencer shouted out her fellow (white) actress Jessica Chastain's efforts to achieve pay equality, eventually prompting the idea of an "inclusion rider" to take hold among other industry figures.

But it's also why consumer participation is so important. The studios need to feel financial pressure to change. It can start simply with consumers actively putting their dollars toward supporting projects that feature black women. Showing support on social media can be a catalyst too, especially during opening weekend, when an online wave can signal to a larger audience that a movie is worth seeing. If moviegoers turn out to support the projects that value equity, the front-end numbers will be enough to push even skeptical studio heads to open the coffers for more diverse projects.

The good news is that audiences are already beginning to push for more black-led projects. Fan demand and independent financial backing make for a powerful start. But for the industry to take the next step, there has to be sustained and enduring action.

Black Panther can't do it alone.

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