A microphone is in the foreground of the photo, only the head is visible. Behind it, there is a stage with spotlights on it.

Black Women in Entertainment: Progress, Representation and Where We Are Going

By Caden Ziegler
Web Content Contributor

A woman in a pink dress standing on a stage with a microphone.
Jasmine Ellis performing at the Empire Control Room & Garage. Photo courtesy of Steve Rogers Photography.

Oprah Winfrey, Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis, Laverne Cox, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone are all names we (should) know. They are a handful of successful and persistent black women in entertainment. Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin were singer/songwriters and civil rights activist who lived through the era. Many people recognize them as having major roles in the feminist movement; however, Aretha Franklin said, “I don’t think I was a catalyst for the women’s movement. Sorry. But if I were? So much the better!”

All these women have made tremendous leaps and bounds for black women in entertainment since 1940, when Hattie McDaniel was the first black woman to win an Academy Award. That being said, there are a lot of hurdles that women still go through in order to make a name for themselves. These issues are more prevalent in fields such as acting, where roles for black women mirror a lot of the attributed stereotypes. Many black actresses talk about the roles they play in most movies; the wise mother figure, the hussy or the angry black woman.

Austin comedian Jasmine Ellis, a friend of mine, addresses the issues she’s faced while trying to pursuing her career in acting and comedy. Ellis is a national touring feature comic who performs at clubs and colleges all over and has also been featured in the Blue Whale, Cape Fear and Moontower Comedy festivals. She is the co-host of the Extra Salty podcast (which I absolutely adore), recently opened for SNL’s Michael Che, and is in the process of recording a comedy album.

Caden Ziegler: What setbacks have you encountered in your entertainment career that are related to your ethnicity?

Jasmine Ellis: It’s tricky because you don’t want to be a complainer… it’s veiled in a way that’s not in your face, like no one has ever told me ‘I’m not gonna book you because you’re black.’ It’s been more in the sense of knowing you’re doing well enough, knowing that you are funnier than a lot of your peers, and not getting booked on that level.

Like a club that mostly has… a black crowd with a black headliner, and that headliner either tells that club ‘I don’t want black openers… it’s a lot of the ones that point-blank period aren’t that funny, so they’re scared ‘if I go up after another black person, I won’t be as funny because they are probably a better joke writer than me because they are still hungry, going to mics, and still working— and me, I was on a TV show twenty-years-ago and I’m still coasting off that fame.’ I have seen it happen where some black comedians won’t allow black openers, but ultimately, it’s because white club owners make them believe that only so many of ‘us’ black people can do well at a time.

CZ: How has being a woman, more specifically a black woman affected your career?

JE: So, if you are a white man in his early twenties and you’re a little good, you will work your way up to feature so easily in my opinion. In this country, we see white as the default, and we see male as the default… when a white man gets on stage, everyone goes ‘that’s a comedian, let’s see if he’s good,’ whereas when I get on stage people they’re going ‘is she a comedian?’ I have hosted at comedy clubs and just absolutely killed it, and had people come up to me that go: ‘you were so funny, you could have been one of the comedians’ it’s like b**ch I was! Their brain didn’t even register they were experiencing comedy ‘cause they were like ‘a woman was talking so I just thought she was being funny.’ They were not conditioned to see past the idea that only white men could be funny.

CZ: How do you feel about the current representation and roles of black women in the media?

JE: “I think we have this culture in this country where everyone thinks black women are funny, but we are appreciated in a sidekick way, not in a way where we deserve the attention and spotlight. It’s gonna come off harsh but I’m just gonna say it: I think this is a cultural thing we’ve had for so long, where white is normal, white is the default. As a culture, as America as a whole, they think black people are entertaining and fun and temporary. Token, it’s because they believe that black women are inherently funny, however… we don’t respect that they are smart.

CZ: Is it rare to see a black woman in a role that doesn’t specifically call for a ‘black woman’?

JE: I was watching SNL the other day and I noticed they don’t really use the black girl for general girlfriend roles or ‘here’s a story about a woman.’ It has to be a black woman, and that’s again, a limitation. I’ve gone to these auditions that’ll literally say ‘seeking hilarious black woman with comedic talent’ but there will be no lines because what they want you to do is make a sassy face. When I see casting calls it’ll say ‘white, Hispanic, Asian, racially ambiguous, or other.’ That means they don’t want a black girl or, they don’t want a black girl that looks black.

CZ: What are your thoughts about the representation in Tyler Perry movies?

JE: Let’s talk Tyler Perry, here’s the thing: I don’t wanna s**t on anybody for something that brings them joy. Personally, I don’t enjoy a lot of Tyler Perry films. Tyler Perry has built an empire; it’s funny because it’s a black man dressed as a black woman because black women are the joke. And it’s even better to make them the joke when you don’t even have to look at them or see them.

It’s frustrating because for a long time… those were some of the only black films that were coming out and so it was like ‘who am I to poo-poo on this if it’s the only time I get to see a black lead?’ but we don’t need to silence representation, we need more of it. This is what I think if one of us has to represent all of us, we aren’t all being treated as equal, ‘cause white people don’t have to worry about that. When a white guy does something stupid that is ‘that guy.’

For example, the TV show Shameless. You would never see a show like it with a black cast because black people would be like ‘this is a terrible representation of us,’ but because white people have so many varied stories out in the universe. You get to see so many perspectives on white life each one gets to represent itself. The problem is, there’s so few [black] representations that each one has to be perfect and that’s not freedom. So, we’re not there yet. When we get to just represent ourselves, we’ll be there. You need variation, you need lots of different stories, and we’re getting there. I think we’ll get there— in my lifetime I think we’ll get there.”

CZ: What women do you look up to in the industry? Women that you think have made progress for the black community?

JE: I get excited just talking about who I admire, like for the longest time— and still now— I am a huge huge fan of Wanda Sykes. Her stand-up is so timeless and funny and relatable. She has a special called I’ma Be Me and that was one of the first specials I watched in its entirety that made me want to do comedy… It wasn’t dry, it wasn’t dead-pan, it was very honest… I love Wanda, I always will love Wanda.

I think Tiffany Haddish is a ball of energy, I think he’s so funny, she’s nice as s++t, she’s a genuinely good person. I like her a lot. I think Janelle James is fantastic, I love how dead-pans she is, she’s open and talks about depression, which you don’t hear a lot… I’m getting excited, ‘cause I feel like there’s a lot of new voices— Phoebe Robinson, I’m so excited about. She’s gonna be headlining Cap [Capitol City Comedy Club] in Sept. and I am fingers-crossed praying that I get to work with her.

I love I’m able to name so many people and I’m just scratching the surface. There‘s so many, it’s not like I’m intentionally Google searching ‘black female comedians,’ I’m just making myself aware and open to what’s out there, and I’m enjoying them a lot. There’s a lot of great people. What used to be the tone was that only one of us could make it at a time, and that’s not equality, you know what I mean?

Nobody says that John Mulaney can’t exist ‘cause Pete Holmes does. We are always open to the idea that there can be more than one when it’s a man, or when it’s a white person, but when it’s a black woman it was like ‘there’s one a time’ and I think we are just crashing through that and I’m excited for what’s next. I just want there to be more voices, more different styles, ya know? I love it.

Meeting with Jasmine Ellis was incredibly insightful and gave me a lot to think about. The next steps that we need to take as a nation are recognizing the plethora of voices and styles that are out there from the black community. We can’t have a token person of color and call it diversity. We need to recognize the variety of stories being told by these black women and men and let them speak of the multi-faceted lives that they live. It’s not a matter of having a person of color on a movie or a TV show, but rather letting their role be about more than just the color of their skin.

We can get to a place as a society where we stop restricting the voices of black women and men. We can stop checking off boxes to appease the masses and finally let people represent themselves, not an entire community. With all of the rising stars, we are closer to having true equality within the entertainment industry. We can’t truly get there until we support all of the wonderful and amazing black entertainers and give them the attention and respect that they have worked for so hard.

Featured image by Caden Ziegler. 

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