Actress Vivica A. Fox walked the red carpet at the “After Earth” New York City premiere to support her “Independence Day” co-star, Will Smith. Fox spoke with theGrio about her off-screen friendship with Smith, telling the interviewer the best advice she’s ever received from the action star is to develop a universal appeal devoid of racial barriers.
“Will Smith told me years ago when we were doing Independence Day to become colorless to people,” she said. “Yes we are African-American… that is who we are. But when people internationally can love you, trust you deliver a good film, trust you to save the world, it’s a good day.”
Smith’s advice seems rational considering his mega-blockbuster successes, but women of color in Hollywood don’t have the same luxuries he’s accrued.
Take Fox’s career for instance. She’s currently starring in the TV series “Mr. Box Office” and in the past “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — and has had roles in several high-grossing movies including “Kill Bill (Volume I)” and “Independence Day.” However, her filmography is full of films directed toward communities of color. “Soul Food,” “Two Can Play That Game,” “Booty Call,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “Juwanna Mann” and other movies she’s co-starred in feature predominantly-black casts and plots that resonate with the black community.
If we follow Smith’s method-of-thinking, it appears Fox hasn’t been cast in racially-transcending roles because she hasn’t convinced white audiences she’s harmless enough to entertain them. The 48-year-old actress is skilled in her craft. She’s humorous, relatable and full of remarkable talent, but casting directors see more than her extensive resume.
Fox’s race has contributed as much to her success as her hindrance.
Kara Keeling, an assistant professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, said that Hollywood has made progress in terms of race, but there’s more that can be achieved.
“On the one hand it is surprising that now we can all sort of identify with the black leading character whereas before the assumption was that it was only the white character that audiences could identify with” she told the Today Show. “That transformation is an important one. But at the same time the kinds of films that cause us to reflect and look more deeply at race relations, we’ve seen less of those.”
Several leading men in film are black Americans. Tyler Perry, Denzel Washington and Smith have dominated box offices and generated wealth and influence in the process. However, Keeling urges audiences to see their roles as more summer blockbuster-esque than progressive.
“It’s important to look at the kinds of roles they’re playing and the fact that — with the exception of Tyler Perry — they’re playing roles that don’t require any sort of racial consciousness,” she said. “They don’t bring a racial consciousness to bear on the story in a way that disturbs the audience.”
This is not accidental. Though directors like Antoine Fuqua insist racism no longer exists in Hollywood, women of color – with the exception of Halle Berry, Paula Patton and Zoe Saldana – struggle to gain footing in the acting business.
Developing a colorblind ideology in Hollywood will not persuade audiences to past race and embrace talent. Instead, it will further isolate black female actresses while insulating the privilege of whiteness within cinema. White actresses are never encouraged to achieve colorblindness with audiences because whiteness is the “the everyday, invisible, subtle, cultural and social practices, ideas, and codes that discursively secure the power and privilege of white people, but that strategically remains unmarked, unnamed, and unmapped in contemporary society” according to scholar Raka Shome.
Placing the burden of achieving colorblindness on actresses keeps the Hollywood structure from acknowledging how executives have discursively exiled black actresses – limiting the roles available to them or using them to reify controlling images like the jezebel, mammy and sapphire.
Critical media scholar Gwendolyn Foster views cinema as an institution that imposes “whiteness as a cultural norm.”
“Cinema has been remarkably successful at imposing whiteness as a cultural norm, even as it inherent instability of such arguably artificial binaries as male/female, white/black, heterosexual/homosexual, classes/not classes,” she writes. “It is as though the cinema has sought to hold up these binaries with an almost unrelenting fervor that insists on the definition of the body through performance.”
The binary of white/black in cinema protects the class privilege associated with whites in Hollywood. Films with black actors are considered “high-risk” in Hollywood. One box office flop can derail studios from releasing other films aimed at black audiences. This discriminatory-decision associates whiteness with success and value according to Leah Aldridge, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California’s film school.
“Hollywood frequently attributes the box-office ‘failure’ of a black film to its black cast and black narrative, hence ‘Black doesn’t do well in foreign,’ therefore we must limit the number of black projects and label them as ‘high risk’ ventures,” Aldridge told the Today Show.
“But when films like ‘New in Town’ (with Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr.) or ‘Surrogates’ (starring Bruce Willis) are whopping box-office failures, no one in Hollywood attributes it to its white cast. This is indicative of one of the ways racism operates in Hollywood.”
It is an error to assume a few tokens grants equal access to Hollywood. Racism still exists. It still matters.
Smith is in a position few actors ever are. He is in complete control of his career. His advice stems from a hierarchal privilege others, including Fox, have not achieved. So though his words to his peer are robust and encouraging, colorblindness won’t save black actresses from the racism of Hollywood.