This week Variety assembled a group of Black actors to discuss the current state of Hollywood and what the path forward looks like as BIPOC are emboldened to call out the bullsh-t in workplaces across North America. Jay Pharoah (Bad Hair), Derek Luke (13 Reasons Why), Chris Chalk (Perry Mason), Aldis Hodge (City on a Hill), and Algee Smith (Euphoria) discussed their experiences in the industry, and what change might look like.
Last month, Pharoah opened up about an encounter earlier this year with LAPD officers who drew guns on him and kneeled on his neck because he fit the description of a Black man they were looking for: grey shirt, grey pants. Now he tells Variety, he plans to bring his wrongful detainment to his stand-up comedy.
“I was apprehensive, at first, to say anything about it just because of the severity of the other situations in America where Black people have lost their lives and I didn’t,” he says. “It’s a message, that if I can get it out to somebody, to one person, maybe I can help and give some perspective and break some barriers, I have to talk about it. I do. It’s hard to find punchlines in that pain, but I’m finding punchlines in them.”
How do you guarantee people are laughing with you and certain people aren’t laughing at you? I’m sure Jay’s not the only comedic mind trying to find the funny in these incredibly unfunny times. Last month, Dave Chappelle dropped a surprise stand-up special, but as Sarah said, that wasn’t really comedy, as much as it was Chappelle working through the recent events in America.
It’s going to be interesting to see what stories and what kind of storytelling come out of 2020. We’re already seeing pandemic programming. HBO ordered a comedy from Issa Rae, Bette Midler and Sara Paulson, and that totally makes sense. You’re not laughing at those who’ve lost their lives from COVID-19, you’re laughing at the idiosyncrasies of a person in quarantine. I’m not sure how Jay will find a standup bit from police killings, but I guess he can specifically speak to his own experience with police brutality and not the tragic deaths of others. I should give him more credit, Black people have been finding ‘punchlines in the pain’ for centuries.
There’s no doubt dramatic scripts are furiously (and earnestly) being written right now, inspired by the past three months of BLM. But is there really a need for a wave of that kind of content? Fatigue over seeing Black pain on screen was already setting in before the killing of George Floyd changed our social climate forever. When the trauma of Black bodies being slain is on the news everyday, it doesn’t need to be in the cinemas too. People are already receiving the message. Let’s not make movies about police brutality become the next shiny token the Oscars are willing the recognize. The Black experience is far more diverse than maids, slaves and police brutality.
Algee Smith, who starred in two of those types of projects in recents years: 2017’s Detroit, which depicted police abuse at the Algiers Motel in 1967, and 2018’s The Hate U Give, inspired by so many stories of murder by police during a traffic stop, is now telling Variety that he doesn’t regret those roles, but he’s done telling those stories.
“I realize that it was educating, and it was cool to do,” Smith says. “But I want to see more roles where my little brother can look up and see a doctor or he can look up and see any type of role that we see anyone else play.”
Speaking about the path forward for working actors, a lot of the guys stressed the importance of the hair and makeup department. Chris Chalk told Variety, Hollywood has received the message that they’re messing up Black women’s hair, but when it comes to men, they think they can handle it. He describes one incident with a white hairstylist on a TV set, in which he was a series regular.
“She tapped it, sprayed some water, didn’t brush it, didn’t comb it and left.”
Aldis Hodge stressed you don’t have to be Black to proficiently work on Black clients, but it’s about lack of experience and training, and he’s had many run-ins with hairstylists who just didn’t know what they were doing.
“You got to sit there for hours, [with] somebody playing in your hair and making you look all the way jacked up, and then you got to go on set, worrying about how you’re looking, or a makeup artist does your makeup, [and] your face is different than the rest of your body, mentally, what does that do to somebody who’s trying to do their job?”
When I moved to Toronto and was trying out new barbers, one guy was halfway through cutting my hair when he admitted he doesn’t often get a chance to cut textured hair, so it’s good experience for him. That set alarm bells off for me. A few minutes later he had to ask another barber for advice on how to continue my cut. I haven’t been to a white barber since, and I’m mixed race, so if you’re struggling with my hair I can only image how you would fumble working on hair with much more texture. I guess in school, they only practice on one type of hair. A lot of the actors told Variety, they end up taking on the burden of paying for a separate barber and visiting them in their off-hours.
Imagine showing up to your dream job every day and constantly being reminded that you’re not as important. If you were, then your co-workers would be setting you up for success in the same way they're lifting your white co-stars. Black actors need people in the writer’s room crafting layered characters that reflect their community just as much as they need people in the makeup trailer who have their correct shade of foundation and know what techniques work on darker skin tones, so that they can make their performance their only priority, just like everyone else.
Click here for their full conversation.