Until recently, Hollywood offered only a handful of roles to actors of color. The majority of my opportunities have fallen into two categories: Scary Black and Funny Black. The scary parts are when I'm asked to become people my grandmother told me to avoid when I was growing up: generic cameos usually named "Thug #1" or "Gang Member #3." These names tell me they're not characters but criminal stereotypes lined up by the number. And on the comedy side, for some reason, there is one significant black comedy star every decade. Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle is a great representation of this. In the 1987 film, there's a scene in which 10 actors are waiting to audition for the part of "an Eddie Murphy type." They're literally dressed as Murphy, practicing his laugh, repeating the phrase "Murphy-esque" to themselves. It's a hilarious indictment especially because the life of black actors today is not so different from that scene. Everyone is asked to approximate how that famous actor would play a role while also being asked to "be yourself."
In both situations, I'd usually get feedback about how I was not right for these roles. It's accurate. I'm not right. I'm not a criminal. I don't look like one or feel like one. I'm also not that specific other funny person. I end up being told what I am not as opposed to what I am. Unfortunately, these are the roles available. It's a frustrating conundrum to be told repeatedly that your blackness is not the blackness that anyone is interested in seeing, especially when this is your livelihood.
Right now we're in an environment in which the industry has begun exploring different options for actors of color. Shows like Empire, Black-ish, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder are expanding viewers' perspectives on what people of color can be like. They're showing more range. They're showing more diversity within diversity. The characters on Empire wouldn't be caught dead with the characters from Black-ish (and vice versa). But they all exist, and are all given room to explore, to expand, and to show why these characters are these characters. The responses to these shows prove that audiences see people of color as more than two things. And everyone is surprised. Therefore, suddenly we have an "ethnic casting craze."
I'm about to be on a Netflix original series, Grace and Frankie [launching May 8], playing the adopted son of Lily Tomlin's and Sam Waterston's characters. Thanks to this so-called "craze," I've managed to land a part that normally wouldn't have existed as an option for black actors. My character, Bud, was adopted from Africa into a Jewish-American family and was described as identifying "more as an American Jew than an African man."
Since Bud was such a unique character, the normal preconceptions weren't thrust upon the actors auditioning. The show producers and writers weren't looking for black actors to play a stereotype. They didn't know exactly what they wanted, thus they were receptive to various ideas. Adopted black Jew? Open for interpretation. In this instance, I didn't feel I was being compared to what I'm not; I was being seen for what I could potentially be. I wasn't being forced to conform to some false notion of blackness; I was asked to be a character.
This so-called craze isn't a craze. It's a tide. The tide changed. And the tide will change again. What's unique to me about this particular time is that the four shows mentioned above are mainstream network shows with people of color in leading roles AND are huge hits. That means it's not just black people watching these shows. Yes, shows like these have existed in the past. Off the top of my head, there's The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, Family Matters, Martin, Living Single, 227, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son. But there were fewer channels. In the past, when there's been a wealth of these show on air, I believe shows with similar casting weren't being developed. So when they all went off, there was a seemingly sudden dearth of color on color TV.
But now more channels mean more opportunities for representation. Many shows are being developed on many platforms from many perspectives. It seems that people are tired of everyone looking the same on television. And this seems especially true for white people. Even white people are tired of watching the same white people. That's why we've been importing them from Australia.
When it comes down to it, this is a handful of shows. Shows that can accurately be defined as "a few." A few shows is not a craze. I see even fewer shows from a Latino perspective. I see fewer shows from an Asian perspective. And Asia is a GIANT continent. Japan is Asia, Saudi Arabia is Asia, and boy, is there a lot in between. So until I see 20 shows from each of these perspectives, perhaps people should back off on the hyperbole. Now excuse me while I prepare this audition. It's for "Black Republican #2."
Upcoming "Grace and Frankie" star Baron Vaughn is a comedian and actor who has performed stand-up on "Conan," "Jimmy Fallon," etc. He has appeared on television and in films such as “Black Dynamite” and “Cloverfield.”
Contact Baron Vaughn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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