Welcome to our newest series at Casting Networks, one that will feature people in different areas of the industry and explore their firsthand experiences of being Black in Hollywood. We believe that in order to evoke change, there needs to be understanding, which comes from sharing and listening. With that in mind, we’re starting the series with award-winning actress, singer-songwriter, and dancer Nondumiso Tembe. Known for her work in projects like HBO’s True Blood and the History Channel’s Six, Tembe agreed to sit down with us and share about her experience as a Black actor in Hollywood. Keep reading for her firsthand examples of why our industry needs to do better moving forward.
Thank you for being willing to talk about this topic and to have this conversation with me. To start, can you speak to what your experience has been like in the industry so far?
As a Black actor, I have to do my job just like everybody else in the room, but half of the energy that should be spent focusing on excelling in my craft has to go elsewhere. I have the added burden of constantly having to fight with writers, directors, or producers to fix a racist script or to keep my character from being portrayed in a way that perpetuates age-old, racist stereotypes. I have to explain why certain terms are racially offensive. And then there are the humiliating fights over why I deserve to have a hairstylist who understands my hair texture because White stylists are damaging my hair or don’t know how to work with it. The same goes for makeup artists. They may be obviously painting my face the wrong color, but then they’ll get irritated and defensive when I point this out, telling me to bring my own foundation and powder because they did not care to invest in a broader range of makeup that would cater to actors of all shades. Or how about when they hire a White stunt double to do your stunts, whom they put in blackface? And then when you report these things to the higher-ups, you’re often met with arrogance and dismissal. There’s this attitude that you’re hypersensitive or just causing trouble and being an inconvenience. You’ll be told that no one else has a problem with the hair and makeup stylists. Well, of course, because the other actors are all White. Then you’ll hear whispers like, “She’s so difficult.” Or you’ll hear, “Why does she always have to make it about race?”
I really appreciate your openness in sharing that. As someone who’s never had to experience that, it helps me understand.
You are constantly having to defend why you are standing up for yourself when you are the victim. And then there is all the internal work you have to do on yourself to heal your self-esteem, which has been damaged by years of racist, offensive comments casually made to you. Casting directors, producers, and even one of my own previous agents have said things to me like, “You’re pretty, but you’re not ‘Halle Berry pretty’ so you won’t appeal to a White male audience and are therefore not viable as a leading lady.” Oh! And I heard this one a lot early on in my career: “We love your look, but it’s a bit too ‘ethnic.’” That was often followed by “helpful,” coded suggestions on how to skew more White, like I should straighten my hair, use my “White lady voice,” change my name, etc.
It’s so important for industry members who are not members of the Black community to hear what you’ve had to experience. And where do you think the industry is going now?
Black artists are tired of having to beg for crumbs from the industry’s table when we are just as talented, qualified, and worthy of opportunities as our White counterparts. We don’t need anybody’s crumbs; we have already earned our seats at the table. And what you’re seeing now is a collective, courageous emboldening. We are no longer asking for things to change, to be more just and equitable. It is now a righteous demand because it’s the right thing to do and it’s long overdue.
What would you tell industry members who want to be allies in helping this change come about?
As artists and storytellers, our work is to reflect humanity back to itself and to steer people’s aspirations. We are the doctors of the human soul. We are healers and educators. The work we create reverberates in people’s hearts and minds long after they have consumed it. Therefore, we control a lot of the socio-cultural narrative and norms, and we must be responsible with our power. So I challenge White people in the arts industry who want to be allies to begin with one central question every time they’re part of greenlighting a new project. Ask yourself if the project will present images that reinforce racist, narrow-minded stereotypes that continue to normalize White supremacy. Or will it present images that reflect the true reality of our rich, diverse, complicated, and dynamic world? And yes, confronting these questions can be hard, but White people can stand to be uncomfortable for a moment. Because that is nothing compared to the discomfort we’ve had to deal with our whole lives. Starting the moment we walk out of our doors, we are assaulted by daily macro- and micro-aggressions on our dignity and humanity by an industry and a world built on our oppression, exploitation, and exclusion. So White people in Hollywood and the performing arts industry have two options. They can roll up their sleeves, pick up hammers, and help us knock down the walls of systemic racism and inequity. Or, they can get out of our way as we proceed to do so. But either way, those walls are coming down.
Tembe shared during her interview that she’s been encouraged by other Black artists speaking about their experiences. One recent example is how former Glee star Amber Riley opened up to Variety about the on-set racism she’s experienced. Like Riley, Tembe’s willingness to share some of what she’s seen and dealt with as a Black actor in Hollywood can help bring about understanding and change. And the actor pointed to a casting director who’s a positive example of allyship in that common goal. Jason Kennedy has been using his @kennedycasting Instagram page to highlight Black talent, an initiative Tembe discovered when she was featured in one of his #PromoteBlackActors posts. Tembe also recognized the people who paved the way for her in the fight for equality and representation. “I stand on great shoulders,” the actor shared. “We have made it this far because of the courageous disruption and leadership of the extraordinary, fearless Black artists who came before us.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.