Knowing Your Role: Black Women’s Portrayal in Hollywood and Finding Their Place

With her recent Golden Globe nomination for her role in The Help, Actress Viola Davis has risen to being one of the most sought after black actress in Hollywood with several accolades including two Golden Globe nominations, an Academy Award nomination and two Tony Awards. She most recently garnered critical acclaim for her role in The Help where she portrays Aibileen Clark, a maid in Jackson, Mississippi. In a society where black actresses struggle to find work playing meaningful characters, what’s different about Viola Davis? Viola Davis has used her unique look and willingness to portray these unglamorous characters; characters that we all know and love.

Many black actresses over the span of recent history have achieved fame and fortune portraying roles that other actresses, both black and white, cannot. Cicely Tyson, who is most known for her work as slave Ms. Jane Pittman, Taraji P. Henson, who recently received an Academy Award nomination for her role as a maid in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Sanaa Lathan, who just wrapped her latest play in Broadway’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark playing Vera Stark, a maid who is also a promising actress.

In an industry filled with actresses looking for work and fighting for the same roles, there are several lanes where many of our favorite actresses fall — the beautiful bombshell such as Halle Berry, Paula Patton and Zoe Saldana, the sexy mother often played by Robin Givens, Taraji P. Henson, and Regina King or the sought after girl next door commonly played by Nia Long, Gabrielle Union and Sanaa Lathan. These black actresses and many others have found success in Hollywood playing specific roles, leaving a lane that few are willing and capable of accurately portraying.

While casting the characters of maids remain at the center of debates of how Hollywood views black women, these characters are just as important within stories as other characters. These characters should continue to garner recognition on the big and small screen because in Hollywood, knowing your role is just as important as playing your part.