Two years ago, when Vanity Fair put an all-white roster of actresses on the cover of its Hollywood issue, I wrote that I actually couldn’t be irritated by the decision, because “honestly, this feels like a pretty accurate representation of non-white women’s actual position in Hollywood.” Non-white men, too, of course.
This year, however, the magazine managed to put not just one, but three black actors on the cover, and to include a total of six non-white actors in a spread that includes twelve people (a larger image of the full spread appears here):
That’s an appropriate reflection of a year in film that provided many very good roles for black actors, thanks to the hard work of talented black writers and directors like Ryan Coogler, Steve McQueen, and John Ridley.
I agree with Shani Hilton, who, writing at BuzzFeed, reminds us that “2013 is not the first ‘breakout’ year for black filmmakers. There have been several years that featured a multitude of successful, acclaimed films starring and/or created by black people — Boomerang and Malcolm X and Juice in 1992; Hitch and Hustle & Flow and Are We There Yet in 2005. And before that, 1984. And 1985.”
We’re in a place in Hollywood, and have been in a long time, where films by black writers and directors, and films about terrific black characters, can force themselves into cinemas like solar flares, providing forceful reminders of what’s so often missing from our multiplexes. The question is how to wrench the entertainment industry beyond the idea that such projects still need to prove their viability, that black filmmakers and black actors are still somehow an experiment where the results are not yet in. Visual reminders that Idris Elba’s elegance and charisma can keep pace with George Clooney’s, or that Lupita Nyong’o is absolutely dominating awards season fashion coverage for a reason, is a very small contribution to dismantling the exceptionalism that’s cost us so much. But it’s a contribution.