I'm a Commercial Actress and I'm Constantly Being Told I'm Not "Black Enough"

We are a brown blur, a coded caricature painted in broad strokes where we are all “sassy” and “urban” and cannot simply clean the kitchen floor without finger-snappin’ and mouthpoppin’ at our appliances.
Publish date:
December 12, 2012
race, acting, stereotypes, black women, commercials

I’m not black enough. Crap.

This is my prevailing thought as I sit in the waiting room of a prominent casting director’s office. I’m waiting my turn to read for a role that was specifically described as a “black woman” in the Holy Grail of Paycheck Jobs, the National Commercial.

This is a particularly nice office, and it’s no “cattle-call” scenario. Despite the funsy visual clichés of your favorite movie about showbiz, when union jobs on network television are on the line, auditions are actually quite a civilized affair with a small number of individual appointment times and kind casting personnel.

I am doubting my own blackness not because of pre-audition jitters or an overall lack of confidence -- I enjoy auditions and although nerves do sometimes pop up, I can usually handle it. What I find I cannot handle is another futile session of trying to approximate the grotesquerie of what mainstream television advertising seems to think a black woman is.

Especially not when she is sitting right across from me.

There she is, seated in this very waiting room: an actress whom I’ll refer to as Recognizable National TV Commercial Queen, visible-wig-line and all. I had never encountered her in the flesh before, but I’d seen her ads. I generally try not to count other people’s money, but her many TV spots flashed across my mind in rapid succession and culminated in an image of her swimming Scrooge McDuck-style through her residuals, which I’m guessing SAG pays her in gold doubloons just for dramatic flair.

She’s black. Not me. Crap.

Oh, I am, of course, black. I was born black and I am proud of my heritage to the extent that I don’t feel the need to cite “proof” of it in this forum. (Though I will say that I am listening to my Otis Redding Pandora station as I write this, so there.)

But in the TV commercial world, I have been told flat-out by some casting directors that I am not black enough. Now, before you take up pitchforks against the casting directors, please understand that I do not blame them. And no, that’s not some strain of Stockholm syndrome talking.

First of all, some really blunt shit gets said in any casting office worth its salt. We can go out for drinks and talk about our feelings afterward, but if I have two minutes to knock this 30-second spot out of the park, I’d much rather someone say to me, “They’re skewing younger and you look younger with your hair up -- can you put it up?” than not. You don’t need me to tell you that the industry is not for the thin-skinned.

Besides, I have never been an actor who sees casting directors as the enemy. They cull talent for the client, and it is in their best interest to advise and direct an actor in the hopes of making them as strong a contender for the job as possible. They want me to give the read that will give me the best chance of booking the job when the client watches the tape back at their office in Mordor.

TV commercials are the nittiest of the gritty when it comes to the need to translate creativity to dollars. At their best, they tell a story in a very short amount of time that sells their product in an innovative fashion. But innovation is risky. Unfamiliarity is risky. Familiarity rules, and the woman who is presently smiling blithely at me from across the room is hella familiar.

She's not a celebrity, mind you. That’s a different scenario. She’s just a non-famous working actress who has been in many, many ads. Her overall look is instantly recognizable, and “instant” is crucial in commercials. If you spend even 5 seconds thinking about anything other than the product, they lose. So when she comes across your screen, most people don’t question it because why wouldn’t she? No need for a comeback; she’s been there for years.

But some of us do question it, because it is actually incredibly offensive. It is a reductive parody of a specific type of woman and the tragedy is that those of us who are most offended by it are not in positions of power to send her packing once and for all. Well, not yet. Winky-face emoticon.

This particular audition is actually a callback, so the stakes are high. And even though I’m of questionable blackness, I can do funny. Or at least I’ve been in some funny stuff with some funny people. So today my ability to ad-lib has carried me to the end of the road and now, as my name is called and I enter the audition room, I may have to call upon my blackest blackitude to carry me home.

I give the first read with a demeanor that I would call my own but with higher, TV-level energy. No need to sabotage my audition with a disingenuous parody based on who I’d seen in the waiting room, just in case this was not going to be another visit to the Blackolympics.

“That’s great, let’s do another one and this time I want you to really, you know...”

I stand there waiting for the CD to finish her sentence, lamenting the familiarity of this scene and wondering if it’s still cynicism if you’re right. We are the only two people in the room, the tape is no longer running, and if this kindly Caucasian could just spit it out I’d do my best to oblige and we could all be on our way. Instead, I keep a smile on my face and try not to picture Rosa Parks crying.

“I want you to really sass it up. You know.”

Sigh. I do know.

Take two is a little further over on the spectrum, if you will. I throw in a neckroll and a mouthpop and figure we’re done here. She stops the tape, smiling, and says, “I love it. Yes. Okay, Let’s do one more, just for fun, and this time I want you to give me even more, really let go -- just be yourself.”

Hmmm. The thought that this woman, who does not know me personally or socially, might genuinely want me to be myself (“myself” being “not a minstrel”) crosses my mind. But it’s hardly likely. She had responded positively to the minstrelsy and her use of the words “even more” told me it was time to go full-tilt coon. Just like putting my hair up, I put my black on.

I’ll spare you the gory details here, as I’ve re-enacted them in my video below.

When I was finished, the CD stopped the tape and said, “Perfect! That was the best one.”

So, yay for me that I can deliver what I’m asked for but -- record scratch -- hang on, that final directive was “be yourself.” This particular CD must have drunk the Kool-Aid. If she doesn’t know me, how could the buffoonery with which I responded to “be yourself” be deemed accurate or not?

Oh, right. Because we are all the same and the only reason I’m not constantly rapping or pop-locking is because I trudge through life in a “well-spoken” prison of grammatically correct speech, suppressing an unrelenting urge to breakdance at the car wash or ease on down the road until some benevolent white person grants me permission to “be myself.”

It seems as though the powers that be are not looking closely at us. We are a brown blur, a haze of hair and attitude and verbal affectations and attitudinal glares. A coded caricature painted in broad strokes where we are all “sassy” and “urban” and cannot simply shop for groceries or clean the kitchen floor without finger-snappin’ and mouthpoppin’ at our appliances.

And yes, stereotypes exist for a reason, and, yes, I do know women who really can’t enjoy a banana smoothie without busting a move like they’re in an R. Kelly video (a music one, not a sex one). But I also know an incredible rainbow of women of color, from many backgrounds, who are sorely underrepresented by the lady whose head seems ready to fall from her rolling neck at any moment as she describes her laundry detergent.

By the way, I didn’t book the commercial. Oh, well. Blacker luck next time.

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