Sunday 21st January 2018,

Is Hollywood Pushing Black Actors to TV?

Posted at SpliceToday. Thanks to Racialicious for reposting

UPDATE: Now, Taraji P. Henson is starring in a CBS and JJ Abrams pilot, called Person of Interest. Henson plays an ex-spy who solves crime. Hunh, sounds like another JJ Abrams show! But with Henson it looks like he took my advice on why Undercovers got canceled: “Undercovers could have done better to shell out for bigger or more engaging stars…maybe a black star who could do comedy…or a female with a tough-chick reputation.” UPDATE 2: Halle Berry might head to pay-cable, which would complete the trend.

ORIGINAL: The New York Times’ recent article on Hollywood’s “whiteout” about the lack of black nominees for the Oscars has caused some controversy, mainly for forgetting to mention Whoopi Goldberg. But there may be an unintended consequence to Hollywood’s race problem — if we concede there is a particularly recent one, which I’m not sure is true:

Are more A-list black actors moving to television?

While watching a recent episode of The Good Wife I was surprised to see a promo for a series starring Forest Whitaker: Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. I feared I hadn’t been paying attention. Whitaker is a movie star of the biggest kind, an Oscar winner. What is he doing on CBS? (UPDATE: The premiere Suspect Behavior was strong, besting, interestingly, Criminal Minds).

Indeed, I hadn’t been paying attention. Sure, I knew Kerry Washington had recently signed on to do a Shonda Rhimes series about a fixer. Jennifer Beals was doing The Chicago Code, and Jill Scott and Jada Pinkett-Smith already had their own series. But these actresses didn’t have Oscars in hand.

As pilots are getting ordered and shows have midseason premieres, it’s becoming increasingly clear: television is grabbing black actors left and right, for all sorts of projects.

Oscar nominees have been headed to TV: Taraji P. Henson just did a Lifetime movie; Terrence Howard has been doing a Law & Order spinoff; Angela Bassett signed on to a cop drama on ABC; Don Cheadle is creating his own series for Showtime; and Michael Clarke Duncan is doing a Bones spinoff. Rising stars like Columbus Short are joining procedurals like Washington’s. Common is headed to AMC. Of course, stars like Blair Underwood are already headlining series.

As black shows start to build audiences again, networks are ordering more shows with black leads, despite mixed success (see Undercovers, and The Chicago Code is showing signs of flatlining).

More shows means demand for more actors. If AO Scott and Manohla Dargis are right, the film industry seems less keen on taking risks with black actors, meaning big names like Whitaker, Cheadle and Bassett come at a discount for TV.

Meanwhile, television isn’t what it used to be. Networks on broadcast and cable are taking more risks, giving the small screen its own cachet.

All this is a perfect storm sending the cream of the crop to television. TV is good work. The paychecks are consistent, as is the schedule, and a successful show keeps paying for years after cancellation.

Yet despite its efforts, television remains film’s little sibling. There are “TV stars” and “movie stars,” never the twain shall meet. Movie stars get higher paychecks upfront, but have more to prove in terms of bankability.

Unfortunately, black leads have mixed success on that front. Yes, there’s Denzel Washington and Will Smith in drama and action, and Chris Rock in comedy, but the industry has not spent too much effort investing in younger talent, especially for black actresses. And apparently there isn’t much room at the top, making it harder for older actors to age as gracefully as a Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep, Adam Sandler or Robert De Niro.

If this trend is real — and even I’m not convinced it’s actually happening — it makes for an interesting case study in Hollywood labor: star power is always in demand, but certain kinds of star power are more desirable in different venues at different times. Perhaps black Hollywood is having a TV moment. Let’s wait and see.


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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.


  1. monie valentine February 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    You make an excellant point here! I don’t think there’s a conspiracy though. I believe the success of The Game shocked the networks and they’re just cashing in as usual. This is a capitalistic society and networks are no different. If the trend is for African American actors on TV then that’s whats gonna happen. They do not want BET to get a monopoly on all things Black! They will make sure the love (money) will be spread around evenly.

  2. Lauren February 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    If the show is good enough and is a hit why not?! I’m just bothered by the ‘last hired,first fired’ menta;ity and tv is no different but truth be told many of the folks you mentioned got their start on tv. I just saw a Golden Girls spinoff when Mr. Cheadle and Forrest was in a bunch of shows like Miami Vice,Hill Street,ER,and The Shield[he should ahve got an Emmy]. So maybe it’s not that much of a stretch for them to come to the medium that started it all for them.

  3. steven j June 11, 2011 at 9:50 am

    I do not have any problem with ACTORS W-O-R-K-I-N-G. Remember Jack Alberston and Rita Mpreno have an Oscar Emmy and Tony-Remember Halle Berry has TWO of the three. Actors want to work not just do one thing.
    Saying that Look at the BBC- thy have black actors in non stereotypical roles from Skins to Prime Suspect=in the latter playing a boyfriend to Helen Mirren to a murder suspect, and in the former playng one of the troubled teens. Even though we have a Black President, advertisers still have a problem with seeing too many black faces

  4. steven j June 11, 2011 at 9:51 am

    How I miss THE WIRE