On the Web, black actresses avoid Hollywood stereotypes, find breakout roles

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Andrea Lewis as Amanda Lewis.


Azie Dungey, who stands next to a George Washington figure at Madame Tussauds, is the creator of the webseries "Ask A Slave." In it, she's dressed as Martha Washington's lady's maid, a character she played when she worked at Mount Vernon. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Until recently, the most visible black women in comedy weren’t women at all. They were men in drag — Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence and Tyler Perry — and they all found success portraying large, one-dimensional buffoons.

Yet three of “The Queens of Comedy” — Laura Hayes, Adele Givens and Sommore — remain largely unknown outside of black circles. Mo’Nique is the exception.

Go back further, and Moms Mabley, the subject of a new documentary directed by Whoopi Goldberg, becomes a radical standout.

Azie Dungey’s vehicle for social commentary, the YouTube comedy series “Ask a Slave,” runs parallel to Mabley’s. When Lizzie Mae introduces herself in the first episode, she’s seemingly clueless, just like the toothless cleaning woman Mabley used to communicate about race.

“You want me to look in there?” Lizzie Mae asks, pushing her face directly into the camera lens so we get an extreme close-up.

But her ignorance stems from living in the 18th century; otherwise, Lizzie Mae is cool, composed and very sharp.

Amani Starnes, Issa Rae and Franchesca Ramsey — all comic actresses on the Web — stand on the shoulders of women like Mabley, Goldberg, LaWanda Page, Kim Wayans, Queen Latifah, Wanda Sykes, Aisha Tyler and Maya Rudolph.

Online community

It’s difficult to imagine a YouTube landscape without Rae, the patron saint of the Web’s funny black women. She’s wildly popular on Twitter and has parlayed her Internet success into television projects.

Rae and Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore are writing a comedy series for HBO. Rae calls the network “the closest thing to the Internet,” but she’s hardly abandoned her Web roots.

“There’s a sense of legitimacy when you’re on television or in film,” Rae said. “In that sense, it’s important. But the community that exists online, that community is priceless.

Rae is featuring work from others on her YouTube channel, most notably a series called “Black Actress,” starring its creator, Andrea Lewis.

The series, which debuted Nov. 5, also features Tatyana Ali, Naturi Naughton, Essence Atkins and Jenifer Lewis.

“I would love to see black women shown as just, you know, fully human characters,” Naughton says in the trailer. “People who struggle; people who want love.”

People who are crazy? Yes, that too. The trailer cuts to another actress who leans in, eyes wide as if divulging a juicy bit of gossip, and says, “You know what? [Facebook is] totally okay for Internet stalking. Sometimes, I go on my ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page, and I just stare for hours.”

Ali talks about creating new archetypes. We’re familiar with Mammys, Jezebels and Sapphires because those are the common tropes these women are trying to escape. Meanwhile, there’s a whole world of characters black women can play. These actresses aren’t just upending old archetypes. They’re creating new ones.

When Fox’s “New Girl” series first premiered, Tamara Winfrey Harris of the blog Racialicious wondered if it was possible for a woman of color to play the manic-pixie-dream-girl role.

“The wide-eyed, girlish, take-care-of-me characters that [Zooey] Deschanel inhabits on film are not open to many women of color, particularly black women,” Harris wrote. “We can be strong women, aggressive women, promiscuous women . . . but never carefree and childish.

“Also, the affectations of the manic pixie are read differently on black women. A streak of pink in the hair goes from quirky and youthful to ‘ghetto’ on a black body. Thrift store clothing leads to a host of class assumptions.”

Rae’s “Awkward Black Girl” seems like such a simple, obvious trope, but until recently, she was missing.

“I think the universal element of feeling awkward is something that people relate to,” Rae said. “A lot of black women were like, ‘Wow, this is me, and I don’t ever get to see this portrayed. It’s so normal, but it’s so intimate at the same time, and I understand her. I am her.’ ”

Rae is slated to play Nina Simone in a biopic of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, which is in development.

“What’s happened for her is what all of us want to happen for ourselves in some way,” said Starnes. “There’s a lot of footwork that goes into finding our audience and gaining popularity because that’s the most powerful way to influence the people in charge of developing TV shows.”

Very limited palette

At a time when a stylish, poised black woman lives in the White House, one might wonder why this is still an issue. Or why people are so excited about Kerry Washington leading a network drama (the first time a black woman has had such a role in nearly 40 years) with outstanding ratings.

“Just the idea of a black woman being desirable and powerful and the star of something is a really big deal,” Starnes said.

None of these women was surprised when Essence magazine published a study in its November issue showing that black women are depicted in media in ways that are overwhelmingly negative.

“I think a lot of writers don’t know very much about black women,” Dungey said. “Black women are so poorly represented that what the average white man writer — who may live a very segregated ‘life’ from black people — doesn’t have much to draw from outside of that.

“There’s not many portrayals of black people,” she continued. “I think there’s much more portrayals of black men. They either don’t think of portraying [women] or if they do, it’s in these really marginalized character roles [like] the woman you meet when you’re there for a dentist appointment, because that’s their interaction — incidental iterations. And they know enough to be like, ‘Okay, we don’t want to make them the single mom on welfare,’ but there’s a very limited palette. That’s why I do think it’s important to have writers of color and even white writers that are little more multicultural in their outlook.”

Black women may be waiting to see what network and studio executives will do, but they’re not holding their breath. Instead, they’ll be gazing into the Internet’s vast reflecting pool, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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