Considering the roles available to black actresses 30 years ago — maid, prostitute, junkie — Jenifer Lewis says playing the “mother of black Hollywood” wasn’t so bad.
As long as the jobs paid well, she didn’t mind being typecast as the matriarch in movies like “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” “Poetic Justice” and “The Preacher’s Wife.”
Now, the same industry that offered her only supporting roles says performers of color should be able to play nuanced leading characters. Lewis, 61, is glad to see the growth. But the opportunities may no longer be hers to claim.
“My Hollywood is not the Hollywood of today. [Now] these kids can choose their roles,” she said in a phone interview with The Post.
The journey to a more equitable Hollywood has spanned generations, but criticism of the film industry’s uniformity came to a head in 2015 when activist April Reign tweeted #OscarsSoWhite to protest the lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees.
Three years later, nearly every speech at Sunday’s Oscars ceremony addressed representation. And across the globe, “Black Panther,” a superhero movie with a nearly all-black cast, is dominating box offices. But do actresses like Lewis feel reflected in the industry’s diversification?
“Not particularly,” she said. Nonwhite actresses of her generation have “no real voice.”
“There’s nothing going on for women of color over 60. We’re all working, but there’s no program where we’re the central character,” she said after fact-checking actress Viola Davis’s age (Davis is 52 and stars in ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder”).
Actress Rita Moreno made history 57 years ago as the first Latina to win an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Anita in “West Side Story.”
As Moreno told the Miami Herald in 2008, her triumph at the Oscars gave her the courage to decline “demeaning” roles and she didn’t star in another movie for seven years after. Instead, she added a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy to her awards collection.
Moreno, 86, now stars in Netflix’s “One Day at a Time.” She recently received a Critic’s Choice Television Award nomination for best supporting actress in a comedy series for her portrayal of Lydia, the spirited grandmother of a Cuban American family in Los Angeles.
Now, younger Latina actresses such as Gina Rodriguez, 33, are speaking up about representation and are leading television and film projects with roles that weren’t available when Moreno was Rodriguez’s age.
But even with signs of change in the industry, few principal roles exist for older actresses of color outside “cheeky grandma.”
As the outspoken Ruby Johnson on ABC’s “Black-ish,” Lewis still relishes bringing to the table what she’s always served: “warmth and sass.” But make no mistake, she says: “If I had YouTube, I would’ve been as big as Michael Jackson in these streets.”
As Lewis matured with her career, red carpets and gold trophies became less relevant and family became her true prize.
“I wanted an Oscar, but it doesn’t rule my life anymore. My great nephews are my Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy. My adopted daughter became my lifetime achievement award.”
And everyday, she added, “I honor myself.”
Lewis’s experience is at once similar and different from that of actor Ryun Yu, who entered show business in the ’90s, a generation after Lewis. At 47, Yu has seen the industry diversify, but it still hasn’t fully embraced actors like him.
Even as diversity is being pushed by industry executives, the sentiment is often defined narrowly, applying to young talent and excluding minorities who don’t fit within the binary of white and African American.
Yu started out as a computer science major with a love for theater at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One day he looked at his notes during class and realized he had written “I hate this s—” repeatedly in his notes.
Soon after, he altered course entirely, developing the university’s theater curriculum and graduating as the university’s first theater major in 1993. That same year, he entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London as its first Korean American student.
While abroad, a teacher once offered him a compliment: “Once you graduate, you can be one of those Asian actors who works all the time!”
“She was being complimentary,” Yu recalled in an interview. “And practical.”
Back then, at the beginning of the new millennium, the roles for Asian men were restricted to “the stereotype of the Asian bad guy or James Bond’s best friend when he goes to China.” If Yu had followed his teacher’s idea of what was possible for him, he would have become a professional stereotype.
“I was like, I don’t want that,” said Yu, who adored Shakespeare and wanted to follow in the theater and film footsteps of his heroes Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes. “I wanted to be one of those great heroic actors that said something about the human condition.”
Yu moved from London to California after a mentor encouraged him to bypass the theater community of New York and take advantage of the network of Asian American creatives in Los Angeles.
There, he says he and his contemporaries created and starred in roles that have been artistically stimulating. Some projects were about the Asian American experience, others were not.
Yu now stars in the one-man play “Hold These Truths” at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, which tells the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American who resisted internment during World War II. He recently appeared in FX’s “Baskets” and Netflix’s “Fuller House.”
While Yu’s Asian American peers have more consistent work now than when they first started, sustained mainstream success for them, and many experienced actors of color, remains elusive.
Competition from white actors further complicates the discussion.
New shows such as Netflix’s “Altered Carbon” and “The Outsider” have been criticized for casting a white actor to play an Asian character and for centering a white character in a story about Japan’s Yakuza, respectively.
And in January, white Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones starred as Colombian drug trafficker Griselda Blanco Restrepo in Lifetime’s “Cocaine Godmother.”
Will change come with the commercial success of “Black Panther” and its predominantly black ensemble? Or the anticipated release of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the upcoming romantic comedy from Warner Bros. Pictures with an all-Asian cast?
Lewis is optimistic.
“It’s unstoppable now,” she said. “Some of us remember we had a black president. You don’t open a door [like that] and look through it and say ‘I didn’t see that.’ What did you see and what are you going to do about it?”
Yu is still waiting.
“There have been many times before where our time was supposedly coming,” said Yu. “We’ve had people break though before.”
When Chinese American actress Lucy Liu rose to fame in the late 1990s as Ling Woo on the Fox show “Ally McBeal,” Yu joked it was like “the dawning of a new day.”
If the Oscars’ message of a reformed Hollywood sounds familiar, it’s because many have heard the industry’s promises before. There is, however, a difference between success for a single actor and project, and equal respect and consideration for all creative people of color.
“We’re such a big country,” said Yu. “The difference between a spark and a sustaining flame is everything.”
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