Beautiful, witty, and in more rom-coms than you can keep track of—this is not another article about Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock or Rachel McAdams. Instead, we need to talk about why the hell Gabrielle Union doesn’t get the credit she deserves in Hollywood…and, while we’re at it, why black actresses in general fail to gain the level of name recognition and rom-com success as white actresses. Hint: It doesn’t have much to do with talent.
Gabrielle bursted onto the scene in the late 1990s with a variety of TV guest spots and a small role in Love & Basketball (2000) before her first major role as the lovable antagonist Isis in Bring It On (2000).
Following the success of Bring It On, Gabrielle went on to slay in Deliver Us from Eva (2003), which led to a chain of roles as the romantic interest in films like Bad Boys II (2003), Neo Ned, (2005), The Honeymooners (2005), Daddy’s Little Girls (2007), The Perfect Holiday (2007), Think Like a Man (2012) and Top Five (2014). Basically, she’s the quintessential romantic comedy ingenue (who can do a mean drama now and then). Except, you can’t exactly be a black ingenue in Hollywood, can you?
Sure, not every one of these movies were hits, but neither were the ones by Ms. Aniston, Ms. Bullock and Reese Witherspoon. Yet, they (and masses of other white actresses) have a higher level of mainstream name recognition than African American actresses.
In case you don’t believe us, let’s present some facts. Cosmopolitan ranked the most successful rom-com actresses last year, and one woman of color (Jennifer Lopez) made the list. Moviefone ranked 20 rom-com actresses under 40, and other than the white parade of Jennifer this-and-thats and Katherine Heigl, they managed to include Jessica Alba and Rasheeda Jones. How about Parade’s top eight romantic comedy sweethearts? Whiter than Iggy Azalea.
If all else fails, show your white friends a picture of Gabrielle and wait for the ignorant responses to pour in as they guess who she is. I’ve done this experiment myself, and, yes, the results are maddening. To be clear, this is mostly a media issue. These film “sweethearts” (who have no more charisma, wit or beauty than Gabrielle) simply receive more coverage.
It’s worth noting this isn’t an issue exclusive to Gabrielle, either. Many fellow black actresses fail to receive close to the level of attention as their white peers in Hollywood. Even Taraji P. Henson, who is now synonymous with “successful TV actress,” had to bust her ass to get to that point. After having roles in some kick-ass films, it wasn’t until her stint as Cookie Lyon on Empire that she received her due.
Other actresses who fail to receive recognition in a whitewashed Hollywood include Meagan Good and Regina Hall, who both have illustrious catalogs. This points to the overall trend of American audiences seeing films with white-dominated casts as general interest and relatable, while films with black-dominated casts are labeled (sometimes subconsciously) as niche or special interest. In hopes of not turning this into a cultural dissertation, let’s watch America Ferrera illustrate the point by “Trying to Name 20 White Actors.”
The video is a response to Jimmy Kimmel’s skit in which he tried to get Tina Fey to name 20 Latino performers and…she couldn’t. As Ms. Ferrara said, “It’s a real bummer that, ’Can you name 20 Latinos?’ is a scary question to ask a television and film producer in 2015.”
These days, Gabrielle stars in BET’s Being Mary Jane and is set to appear in three new roles in 2016, including the historical drama The Birth of a Nation (centering around Nat Turner’s slave rebellion). Gabrielle may not get the credit she deserves in Hollywood, but she continues to break ceilings with grace and a smile. In a recent interview with Yahoo! Style, Gabrielle talked institutional racism, the three newspapers a day she reads and the Top Ramen and loans that got her through college. Yes, she is all that, and deserves her due, damn it!
Maybe you don’t like cheesy rom-coms, maybe you don’t even like Rachel McAdams or Jennifer Aniston, but the next time you’re talking about them, remember there’s more diversity out there than Dear John (2010) and 27 Dresses (2008). It’s 2015, and it’s not acceptable for you to call her “that black actress is in all those black films”—her name is Gabrielle Union, and you will never be as fly as her.