Julia LOUIS-DREYFUS has one. Sandra Bullock had one. So did Jennifer Garner and Katie Holmes. Jennifer Love Hewitt has had two. Calista Flockhart took hers dancing. Kate Walsh had one, lost her, and got another one with a different face but the same name. And Scarlett Johansson got her first one last weekend.
They’re stars who have all played lead characters who experience adventure with the help of their BFF (Best Friend Forever). But in many cases, these BFFs might more accurately be characterized as BBFs -- Black Best Friend -- played by an African American actress whose character’s principal function is to support the heroine, often with sass, attitude and a keen insight into relationships and life.
Celluloid BBFs have been featured in the just-opened “The Nanny Diaries,” as well as “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Premonition.” But BBFs have been even more of an influence in TV series, including “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Ghost Whisperer,” “Alias,” “Ally McBeal,” “Felicity,” “Summerland” and “Private Practice,” the spinoff of “Grey’s Anatomy” premiering this fall.
The BBF syndrome isn’t something that Hollywood likes to talk about, even as it continues to be a winking in-joke among blacks in the industry. One African American actress said that she and her actress friends tease one another about forming a support group for characters who had to help out their “woefully helpless white girls.”
But on a more serious note, the trend of BBFs underscores the limitations that African American actresses still face more than five years after Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning performance as best actress in a leading role for “Monster’s Ball.” Despite impressive résumés, solid credentials and successful achievements, many of the black actresses who have played BBFs are rarely offered the heroine role in mainstream projects. Not one black actress will star in a prime-time series on the four major networks this fall season.
And, as has been long lamented, lead roles in films are few and far between.
Rose Catherine Pinkney, executive vice president of programming and production for TV One, a cable network targeted to black audiences, was one of the few TV or film industry executives willing to talk about BBF syndrome, saying: “It’s wonderful that studios recognize great talent. And there’s more diversity, so it looks like the world. But it’s a shame that studios also don’t have the courage to put these actresses in leads.”
Some say it’s unfair to even categorize BBFs -- it undermines the talent of the actors and actresses who work hard to win their roles, they say, and ignores the fact that some of these roles didn’t necessarily call for an African American performer.
But Pinkney, a former Paramount Studios executive, added, “Historically, people of color have had to play nurturing, rational caretakers of the white lead characters. And studios are just not willing to reverse that role.”
Of course, friendships or partnerships between black and white males are a staple in films and movies (“Lethal Weapon,” “Wild Hogs,” “Pulp Fiction”). But in many of those relationships, the dynamic is more even-handed -- the friends support each other -- or the black male is the dominant friend.
But it’s different for women.
BBFs vary in personality and looks, but many share the same qualities: They are gorgeous, independent, loyal and successful. They live or work with their friend but are not really around all that much except for well-timed moments when the heroine needs an eating companion or is in crisis. BBFs basically have very little going on, so they are largely available for such moments. And even though they are single or lack consistent solid relationships, BBFs are experts in the ways of the world, using that knowledge to comfort, warn or scold their BFF.
And quite often, they are the only black character in sight.
“It’s a stereotype that’s been around for a long time,” said Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of media psychology at Cal State L.A. “It’s a way for bringing in a different culture, and the black friend can add ingredients that would not ordinarily be there. Blacks are seen as being more outspoken, so they can speak with greater authority and give more information.”
Opportunity or limitation?
Aisha Tyler, who generated buzz when she played the first recurring African American love interest on “Friends,” wound up in the BBF class when she played the best friend to a paranormal investigator (Hewitt) in CBS’ “Ghost Whisperer.”
Tyler, who left the series at the end of its first season to devote more time to her first directorial effort, a buddy comedy about two female cops that she will star in, said she feels fortunate that she is mostly offered roles that are more complex and interesting than the traditional BFF.
“But I don’t know what the alternative is,” said Tyler. “I think the more roles there are for African Americans, the better. This trend feels like a consolation prize, but at least these roles are available. A lot of ensembles are not diverse at all, so if it’s a shot, it’s a good thing.”
With “The Nanny Diaries,” musician Alicia Keys enters the distinguished class of BBFs that includes Tracie Thoms, Wanda Sykes, Nia Long, Brandy, Merrin Dungey, Audra McDonald, Regina King, Stacey Dash and Lisa Nicole Carson. Key BBF moments include:
* “The Nanny Diaries”: Lynette (Keys) warning Annie (Johansson) that taking a nanny position as a lark instead of pursuing a career may be problematic: “The path of least resistance, it can lead through a minefield.”
* “The Devil Wears Prada:” Lily (Thoms) scolding Andy (Anne Hathaway) about ignoring her circle of friends and getting swept up the world of high-style fashion: “The Andy I know . . . is always five minutes early and thinks Club Monaco is couture. For the last 16 years, I’ve known everything about that Andy. But this person, this glamazon . . . I don’t get her.”
* “Ally McBeal”: Renee (Carson) berating attorney Ally (Flockhart) for still pining after her old boyfriend, a colleague who has married someone else: “You two were like Barbie and Ken. He’s a wimp. Five years from now, he’s one of those boring little lawyers looking over his stock portfolio, playing golf at the country club with nothing left to offer you at the end of the day. . . . You can do better.”
If there was a poster BBF for BBFs, it would most likely be Dungey.
A veteran of several television series, Dungey is best known as Francie, the best friend of secret agent Sydney Bristow (Garner) in “Alias.” After leaving that series in 2003, Dungey turned up on the WB’s short-lived “Summerland” as Susannah, the best friend of Ava (Lori Loughlin).
Her next major role was in the pilot for “Private Practice,” the spinoff of “Grey’s Anatomy” that aired in May as part of a two-hour special. She played Dr. Naomi Bennett, the best friend of Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh). In late May, producers announced that Dungey was being replaced by another African American actress, Audra McDonald, saying that there was more chemistry between McDonald and Walsh. The character will keep the same name when McDonald takes over the role.
Talent wins out
There is another view to the emergence of the BBF. Some producers say the casting of black actresses as the friend is not due to any race-specific casting, but comes down to best actress for the role. For example, producers of “Friends” said Tyler won the role strictly on talent.
Richard Gladstein, producer of “The Nanny Diaries,” said he also was not looking specifically for a black actress to play the lead’s best friend, a character not in the book that inspired the movie. “She just happens to be African American,” he said. “Alicia Keys came in and gave a wonderful reading, and that was it.”
And Kellee Stewart, who plays opposite Jordana Spiro (P.J.) in TBS’ comedy, “My Boys,” which launched its second season last month, refuses to be categorized as a BBF, calling it an insult to her talent. She won her role as a best friend to a sports writer over several actresses, including whites.
“To call this a trend or to say an actress was cast just because of her ethnicity is to negate her contribution,” said Stewart. “It minimizes the talent and effort it took to win the role in the first place.”