Niche casting and Hollywood’s lingering reluctance to feature gay black actors
When actor Darryl Stephens received a call in 2003 that he was cast in a straight-to-DVD series about black gay men, he thought it was his big break, that his four years at UC Berkeley had paid off.
But his agents told him not to take the role, concerned, in part, that a job requiring a man-on-man kiss would be "too gay" and limit his career.
Stephens took the job anyway, but later came to realize that his agents had a point.
"You can be one or the other," said Stephens, 41, sitting in a West Hollywood park. "You can be black or you can be gay. You can't be both."
For Stephens, and many other actors like him who are both openly LGBT and black, Hollywood's famed progressive social views often take a back seat to commercial considerations.
"I like the idea that Hollywood is at the forefront of these changes, but it think Hollywood is also very sensitive to the nation's sentiments and wary [about what sells]," Stephens said. "I think it's a similar issue with gay stories too, but because white men can be gay, Hollywood is a little more lenient in terms of pushing that envelope. The progress of the LGBT movement in Hollywood can be moved along as long as the face of the gay movement is white men."
To put a spin on the title of a popular book addressing the invisibility of black women, "All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men…," in Hollywood all the gays are white, all the blacks are straight.
The role Stephens took was as Noah on "Noah's Arc," a series about a group of black gay friends in Los Angeles that originally aired on LGBT-focused cable network Logo.
Dubbed by many as the black gay "Sex and the City," the show launched Stephens into instant role-model status for black gay men who until that time had not seen themselves reflected on television. He discusses his experiences on the show, and as an openly gay black actor, in his new book, "Required Reading: How to Get Your Life for Good."
Following "Noah's Arc," which was canceled after two seasons and a movie, Stephens made a point to combat the potential of being typecast as someone who can only play an effeminate black gay — though he did not frown at the opportunity. The roles he took included a masculine attorney with a boyfriend of six years on "DTLA," a transgender person on "Private Practice" and a no-name extra in "Two and a Half Men," to name a few. The result is not necessarily being typecast but rather "niche cast."
"I work on not playing the same character," he said. "I've been given the blessing to play many gay stories, but I wouldn't say I'm playing the same character, which is what I see typecasting as."
But as the roles for gay characters who are black, and black characters who may or may not be gay, are already limited — and Stephens' saturation of the market having played the token gay character on a number of shows — such niche casting is nonetheless limiting.
Dalila Ali Rajah, who toured as Vanessa Williams' understudy in "The Trip to Bountiful," has had similar experiences in her 16-year career. At the start, she was constantly warned about openly identifying as bisexual.
"A lot of actors said it was a bad idea [to be out]," said Rajah, who is also a member of the Screen Actors Guild's LGBT committee. "I think they thought it would cause a lot of problems with me getting work, but to do that didn't feel authentically myself."
Doing so meant that Rajah had to create her own content, she said, because there weren't a lot of roles, save the "very safe" black gay best friend. She noted the stereotypically feminine, brazen role as the "evolution of Sapphire," the tough, domineering and emasculating trope categorized with that of mammy and jezebel as limited definitions of black womanhood.
"It keeps them away from the brutal black man that's going to steal their women," Rajah said. "It adds all the comedy and the edge of buffoonery without the dangerous stuff, so it's safe."
Here is where black LGBT people behind the camera, like Patrik-Ian Polk, who wrote and directed "Noah's Arc" and the acclaimed "Punks," become necessary. But Polk himself continues to deal with Hollywood's limited definitions of blackness and gayness and how that affects black actors playing gay characters, evidenced by the casting of openly gay newcomer Julian Walker opposite Oscar winner Mo'Nique in his latest film, "Blackbird."
"Casting for me is always an interesting journey because black actors [often] are reluctant to play gay characters, whether they're gay in real life or not," Polk said. "I find oftentimes that I have to do non-traditional casting because I'm still met with that same resistance [almost 15 years later]. It's a shallow pool to begin with, then actors always express a fear or reluctance because they'll get stereotyped and they won't get other roles."
Though, as Polk notes, from Will Smith to Isaiah Washington, "you cannot point out one actor whose career has been hurt by playing gay. If anything, it helps your career more than it hurts it," he said.
But as an actor "who happens to be black and gay," Stephens understands the hesitation.
"There's the assumption that black folks are more homophobic than other folks," he began. "I don't think that's true, but I think we are aware of limits this culture places on us as black men. We have 15 seconds to get our foot in the door and if we don't, we're in the dark forever. Black actors are very aware that they have to work hard at remaining commercially viable. It's a matter of our own cultural hang-ups [both black culture and American culture] as well as lack of access to varied roles that keeps us locked in this fear of presenting anything that is not hypermasculine."
One contributing reason for this fear is the lack of "out" black celebrities, Polk said, who've reached top-level acclaim. Despite rumors of various actors living in the infamous glass closet, Wanda Sykes serves as the prototype with, as of late, Raven-Symoné, Jussie Smollett and Samira Wiley representing a new wave. The list of notable openly gay or bisexual black actors is not much longer.
As Hollywood continues to tout diversity, Stephens calls for varied roles for black LGBT people. Black gay characters should embody both the effeminate sidekick archetype as well as the "homothug" archetype "because black gay men do both," he said.
"That's what this culture requires of us in real life," Stephens continued. "We've already seen it happen with the white actors [like Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer]. I think it's a question of when will the black faces be invited to that party."
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