African American film and TV roles are all the rage right now. But it wasn’t always that way. 2,135 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I opened the photo attachment to full screen. The 23-inch monitor was sitting on my mid-century modern desk, positioned in feng shui perfection beneath a classic wooden ceiling fan in a Spanish-style apartment complex turned office building just off Cahuenga and Santa Monica Boulevards in Hollywood.
Too much detail? Deal with it. That’s just the kind of person I am.
I also like to be able to see things clearly, hence the big screen attached to my MacBook Air at the office. I’m too old to watch Netflix on an iPhone, thank you very much. My Gen Z assistant, Cherie, peered anxiously over my shoulder, standing stork-like on one small bootie-clad foot.
“What do you think?” she asked, nervously stretching the cuffs of her pink cotton H&M sweater down over her tiny hands.
Visually, this actress was just right. Black, mid-30s, with too-tight clothes, at least one hundred long braids, sky-high heels and three-inch gold-painted nails bearing so many jewels they looked like they had clawed open the royal gates of Versailles. Stunning.
Still, there remained one important test she had to pass.
“Does she have video?” I asked.
Cherie nodded. Then, instead of just explaining how to access the video on the actress’ CV, she reached over my shoulder and scrolled down, preparing to hit the embed herself with one black-polished nail. I hate it when she does that. I prefer to remain in control at all times.
Still, I quickly forgave the intrusion into my Type-A universe because of my eagerness to find out whether the woman on the screen — this curvaceous not-too-attractive female of perfect size, age, and ethnicity — would save us from the recent drought of qualified candidates we’d been experiencing. I had to know whether she possessed that all-important quality.
That’s our niche here at Sassy Black Girlfriend Inc., a boutique Hollywood casting agency with only one thing in mind. Sass is our calling card, our currency, our foot-in-the-door, our distant relative who knows someone who worked with Spielberg when he was still a film student.
Need a sassy black girlfriend to yak it up with your near-anorexic, indecisive, glamorous yet insecure and always somewhat younger Caucasian female lead in your next network sitcom, seasonal made-for-TV romance or rom-com feature film? Honey, look no further than Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency Inc. (@SBlackG on social media.)
Sass. It’s a dated corny kind of word that nobody else uses in this century. Sounds like sassafras, sarsaparilla, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Sass is square. Well somebody hand me a banjo, it’s time for some good ol’ fashioned sass all up in here!
Oddly enough, this antiquated term still survives in trend-obsessed Hollywood, but in one context only. It’s what the entertainment industry wants most from African American actresses on its quest for supporting roles in mainstream entertainment:
Given recent trends in the business that I will reluctantly address later, I was half-afraid to let myself push the little “play” arrow on the video we had just received. These days, I was not always sure what to expect. I bought myself some time by asking why we had heard nothing lately from our latest new client, Daw’netta Tiqui-sha Epps.
I loved Daw’netta Tiqui-sha Epps more than vegan rum raisin gelato, more than my first pair of Rag & Bone jeans; more than my Saturday spin class at Total Woman gym on Ventura Boulevard. The 38-year-old actress was the epitome of sass, the Duchess Of Don’t Mess With Me, the poster chick for all that my company stands for. She even had the drive and creativity to make — that is, make up – a defiantly punctuated name for herself.
Five-foot-eight, 185 pounds, with an intricately braided bun of black hair and an endless collection of hoop earrings that swung in gorgeous dazzling arcs when she raised one index finger and swiveled her long neck almost full circle to make clear that she DON’T take SHIT from NOBODY.
“We-e-e-e-ll,” Cherie began, still twisting her synthetic cuffs which I knew lacked the natural fiber needed to ever spring back to their original size. Her gravelly vocal fry was on full sizzle. “We-e-e-e-ll. There’s this one thing…”
“We-e-e-e-ll. The thing is, she’s changed her name again. She said Daw’netta Ti-quisha was too hard to spell, because the apostrophe kept disappearing in autocorrect and the baristas kept forgetting to write the dash on her cup and that hurt her feelings. Also, she thought maybe it was leading her to getting typecast at casting calls.”
My head began to pound. Typecasting was keeping SBG Inc. in the black, no pun intended. Well, OK, maybe a little pun intended.
“So, who is she now?”
“We-e-e-e-ll, she’s … Becky.”
“None. Not any more. She said three names is too many names for a mainstream actress, you know?”
“Becky Parker,” I sighed. “No middle name.” I closed my eyes to keep blond cheerleaders from skipping through my aching brain. A whole squad of pony-tailed Becky Parkers from Oshkosh, Wisconsin jumping up and down to an all-male marching band.
Well, maybe we could work around the new name, I thought. Maybe we could even make her change funny somehow. We could post a faux video on Instagram where she’s at the DMV to register her new name and she gets in a hair-pulling fight with the desk clerk (portrayed by one of my SBGs, naturally) who won’t allow any self-respecting black woman to change her name to Becky. No one will know it’s not real if we shake the camera a little. Raise your index finger high, girlfriend! Remember, everything’s a joke when you’re a Sassy Black Girlfriend — with occasional, short-lived, tears-of-a-clown sadness for those very special Christmas holiday episodes. Don’t worry, viewers. She’ll be sassy again in January.
Still, like an alphabet network in the #MeToo era, I wanted to know the whole truth before something bubbled to the surface that would bite us in our ample asses. “Anything else?”
“We-e-e-e-ll, she also just posted this new shot of herself on FB and Instagram. She lost some weight. She’s actually kind of thin now. You know, size 4. Ish.”
I could tell Cherie had at least one more thing to say. I closed my eyes.
“Damn. I’ve told them never to post without clearing it with me. And?”
“She sort of changed her hair. She doesn’t have that tall bun thing we all liked so much. Now she’s got extensions.”
“Dreads?” One could always hope.
“No, these super long soft waves with blond highlights, like she spends her days sitting in the sand at Surfrider Beach. You know. Kind of like…”
“Don’t say it.”
She said it. “Beyoncé.”
There was no point in going further. I had no use for anyone resembling a strong, confident, classy pop warrior who wears her spike heels as a neo-feminist symbol and serves as a role model to young women of all colors. Goodbye and Godspeed, Becky Parker.
“She is dead to me,” I said. “Come on, Cherie, hit the video link. Let’s see if our new girlfriend’s got sass.”
I founded the Sassy Black Girlfriend Agency Inc. in 2004. That’s 2004 B.S. – Before Shonda. The Shonda Rhimes who had a development deal with ABC and whose Grey’s Anatomy did not hit the screen until 2005, and then only as a lowly summer replacement. Things were different then. We knew where we stood. Of course, Shonda’s ABC pact went on to last fifteen years and made her and the network a fortune before her recent jump to Netflix,
I graduated from Wellesley College in 1994, but it took me a decade to find my true calling. The first six years were spent trying to break into Hollywood as an actress. I moved west like every other wannabe only to find out I wasn’t at all what Hollywood wanted me to be. Back then there was still such a thing as a cattle call, instead of just a bunch of casting directors sitting at home sucking down Nespresso while viewing your stuff on YouTube and Funny Or Die. This became especially true in comedy; now nobody but other wannabes ever sit in the audience at The Comedy Store or the Upright Citizens Brigade. Back then, during so those innocent fax-friendly days in Hollywood, you could choose a stereotype with no chance of a hysterical backlash on social media.
While on the audition treadmill, I began to notice there were few, if any, lead roles for black women in any category. But there seemed to be at least a few parts for the neighbor down the block (not quite next door), the sex-starved gal pal in Apartment #3, the wacky incompetent secretary at the reception desk of the office. And, according to the casting notices, all of these women had to have sass.
I leapt at such acting opportunities. I could be the Sassy Black Girlfriend, a newer incarnation of the Funny Jewish Girlfriend perfected by The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, and, before her, Ann Morgan Guilbert as Millie Helper, the always hilarious best pal of suburban mom Laura Petrie (also portrayed by MTM) on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Each of those women were comedic foils to the pretty shiksa. Thanks, Mare!
But it turned out that I was no good at Black Girlfriend sass. I’m thin and athletic so my figure was not as bust-and-booty-centric as required for the job. I did not routinely refer to other women as “girl,” believing it sounds way better when gay guys say it than when females do. Moreover, I didn’t wag my index finger or grind my hips during casual conversation or know how to keep my head still while doing the obligatory neck circle. (And, frankly, I did not think my chiropractor would approve.) It was also extremely rare that I broke into a little dance in reaction to good news like all those African American senior citizens on TV commercials for Chantix, Humira and AstraZeneca.
Of course they’re happy: Big Pharma was paying them.
I sometimes heard mutterings from casting directors about how I was too pretty by some acceptable Hollywood standard to be the Sassy Black Girlfriend who could only be attractive in a loud sort of way spouting good-natured sarcasm. Also, while her white BFF, the star of the show, was either married or dating like crazy, Sassy Black Girlfriend was lonely and horny and talked about both constantly. Hollywood writers thought horny women were funny, especially if black or — second choice — old. To be fair, Hollywood writers also think horny old men are pretty funny too, although geezerdom starts about a decade later if you’re a guy. But back to my SBGs.
If we are talking network TV, perhaps once a season a preternaturally handsome African American male guest star from a long-running procedural may arrive for no more than three episodes only to break an SBG heart and send her running back to commiserate with the aforesaid white BFF after yoga class. Otherwise, the SBG’s love life is as barren as the Mojave.
What to do? I decided to move behind the camera. Not as a producer or director, honey — for me that possibility was even more remote than landing a role on a sitcom, according to recent Writer’s Guild surveys. No, I decided to get my MBA (University of La Verne, the convenient Burbank campus) in order to learn how to launch my own casting agency, and thus make my indelible mark on the entertainment industry landscape. It all made sense. Even as an undergraduate theater major, I loved my elective math and statistics courses more than Scene Study 405. I could surely apply my knack for numbers and passion for profit to building a business. I did not wake up every morning thinking: “Oh my God, I’m a black woman living in a white man’s world!” Instead, I tended to focus on my projected annual net.
Business school was also where I met my husband Rob, a Century City investment banker. We bought a lovely four-bedroom home in Sherman Oaks with a lap pool and two Siamese cats, Bitcoin and Blockchain. Yes, for all of you reading this out in Kansas, that’s the same affluent suburb where the Johnson family lives on Black–ish. I never let my husband visit me at the office. I wanted to inspire my SBGs by being a role model, and since SBG roles were almost exclusively for lonely, unhappy, rapidly aging singles, I didn’t want them to know I’m happily married to anyone. This, by the way, was perfectly OK with Rob when Sassy Black Girlfriend Inc. started pulling down high six figures annually.
Part Two tomorrow