"I think people look at me and don't expect much," Precious star Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe has said, "Even though I expect a whole lot." Rapturous reviews testify to Sidibe's prodigious acting skills. But what should we expect from Hollywood?
I decided to ask a few professionals. Raves and nominations notwithstanding, as casting director Mark Bennett (The Hurt Locker, Junebug) puts it when asked for his professional opinion, "Unfortunately Hollywood is still a system that doesn't produce a lot of great parts for black women and doesn't produce a lot of parts for women who aren't conventionally beautiful. And that's not going to change overnight."
In a piece last month on The Root, cultural critic Stanley Crouch was outright pessimistic:
"Gabby Sidibe better enjoy her fame while she can because black actresses never have less than a hard row to hoe. Even if the inner life they bring to characters is as beautiful as they are physically, they have little chance."
Crouch cited several black actresses whose careers were, as he puts it, "pissed away by the system," and argues that even with Precious's success, at the end of the day, "Hollywood will continue to go along as it has gone." And he didn't even touch on the fact that Hollywood has had little use for any women larger than a size zero.
So far, Sidibe has shot a pilot for Showtime – The C Word, a dark comedy starring Laura Linney – and also wrapped a Sundance lab film called Yelling to the Sky. But her most significant post-Precious performance has probably been on the talk show circuit.
The greatest risk Sidibe initially faced was best articulated (inadvertently) by Roger Ebert in his November 4 Chicago Sun Times review of Precious:
"Her work is still another demonstration of the mystery of some actors, who evoke feelings in ways beyond words and techniques. She so completely creates the Precious character that you rather wonder if she's very much like her."
You can wonder, but the answer is no. "It's called acting," her manager, Jill Kaplan, says. Sidibe herself has skillfully, but seemingly effortlessly, put space between her character and herself with her television appearances, which exhibit both poise and comic timing.
"When you see her being interviewed, she's so charming. You look at her and say, I'd like to watch her in other parts so you can see her acting different personalities," says Bennett.
Both Bennett and Billy Hopkins, the casting agent who co-discovered Sidibe at an open casting call (and Precious director Lee Daniels' former partner), point out that cable television offers a far greater range and depth of roles for actresses. And they both speculate that she'd make a good talk show host. (An appealing, if entirely premature, prospect).
Hopkins sounds determinedly optimistic about Hollywood's receptiveness to an actress like Sidibe. "Is she a hard type to cast? Yes. But is she talented? Yes. So I think those will balance each other out," he says.
Eyde Belasco, who cast Sidibe in Yelling To The Sky and has worked on movies like (500) Days of Summer and Half Nelson, writes in an email that her own choice had "very little to do with her look and everything to do with her amazing acting abilities." She adds, "I think the best types of roles for Gabby going forward, to keep her from being typecast, are ones that are not linked to her look. Maybe it's about taking on a great supporting role (such as her role in Yelling To She Sky) that has very little to do with her physical appearance and all to do with her performance. If an actor can afford to do it, it's about waiting for the right role. Gabby does have a very specific look. But, hopefully, filmmakers and casting directors will want the best actress for the role."
It can be hard to get insiders to discuss industry prejudices on the record, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. "Hollywood tends to think of actors like Gabby as being perfect as a white person's friend. She'll have to work really hard to distinguish herself in their eyes," says Bennett. "The soft prejudice that she's going to face is going to be getting cast in parts that aren't written for a black girl. At the end of the day, I find there's a certain risk aversion in terms of Hollywood casting. It wouldn't surprise me if she finds her most fulfilling professional opportunities in the coming years outside of Hollywood."
Bennett's advice to her is not to wait to pursue the parts she wants: "It's a mistake for actors to sit around and assume that Hollywood as a monolith will have imagination. Actors have to insist on what they're capable of."
Kaplan, Sidibe's manager, is reluctant, for obvious reasons, to have the actress pigeonholed or even discuss that risk. She says Sidibe has gotten all kinds of scripts sent her way. "It doesn't have to be about changing Hollywood's ideals – it's just about a talented actress," she says.
She adds, "I think she can do anything. She's a prodigy – she's very funny. She really loves Judd Apatow movies and comedies in general. We're looking for a big fun comedy for her, or maybe something romantic…She loves superhero movies."
Speaking of Apatow and comedies, I tracked down Allison Jones, the casting director who has worked with him since Freaks and Geeks, and who was also responsible for the inarguably inspired casting on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office. Here's what she writes:
A good comedy director I think values instincts more than line readings...so if her comedy instincts are as solid as her dramatic ones (on talk shows she is a riot and so delightful), then she will have no problem... Someone's funny, she's funny. Someone's good, she's good. [In addition] as much as anyone's physical appearance can limit their appropriateness for a role (including the stick-thin actresses), she will not be right for everything. But maybe there are more opportunities out there rather than fewer.
As the awards season kicks off, Sidibe's name is already on many ballots — she was just nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best actress — and expected to be on more, including those for the Oscars (announced February 3). And maybe that's what it'll take to clinch her broader appeal, should anyone need convincing. Kaplan doesn't want to make predictions. "I can't say what's going to happen," she says. "I'm definitely trying. I'm working on it right now. People are going to see outside the box."
Hollywood: Same As It Ever Was [The Root]
Related: Et Tu, Amy Poehler? What's So Funny About Desiring A Big, Black Woman? [What Tami Said]
Sumpin' Turrrrble: SNL's Keenan Thompson Performs Minstrel Act [Racialicious]