By Samuels, Allison; Leland, John
Newsweek , Vol. 131, No. 2
A generation of young black actresses is making a move on Hollywood. Meet the new dreamgirls.
IN A PHOTO STUDIO SOUTH OF Hollywood, a false note hangs awkwardly in the air. Nia Long, Lisa Nicole Carson and Regina King have gathered here to celebrate a new black power in Hollwood--young, female, diva-glamorous--and now the CD player has a case of the wrong funk. The atmosphere is warm, the Versace hot, but the Marvin Gaye disc that the photographer has chosen breathes the laminated chill of good intentions. These are not the sisters of Marvin. Regina King. 26, so indomitable opposite Cuba Gooding Jr. in "Jerry Maguire," calls for some hip-hop flavor. "We want some Lil' Kim," she says. They get some. The speakers bump; the rapper grunts. The special guests on hand for the occasion-a couple of Wayans brothers have come and gone, but director John Singleton and others are still in the house-bop along in support. The party is now officially underway.
These actresses are the sisters of Lil' Kim, part of a growing cast of screen queens from the hip-hop generation. They are the class of Cooley High. And they are, as they say, representing. Not since the days of Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne have the movies sparkled with such a strong black and female presence. Jada Pinkett, 27, took the star cameo in "Scream 2," echoing Drew Barrymore's turn in the first installment. Vivica A. Fox, 33, and Long, 26, made "Soul Food" one of the more nourishing hits of the fall season, a $7 million movie that grossed more than $43 million. Carson, 28, who juggles roles on both "E.R." and "Ally McBeal," shined opposite Long in the charming romantic comedy "love jones" and lit up "Eve's Bayou." Fox and LeLa Rochon, 34, are now shooting the Frankie Lymon story, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" When Pinker married Will Smith on New Year's Eve, the industry's most outrageously glam couple tying the knot, it promised a new era for Hollywood--his, certainly, but hers as well.
It is a revolution long overdue. Though actresses like Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson and Diahann Carroll enjoyed some success in the 1970s, their career arcs peaked prematurely: after playing too many welfare queens, dignified slaves and tragic divas, they seemed to run out of roles. "The industry is only beginning to treat black women as anything other than mammies or maids," says Singleton. (Long and King, childhood friends, both appeared in his debut, "Boyz N the Hood.") At the same time, hip-hop culture has pushed new African-American archetypes into the country's living rooms, opening roles for new kinds of actresses. They are, says the director, a force to be reckoned with. "You take any of the girls we're talking about, and they could blow any male costar away."
And they are working. Fox is the most visible of the lot. Outspoken and physical, she has appeared in everything from rap videos to sex comedies to soap operas. She was not always this busy. "A few years hack I was taking McDonald's commercials so I wouldn't lose my condo," she says. "I was on the verge of just giving up the business." Then she landed a role opposite Will Smith in "Independence Day," and things started to snowball. Now she's shooting her own sitcom for the Fox network, which she says will resemble "a black 'Mary Tyler Moore'." But still, she admits, there are problems. "We're doing a lot better than before, but not as well as we should be. Wouldn't it have been great for ['Alien Resurrection'] to have a strong sister in it rather than that measly little Winona Ryder? You know a sister and Sigourney would have kicked some alien ass. But it's like the same rules don't apply for us."
This is the plaint of black actresses, the thin end of the industry's unfriendly mathematics: a shortage of good roles for women, multiplied by the shortage of good roles for African-Americans. When it comes time to east a film, black actresses can become almost invisible. Of the more than 400 movies released by American studios last year, only one, "Eve's Bayou," was directed by a black woman. …