Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities

By Darnell Hunt; Ana-Christina Ramón | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Playing “Ghetto”
Black Actors, Stereotypes,
and Authenticity

Nancy Wang Yuen

As I sit across from a beautiful black woman with long, flowing hair, I feel like I am in the presence of a movie star. Although she is not a recognizable celebrity, Vivians melodious voice and elegant movements underscore her background as a dancer and actor. Donning a red cashmere sweater, she tells me how her privileged upbringing has shaped her acting sensibilities despite the stereotyped, “South Central ghetto” roles she is typically offered to play. Vivian is one of many black actors in Los Angeles whose life experience bears no resemblance to the South Central stereotyped roles typically available to black actors. Vivian, like most black actors, prefers not to play such roles, distancing herself from these roles and challenging them whenever possible, while also struggling to make a decent living as a working black actor in Hollywood.

Vivian, like many of the thousands of other African American union actors in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, often found herself defined by and confined to an exceedingly narrow image of blackness. Mainstream media reinforced this image by exploiting the periodic violence and socioeconomic struggles in the region and using them to paint a picture of South Central as the prototypical “ghetto,”1 conflating the real and the fictional (see chap. 8).

In standard usage, the term “ghetto” refers to “a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure.”2 But in common parlance, the term has come to signify something more: it has come to define a group of people

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