Minority actresses still face issues

Nets sometimes hesitant about casting various ethnicities as lead

In “Nikita,” Maggie Q can body slam three assailants at once, shoot with deadly precision and slip neatly into a one-piece bikini. But those abilities pale in comparison to her most incredulous feat: Headlining her own series as an Asian-American woman.

One could argue that it’s the best atmosphere yet for minority actresses, thanks to diversity-conscious shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives.” Just last year, “The Good Wife” co-star Archie Panjabi became the fifth minority to win an Emmy for supporting actress in a drama. But when it comes to the lead category in drama, no minority woman has ever won.

“I get goose bumps when I hear that,” Maggie Q, less than a week after finding out her CW series had been picked up for a second season. “It really bums me out and gives me so much drive. There’s really no reason for it.”

One theory is that in these tough economic times, it’s too risky to go against the grain and give a minority female so much of the spotlight.

“My guess is that the people who put these shows together are conservative and not in a political sense,” says Carlos Cortes, a history professor at UC Riverside and the author of “The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity.” “Once a bankability formula is set up, it takes a lot of courage to challenge that. It’s all about risk aversion.”

When someone does take a chance, and it bombs, execs are likely to retreat even further into the bunker. Last year, NBC boasted to anyone who would listen about its putting a black couple front-and-center in “Undercovers.” It ended up being one of the season’s first casualties.

But the problem with the drama may have less to do with casting and more to do with the execution.

“J.J. Abrams’ ‘Undercovers’ is a woebegone spy drama with nary a hint of intelligence,” wrote Mark A. Perigard in his review for the Boston Herald. “Call it ‘The Quantum of Stupor.’? ”

The next series that will surely get the same kind of scrutiny: ABC’s “Scandal,” a Washington, D.C.-based thriller starring African-American Kerry Washington. It’s no coincidence that the series, targeted for midseason, was shepherded by Shonda Rhimes, an African-American showrunner who has long given her casts a strong multicultural and multiethnic mix.

Joy Bryant, who plays Dax Shepard’s on-again, off-again girlfriend on “Parenthood,” says she’s dismayed by the low number of minority women in Hollywood in positions of power. That’s one of the reasons she’s spending much of her hiatus developing and writing her own projects.

She says it’s clear that auds are ready to embrace all kinds of storylines that might have been considered taboo in the past.

“How cool is it that on our show we have an interracial couple and an interracial child and there’s not a big stink about it?” Bryant says. “Ten years ago, the show would have all about that: ‘He’s white! She’s black! And the comedy ensues!’?”

Perhaps the best evidence about the aud’s appetite comes courtesy of “The Game,” a sitcom about the African-American athletes and their girlfriends and spouses that was canceled in 2009 after three seasons on the CW. Despite the long gap, BET started airing new episodes in January and, despite being a cable outlet, drew nearly three times the viewers that tuned in when it was on broadcast.

“I think what it proves is that people want to see good product, regardless of race,” says Robi Reed, VP of talent and casting for original programming at BET. Following on the success of “The Game,” BET is developing a one-hour drama.

Despite progress, there’s still work to be done, as Maggie Q was reminded a few weeks ago. She got a call asking her to do a indie film with a star who had just been in an Oscar-nominated film. She asked to see the script. There was a female lead, but she wasn’t being asked to play that part.

“They wanted me in the role of an Asian nurse who comes in three or four times in the film to change IVs and walks out,” she said. “I mean, I have my own TV series. It’s unbelievable. Things haven’t really changed yet.”

Procedurals favor the femmes | Minority actresses still face issues | Actresses ready to do it again | Actresses in contention
Lead Actress
Laura Linney | Martha Plimpton | Kathy Bates | Mireille Enos | Alexander & Harmon | Emmy Rossum | Sarah Shahi | Melissa McCarthy

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