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‘Harriet’ Director Kasi Lemmons Weighs In on Julia Roberts Casting Controversy

Eddie Murphy, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nia Long and “Harriet” filmmaker Kasi Lemmons were honored for their contributions to the industry Monday night at the inaugural celebration of black cinema by the Critics Choice Association.

And as the event, held at the Landmark Annex in Los Angeles, looked back on how far people of color have come in the past 100 years, it also highlighted just how far things have to go.

“I’ve been paid far less than the men standing next to me — and the women who don’t look anything like me — when the success in numbers and dollars are pretty close,” Long said. “Most of the time, I’ve cried behind closed doors, moments before action because of my experiences in the hair and makeup trailer — experiences which have at times robbed me of my confidence and my peace of mind.”

She recalled fearing that her trailer wouldn’t cater to her complexion or hair needs.

“Why do I have to wear a wig? A weave? Because the hairstylist hired to do the job has no idea how to style my natural beautiful Afro or the makeup artist doesn’t know how to mix foundation colors to create the perfect shade of brown for me,” she continued. “Producers and directors — give your black actresses what they need to succeed.”

Proving that it’s not just once the actors of color get on set that they must battle, Lemmons and producer Debra Martin Chase responded to headlines about an unnamed studio executive who suggested Julia Roberts should play Harriet Tubman 25 years ago.

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“I wasn’t surprised. That’s how it used to be. People would say crazy stuff like that and get away with it. They would not be ashamed to say whatever they thought. That was the climate in this town — hostile,” Chase told Variety, saying that she’d heard the story long ago but she didn’t remember it until it resurfaced.

Lemmons, who first read about the controversy when “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo sent her the story, had an optimistic outlook.

“It was a long time ago and things have changed. [The uproar] does go to show you how far we’ve come,” Lemmons said. “I think it has happened a lot. In fact it’s happened a lot and not that long ago. We do have to be careful and check ourselves … [But] we’ve learned a lot since then. And in fact, in some ways, the way of approaching docu-drama is completely different than it was 25 years ago.”

Murphy was honored for a biopic of his own, starring as Rudy Ray Moore in Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name.” After a standing ovation, the comic legend humbly accepted his honor, before slipping into a tight two-minute comedy set, riffing on the lack of representation for people of color across the industry.

“Nia was talking about [how] they make makeup special for her,” he said. “They didn’t have no makeup — no African American makeup, hair department, wardrobe department, producers, they didn’t have none of that. It was rough. Especially, the hair department. If you go back and watch an old Sidney Poitier movie, his hair is f—ed up in all of them. Go. If you’ve never watched ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ pop in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ you’ll be like, ’Is this how this motherf—er came to dinner?’ But Sidney is such a brilliant actor, he was able to act like his hair was combed.”

“I don’t want to be too long winded,” Murphy concluded. “It’s always a wonderful thing to be honored and to hear those wonderful things said about you. It made me feel happy and warm on the inside.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 02: (L-R) Eddie Murphy, Nia Long, and Chaz Ebert attend the Celebration of Black Cinema at Landmark Annex on December 02, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for the Celebration of Black Cinema)

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