After expressing my most sincere condolences to all those grieving, and deepest respect for the memory of Alex Okrent and the victims of senseless violence in Aurora, Colorado and Chicago, Illinois, I prayed for a respite from sadness, heartache, and frustration. But after Sally Ride’s loss to pancreatic cancer, Sherman Hemsley’s passing, and Lupe Ontiveros’s loss to liver cancer, I don’t feel I can. These three human beings pushed boundaries, paved paths, and deserved better than to have vital elements of their identities minimized until death.
Wow! That’s how the biography for Dr. Sally Ride on National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s “Learning Center for Young Astronomers” webpage begins. And this word choice could not be more appropriate. The first American woman in space, applied for NASA’s astronaut program in response to a newspaper announcement of the opportunity to serve as a scientist committed to space exploration, innovation, and the betterment of all living beings. 8,000 men and women applied for 35 slots. Dr. Ride, who received four degrees from Stanford University, including a Ph.D. in astrophysics, was one of six women accepted. Dr. Ride was never a stranger to success, or national recognition of her talent. In college, she was ranked one of the best tennis players in the nation. Legendary superstar Billie Jean King even urged her to drop out so she could immediately start playing professionally. A hero for the United States and all nations, Dr. Ride refused to rest on her laurels, she translated her inspirational biography into a career as an educator, mentor, and leader in the effort to recruit diverse students from all gender, ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A case in point, her support of “Change the Equation,” a national initiative to increase STEM literacy, announced by President Obama in 2010.
Dr. Ride’s professional life was one of milestones. But her personal life would always be void of one. She loved a woman named Tam O’Shaughnessy for 27 years. In the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s, NASA would not have retained an astronaut openly engaged in a same-sex relationship. Dr. Ride’s personal sense of privacy notwithstanding, coming out would have meant an end to her career in the space program. Today, regardless of President Obama and Vice-President Biden’s support for same-sex marriage, only six states and the District of Columbia embrace equal marriage rights. Two states recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. 42 states have statutes or amendments to their state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage.
Dr. Ride never married her loving partner of 27 years. This is likely because if they had wished to do so legally, prior to Dr. Ride’s passing, they would not have been able to in 84% of the United States of America—the country that today mourns her and calls her a hero and role model.
Because she is not legally recognized as a widow, Dr. O’Shaughnessy is not eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is the law of the land. And this means more than the fact that some Americans are afforded the opportunity to file joint tax returns while others are not. It speaks to a lingering hypocrisy in the words that conclude the Pledge of Allegiance. DOMA made Dr. Ride and Dr. O’Shaughnessy second-class citizens.
We need to conquer cancer the way that Dr. Ride conquered space. Nearly 580,000 Americans are expected to die of cancer in 2012. We also need to conquer everything preventing same-sex marriage in all 50 states—from DOMA to the homophobia demonstrated by Jennifer Carroll, the Boy Scouts, and Chick-fil-A—not just because it is the right thing to do. But because “with liberty and justice for all,” is neither an ideal, nor an aspiration: It is a promise assented to, a guarantee that equal protection under the law was not written into the Constitution alongside a “damned asterisk.”
Sherman Hemsley and Lupe Ontiveros were artists; celebrities in their lifetimes, performers, actors, pop culture icons. To some, it may seem unorthodox or inappropriate to eulogize them alongside an astronaut, a symbol of our national strength, like Dr. Ride. In response, I offer President John F. Kennedy words:
“Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much… Art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment… The artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life… If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist… If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens… And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”
Sherman Hemsley learned the craft of acting at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts. He joined the Negro Ensemble Company, and studied with renowned actor, director, and future Dean of the Yale School of Drama, Lloyd Richards. He performed with the Urban Arts Corps, and worked with the first African American woman to ever direct on Broadway, distinguished playwright, Vinnette Carroll. Norman Lear cast him as the iconic television character, George Jefferson, after seeing him on the stage as Gitlow Judson in a Broadway production of “Purlie.”
Mr. Hemsley was a professionally trained performer, prepared for the challenge and complexity of any acting role. He was told by the show’s producers to portray a “pompous and feisty” character. In this, he was pitch perfect. But Hollywood has historically traded in stereotypical caricatures, not multidimensional identities. The complexities he would bring to the character by which he is still defined, were not explicitly asked for, or rewarded.
Though the star of the longest running sitcom with a predominantly black cast in television history, he was not showered with Emmy and Golden Globe awards. Though the star of a groundbreaking show, he was forced to play to many of the long-standing stereotypes African American artists and scholars have fought against. As a case in point, George Jefferson’s often imitated strut came from Mr. Hemsley’s attempt to lighten the mood of a set exhausted by the ad nauseam of seemingly endless takes. By his own admission, he was “clowning around.” Yet that depiction, one arguably reminiscent of a minstrel show character is the one network executives, embraced and promoted.
After walking away from an unprecedented $50 million deal with Comedy Central, Dave Chappelle famously said, “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling.” Compare that to what Mr. Hemsley told Entertainment Tonight about his iconic role, “We were just happy to be working regularly.” He worried about how others might perceive him. He feared someone might attack him because of the things his character said and did. But he concluded, “In those days there wasn’t much work around for us, so we really appreciated it.”
Have things changed for performers who belong to communities of color? Has progress been made in Hollywood, writ large? 12 years ago I answered in the negative.
Ten years ago, Lupe Ontiveros agreed with me.
“When I go in [for an audition]… [If I] speak perfect [American] English [without an accent], I don’t get the part,” she told the New York Times. The Times went on to write:
“Film and television typecasting of blacks in such roles once led to protests… Today the black maid has all but disappeared from big screen and small… But that sensitivity has not carried over to Hispanics. Ms. Ontiveros has become a sort of Hispanic Hattie McDaniel… Hispanics are the most significantly underrepresented ethnic group on prime time… Latino characters, more than any other, tend to be concentrated in low-status occupations like service workers, unskilled laborers and criminals… The entertainment industry seems stuck on the image of Hispanics as mostly poor, Spanish-speaking or of recent immigrant origin… Typecasting seems entrenched… Ms. Ontiveros has had some independent film standing of her own, winning a special jury prize for acting at the Sundance Film Festival for ‘Real Women Have Curves’… She received excellent notices for her role as the maid Consuelo in Todd Solondz’s ‘Storytelling.’ And in 2000, Ms. Ontiveros won the National Board of Review award for best supporting actress in the film ‘Chuck and Buck,’ in which she played a sympathetic theater manager without an accent… [Nevertheless, Latinos] remain stuck at only 2 percent of primary recurring roles [on television]… The problem of perceptions runs deep… [Take] Oscar-winning film ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ based on the life of John Forbes Nash… [In the real world] wife, Alicia Nash, is from El Salvador, but the movie made no mention of her ethnicity and the part was played by Jennifer Connelly, a non-Latina, who won an Oscar for the portrayal… The omission robbed audiences of the image of a Hispanic professional who helped her husband re-emerge from his mental illness… For Ms. Ontiveros, being a maid is not her personal reality though it has become her signature role. Her middle-class parents sent her to Texas Women’s University, where she majored in psychology and social work, and treated her to a month-and-a-half trip to Europe on graduation… Ms. Ontiveros said she began being hired to play maids soon after she began as an extra in the 1970s, as she followed artistic leanings that came from childhood dance and piano lessons. Her maid résumé includes some memorable parts, and films including Steven Spielberg’s ‘Goonies’ and Gregory Nava’s ‘El Norte’… Ms. Ontiveros, who for a long time pursued an acting career while working as a social worker and bringing up three sons with her husband… did not regret playing so many maids. It has given her steady work and allowed her to portray working people honorably… I’m proud to represent those hands that labor in this country,’ she said. ‘I’ve given every maid I’ve ever portrayed soul and heart’…”
Lupe Ontiveros had every reason to be proud. I burst with pride, every Latino I know does, with what she did with what she was given.
But I am deeply ashamed of the entertainment industry.
This has not changed. In fact, actors of color are still forced to compete for supporting roles often written for anachronistic caricatures, even when the setting dictates otherwise.
If you don’t believe me, read the letter Kendra James wrote to Lena Dunham, entitled, “I Exist,” or Jennifer Chang’s response to the casting of only two Asian actors in the stage workshop production of “The Nightingale,” a story set in China.
Natalie Portman is not a classically trained ballerina. Zoë Saldaña is. Why wasn’t Ms. Saldaña cast as Nina in “Black Swan”?
Anne Hathaway had never been cast in an action film. Eva Mendes was in “Ghost Rider,” “Once Upon A Time In Mexico,” “2 Fast, 2 Furious,” “All About The Benjamins,” and “The Spirit,” a film based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the author of the “Dark Knight.” Did Christopher Nolen, did anyone at Warner Bros. Pictures, acknowledge that the seed of the Catwoman they wished to create was planted by Ms. Mendes’ portrayal of Sand Saref?
In the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, director Danny Boyle, cast a woman of color, an 18 year-old volunteer from Deptford, (south London) named, Jasmine Breinburg to play June, and another volunteer of color, whose name I was not able to locate, to play Frankie, in “Frankie and June Say ‘Thanks Tim’!”
In a pre-ceremony briefing, the director said without apology that he was committed to representing, “the whole country.”
Ms. Ontiveros and Mr. Hemsley deserved an arts and entertainment industry populated by writers, producers, directors, and executives willing to make such a commitment.
Dr. Ride deserved a government populated by elected and appointed officials willing to make such a commitment.
We The People deserve a United States of America willing to make such a commitment. And not just for the sake of posterity or future generations. But because “with liberty and justice for all,” is neither an ideal, nor an aspiration:
It is a promise assented to.
It is a guarantee.
Posted: Tuesday, 7 August 2012