The Oscars have been the source of lauding and loathing for many in the African American community, from those in the field to those in the audience. This year was an unforgettable one, as actresses Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis received nominations (with Spencer going home with a win as Best Supporting Actress), some criticism, and many well-wishes from peers and fans alike.
As the Oscars buzz continues, BlackEnterprise.com caught up with five top black talents in front of and behind the cameras to talk their career triumphs and challenges, why they continue to pursue their dreams and the Hollywood politics they navigate daily. —Christian Law
POWER: Most notably known as Dennis “Cutty” Wise from the hit HBO series The Wire, Chad Coleman is a powerhouse to watch. The Richmond, Va., native commands presence in shows including The Good Wife and Third Watch, and in films including The Green Hornet. He’s currently in a lead role on Fox’s I Hate My Teenage Daughter and starring in Life, Love, and Soul, alongside Terri J Vaughn and Tami Roman.
PASSION: “Being a storyteller, I think it’s one of the greatest ways to be in service to others. It’s a gift. … The feeling I get telling stories in indescribable.”
PROCESS: Coleman recommends getting an advanced degree. “When you finish your education, the best agents come to your showcases, as well as follow your career, as opposed to you having to find your own work. It’s worth the investment.”
PROFICIENCIES: Studying technique is incredibly important, Coleman says, but don’t look at technique as a means to an end. “It’s about connecting to the work from an honest place. …Build the muscle and sustain the truthful performance.”
PROVISIONS: Humility. “I can’t go anywhere without it.”
HOLLYWOOD POLITICS: On Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis: “Politics overshadow the talent and work. We are not the politicians. I understand when people said, “Oh, not another maid.” But we’ve got to celebrate that work that they’ve done.”
POWER: Former NFL player Matthew Cherry used his on-field discipline and sportsmanship to become a film and music video director. In only a few short years, Cherry has directed videos for artists including Jazmine Sullivan, Kindred and Bilal, and worked on the set of hit shows including the CW’s Girlfriends. His next feature film, The Last Fall, (which he wrote and directed) stars Lance Gross, Nicole Beharie Brown and Vanessa Bell Calloway, and will premiere at film festivals this spring.
PASSION: “When money is tight and you have to do more with less, passion is what pushes you through.”
PATH: After completing his career in football, Cherry took his talents to Los Angeles where he started as a production assistant working on commercials. After his commercial work, he landed his Girlfriends gig, gaining inspiration from directors including Debbie Allen. He worked as a production assistant on NBC’s Heroes before deciding to venture out on his own.
PROFICIENCIES: “Every director has a different path,” he says. Cherry has learned from his experiences as a PA and surrounded himself with peers he could learn from. “It’s important to network, be a sponge and learn,” he says.
PROFESSIONAL ADVICE: “There’s never been a better time for an independent black film. Set a due date and stick to it, no matter what.” Cherry doesn’t believe in complaining. “Black film is not dead. It’s very much alive. It’s the future of the game.”
HOLLYWOOD POLITICS: “There’s nothing wrong with aspiring for awards. [Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis] deserve it. They are masters of their crafts. … The biggest reward that can happen is getting that opportunity to do it again. …We have to get past looking for recognition from the Oscars and start recognizing that.”
POWER: Whether it’s showcasing her musical abilities in Rent, starring on television shows including Boston Public or playing lead roles in the hit films Dream Girls and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married franchise, Sharon Leal has been able sustain a consistent and credible career. Her latest endeavor: an role alongside Blair Underwood in T.D. Jakes’ Women Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day.
PASSION: “I think people are always searching for what they want to do. One thing I knew I wanted to do was something in the entertainment industry.”
PATH: Though Leal was a very shy teen, she attended performing arts junior high and high schools, honing her skills. She did some community theater and auditioned for a New York production of Miss Saigon, which led to an agent, move to the city and the catapulting of her mainstream career.
PROFICIENCIES: “You must have a willingness to put yourself out there and network and [build] relationships.” You must also have a thick skin. “It’s an uphill battle. For every win, there is 100 losses.” Have faith and persevere.
PEER UPLIFTMENT: “I ran into Regina Hall, and we had both been dealing with pilot season. Instead of battling it out, we gave each other encouragement. … We are all going through the same thing, and there is room for all of us in this industry.
HOLLYWOOD POLITICS: “Its exciting to see big-budget films that are being carried through the story by African American actors. It justifies that we have compelling stories and we are capable of that. … Octavia[Spencer] and Viola [Davis] leading films is a really important thing, and it gives the rest of the industry that much more of an inclination of us as its center.
POWER: Eniola Dawodu is a young talent to watch, having worked as a costume designer in film, television and advertising. The London native was costume designer for the critically acclaimed film Pariah(starring Adepero Oduye and Kim Wayans) and the upcoming feature film Blue Caprice starring Isaiah Washington.
PASSION: “I establish a sense of place and time, adding depth to the characters via various fabrics, colors, and silhouettes. … The research aspect is always exciting, but nothing compares to finally seeing one’s work on screen.”
PATH: After graduating college, Dawodu worked in public relations. Although she enjoyed telling stories about brands and collections, she wanted to use “garments as a medium for narrative.” She found her calling while working on Andrew Dosunmu’s feature film Restless City.
PROFICIENCIES: Dawodu says a strong interest in the arts, fashion and history is vital, and internship experience is a must. Formal training helps, but technical knowledge needed can be attained through assisting and apprenticeships.
PROCESS: Positions that may seem less attractive can be the best for one’s career. “These positions have become my most rewarding learning experiences and opportunities to gain exposure and build the foundation for a network in the industry.”
PROMINENT PREDECESSORS: “I greatly admire the work of designers William Chang (In the Mood for Love; 2046), Ruth Carter (Amistad, Malcolm X), William Chang (City Under Seige), and Ruth Carter (Frankie & Alice; Sparkle). Learning under the tutelage of such designers would be an honor.”
POWER: Glendon Palmer holds one of most important jobs in Hollywood. Working in film development, it’s Palmer’s job to find the stories that need to be brought to the big screen. Most recently, Glendon was one of the producers for Jumping the Broom and is vice president of development at Bob Johnson’s OurStories Films, headed by Tracey Edmonds.
PASSION: “I have always have had a fascination for the entertainment industry. It wasn’t until I went to Northwestern University and discovered their radio,TV, and film department that I realized what career options were possible.”
PATH: After college graduation, Glendon moved to Los Angeles and got his start as a second assistant to the president of production at Savoy Pictures. From there Glendon had a series of jobs in development and management, where he’s “tried to accomplish as much as he could at each job.”
PROFICIENCIES: A love for the aspect of the business is important in his line of work, and Hollywood is a very social business, so networking is important as well.
PEER PRESSURE: “Don’t compare yourself to your peers. Concentrate on your own journey.”
HOLLYWOOD POLITICS: “I can only hope that [Octavia Spencer’s and Viola Davis’] success leads to more diverse and dynamic roles for all actors of color.”