Hollywood's lack of black leading ladies -- Why African-American women like Gabrielle Union and Nia Long need to be cast opposite Denzel Washington and Will Smith

I like Will Smith as much as any other black woman — as much, for that matter, as any person, given that he has once again proved that he is the most bankable star in the universe. But I did not like Hancock. (Spoiler alert!) Smith’s relationship with Charlize Theron was just plain bizarre: She’s secretly superhuman! They’ve been married for eons! She’s also married to Jason Bateman! What gives?

But the duo bothered me on a deeper level, too. Why is it that once an actor like Smith reaches A-list status, Hollywood never seems to pair him with a black actress in a potential blockbuster? From Denzel Washington (Training Day) to Dwayne ”The Rock” Johnson (The Game Plan), leading African-American actors have been increasingly matched with non-black love interests. The sci-fi comedy Meet Dave (out now) finds Eddie Murphy romancing Elizabeth Banks, while Smith is paired with Latina actress Rosario Dawson in his next film, Seven Pounds (out in December). It’s obviously a strategy to make these films as accessible as possible to all audiences, but I think it also expresses an implicit fear: A film featuring the coupling of a black actor and actress is too ”urban” for the masses.

Just imagine how refreshing Hancock would have been if Theron’s heroine had been played by a black actress like Tracee Ellis Ross (TV’s Girlfriends), Paula Patton (Déjà Vu), or even Smith’s real-life wife, Jada. Would the movie have tanked? Will Smith’s last seven films have opened at No. 1, and Charlize Theron didn’t star in any of those.

I don’t have a thing against Theron — I loved her in Monster. And I don’t have anything against Will Smith, either — he’s done an enormous amount for African-Americans in Hollywood by proving to studios that actors of color can open movies here and overseas. I don’t even have anything against interracial couples on screen — in fact, that’s a nice sign of progress. My beef is that Hollywood opts for these couples again and again. The result? Black actresses are getting the shaft, and reality as I know it is not getting portrayed on the big screen. (And please don’t mention Tyler Perry’s name to me — Madea doesn’t represent me either.)

Right now, with the exception of Halle Berry, Queen Latifah, and occasionally, Beyoncé Knowles, African-American women rarely get above-the-title billing in mainstream movies that pull in big numbers. Even when they do end up in supposedly plum roles as the love interest of a white male, most of their screen time is spent talking about and dealing with the fallout of that relationship. Just look at Sanaa Lathan, who freaked out when Simon Baker discovered she wears a weave in Something New. Or Zoe Saldana, who struggled to get her father (Bernie Mac) to accept her relationship with Ashton Kutcher in Guess Who.

And Lord knows I can’t wait to see Lakeview Terrace, due out Sept. 19. This thriller, which is produced by Smith, finds Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson playing an interracial couple living in L.A., suffering the wrath of their disapproving neighbor: an angry black cop played by Samuel L. Jackson.

C’mon, Hollywood, this is tired territory. Haven’t you redone Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner enough? Why can’t black actresses play lead roles in benign romantic comedies like 27 Dresses and Made of Honor — or Hitch? Here’s the real hitch: Until women like Nia Long and Gabrielle Union are cast opposite big guns like Smith and Washington, they’ll never gain the recognition they need to open their own films. And until that happens, well, I’ll always have Dreamgirls.

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