Michael Wright, Bern Nadette Stanis and Wendy Raquel Robinson walk into a bar …
OK, the first thing you should know is that African Americans generally don’t tend to patronize “bars.” Secondly, if any of the above-named people walked into a nightclub, a dancerie or any place where more than half of the patrons could do the kick-pivot part of the Electric Slide without looking at their feet, a riot would immediately ensue. During the melee, someone would scream, “Can’t nobody sing like Eddie Kang Jr.” as Tasha Mack was swarmed with people taking selfies. Unfortunately, James and Florida’s only daughter would spend most of the evening turning down free drinks because, according to an online poll I just made up, 87.3 percent of African American men rate Thelma in the top five most beautiful actresses of all time.
If you had to google any of the names or references in the previous paragraph, then you might be white, because this is what happens when you’re Blackfamous.
As I explained in the now-infamous tweet, Blackfamous is the gap between Black stardom and white anonymity. A person becomes “Blackfamous” when most Black people know their name and face, but white people often have no clue. For example, while Barack Obama is famous famous, actor Clifton Powell is the standard-bearer for Blackfame — even if you don’t know his name, you know who he is and have enjoyed his work. With or without his backing band Maze, singer Frankie Beverly is so Blackfamous that the average cookout attendee is (by my estimation) seven times more likely to know the lyrics to “Before I Let Go” than the words to any song in the entire Beatles catalog.
While Hollywood may regard widespread popularity among African American audiences as niche, many African American celebrities enjoy a level of security and artistic freedom their white counterparts could only dream of. Loretta Devine has been involved in major motion pictures and television projects for more than 40 years. Nia Long’s 30-year run of iconic film and TV performances includes Boyz n the Hood, Friday, Love Jones, Boiler Room, NCIS: Los Angeles and #BlackAF. Instead of relegating themselves to the position of “character actors” or jockeying for roles as the third lead in disposable romantic comedies, many Blackfamous stars chose to chart their own paths by appealing to audiences who want to see themselves reflected in the media they consume.
However, this doesn’t mean these performers are choosing to participate in lesser projects or play lesser roles. For Black film and television viewers, even the idea of “mainstream” is a matter of perspective. Black actors and actresses are fully aware that they must die, cry or help white people get by — usually by performing a pain-soaked version of Blackness in a vehicle white people find interesting — to have any hope of winning acclaim, accolades or applause. Meanwhile, their more privileged peers can snag an Oscar by staring morosely into the middle distance in a film that makes $7.32. In all fairness, many Black people — myself included — can’t differentiate between crestfallen whitefamous actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet (who might also be Scarlett Johansson). Plus, I’m pretty sure Chris Pine, Chris Pratt and Chris Hemsworth are just one guy collecting three different checks.
Thankfully, awards shows are now making an effort to be more inclusive, and most streaming services now have a section to highlight “Black voices.” In Hollywood, there are Black movies, and then there are just “movies,” because television and film executives are fully aware of an enunciated but uncomfortable truth about the entertainment industry:
White people typically don’t consume Black art.
Numerous studies have shown that, while Black audiences will watch shows and movies featuring white characters, white audiences generally don’t indulge in media with nonwhite leads. For instance, in the 1994-95 season, Fox’s Thursday night lineup boasted the three highest-rated shows among Black viewers: Martin, Living Single and New York Undercover. None of them, however, cracked the top 100 among white audiences, which is why Flava magazine and Maxine Shaw are still Blackfamous while Friends (the whitewashed knockoff of Living Single) remained relatively obscure to African American viewers, ranking 99th out of 115 series for that audience. Yet even today, the top 10 network shows among Black viewers mirror the list for white viewers, except for the occasional show with a Black lead.
Perhaps the greatest thing about this cultural phenomenon is that it never fades, nor is it dependent on youth or beauty or widespread appeal. LisaRaye will always be Diamond. And even if he never steps foot on another airplane or cruise ship, Tom Joyner can cut in line at any cookout in African America. Contrary to what one moderately talented whitefamous soup-can designer would have you believe, there is a certain kind of celebrity that lasts more than 15 minutes.
Blackfamous is forever.
Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and humorist, and author of the upcoming book The Un-Whitewashed Story of America.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.