Over the past year, Hollywood has lost some of its most influential and talented Black actors, directors and writers who devoted their careers to advancing Black narratives in media.
Actors Chadwick Boseman, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Tommy Debo Lister, Paula Kelly, Ja’Net DuBois and TV writer Jas Waters were among the individuals the entertainment industry lost in recent years. In honor of Black History Month, Intersections South L.A. is celebrating the lives of some of these Black trailblazers in the industry and highlighting their overwhelming contributions to the Los Angeles entertainment community.
The late actor Chadwick Boseman starred in many films where he played historically influential characters, including Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall. However, he also became a hero to many in the first mega budget film featuring a Black director and a majority Black crew in Marvel’s “Black Panther.”
Boseman’s passing in August of 2020 from stage four colon cancer came as a shock to many, as Boseman never publicly disclosed his diagnosis. Though the actor’s life was cut short, South L.A.-based film director Donte Pipkins admires Boseman’s career and would have loved seeing him continue in the industry.
“The fact that we lose somebody like himself with such great stature is almost like having an original book that you’re reading, and it just burns up before you can finish it,” Pipkins illustrated. “He was nowhere near finished with his journey and what he was trying to do.”
In an industry where Black people have been historically misrepresented, many Black women helped to push for their narratives to be told truthfully. Actor Cicely Tyson, who died this past January, and actor Diahann Carroll, who died in 2019, were some of Hollywood’s most powerful Black female pioneers.
Gil Robertson IV, the President of the African American Film Critics Association, recounted his admiration for the late starlets.
“I would say I was inspired by them as a young person, because they represented excellence and because of their conduct,” he said. “And just representing themselves as human beings and being generous enough to be so committed to the delivery of positive imagery about humanity, and Black people specifically.”
Tyson dedicated her career to taking on complex Black female characters. In an interview with Parade Magazine in 1972, Tyson said she would rather starve than play “characterless,” roles like those she had seen on screen. And taking every effort to voice her opinions helped set a precedent that allowed the needle to be pushed forward, according to Robertson.
Carroll also advocated for the rounding of her Golden Globe Award-winning performance as her titular character, Julia in the 1960s television show “Julia.”
“The way that [Carroll] insisted with her producers that her character Julia … was a three-dimensional portrait of a Black woman,” Robertson said. “In doing so, I believe she just set an example that people who have since followed in her path have tried to emulate.”
Robertson has also had the opportunity to meet and connect with some of these late actors while reporting on entertainment news. While he was not close friends with them, he encountered both Carroll and Boseman during his career.
“None of these people were caught up in the celebrity,” Robertson said. “[They] didn’t really drink that Kool-Aid and really understood that they were vessels for sharing something even greater about humanity and about our purpose here as people.”
To Sandra Evers-Manly, the president of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, many of these figures’ impact went beyond their on screen representations. She said that while the deaths of many influential Black figures has weighed heavily on the Black community, the mainstream media is bringing attention to social unrest and helping propel more inclusive stories.
“I think clearly with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, it says to this nation, it says to our schools, our businesses and our cities that we’ve got to be better,” Evers-Manly said. “[We’ve] got to bring about more diversity, more representation. We’ve got to bring about more equality, more social justice. ... And in order to do that, we’ve got to see more representation of Black people and other people of color, individuals of all abilities, the individuals from LGBTQ.”
Through her role at the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, Evers-Manly has helped to further the representation of African Americans in front of the camera, as well as behind the scenes through advocacy, scholarships and educational programs.
The organization will also be virtually hosting its 28th Annual Sistas are Doin’ it for Themselves Film Festival, which is set to take place Mar. 27 to Apr.11. Black women directors are invited to submit their films until Mar. 1, so that they can share their stories and open discussions around the agency of women of color in cinema.
In light of these renowned entertainers’ passings, Robertson believes in the importance of their impact and the footprints they left behind, as well as the value in continuing to honor them and carry on their legacies.
“We should try to learn from their lives and their contributions. We should try to add to what they brought to the table and expand it — grow it,” he said. “By doing that, by continuing to push the envelope to expand the hopes and dreams that they were a part of, then that would be a great tribute to their memories.”