Once upon a time, black actresses only played maids, nannies and women who entangled themselves in forbidden interracial relationships. Now, the landscape has changed.
But we still have work to do.
Tatyana Ali, best known for playing Ashley Banks on the 90s hit, “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” came to the Winter Visual Performing Arts Center on Tuesday to discuss the lingering issues of diversity, specifically in the entertainment business.
The speech entitled “Political Activism” lured hundreds of students, black and white, inside Clair Hall, thanks to the NAACP College Chapter and Black Student Union, which hosted the event.
After 30 years as an actress, singer and producer, Ali has worked with some of the most influential actors, singers and filmmakers, including Aretha Franklin, James Earl Jones, Eddie Murphy and, of course, Will Smith.
Along the way, however, she has seen prime examples of where Hollywood has inadequately represented the nation’s diversity.
“We need diverse representation,” she said.
During points in her career, however, there have been periods that media—whether they’re movies, television shows, podcasts or Facebook posts–have fallen short of that representation.
Archetypes is a word she used prevalently, alluding to the broad stereotypes given to black roles on television.
“That is the world I swim in,” she said, “I want to break beyond those archetypes.”
Black women, therefore, should not just be represented as maids or nannies. They have stories just like everyone else.
To properly transfer that paradigm to the big screen, Ali said empathy is necessary for others to feel what others feel and live what they live through.
“It gives us an opportunity to see life through someone else’s eyes,” she said.
Ali mentioned groundbreaking films, such as “Brokeback Mountain,” revolving around a male gay couple, that force Americans to see life through another person’s lens and experience what others may have to go through just because of who they are and who they love.
Since that film, she noted, gay marriage has been given a new level of coverage on the news. Society is warming up to the idea of gay marriage, with many states lifting their bans on same-sex marriage.
Another influential film was 2013’s Oscar-winner, “12 Years a Slave,” documenting the tribulations of Solomon Northup, a free black man abducted and sold into slavery.
“We were all forced to talk about the past,” Ali said about the film. “There is incredible … power in storytelling.”
Ali’s own story has had some bumps in the road. She explained, after the 80s and 90s, where black sitcoms were rampant, they seemed to dissipate as the new century rolled in.
“I would go months without any type of job coming up,” she said.
During these times, she attended Harvard and received a degree in Political Science and African American Studies.
To meld her passions together, she started a production company with her sister, Anastasia, called HazraH Entertainment in 2007. Their purpose is telling provocative stories that bring social issues to the forefront.
It’s just not Ali and her sister, however, who carry the burden of properly representing the world in media. Everyone in the crowd has that responsibility, she said, through films or music they produce, and even posts on social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“You have the power to see how it goes,” Ali told the students.