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Actress Terri Vaughn launches documentary on struggles of black women in hollywood

Posted by Media Outrage on March 7, 2008

Terri Vaughn

Actress Terri Vaughn who is best remembered for her role as Lovita Jenkins on The Steve Harvey Show has shot a documentary entitled Angels Can’t Help But Laugh, that delves deep into the struggles of Black actresses in Hollywood. She sat down with Essence and spoke candidly about her reason for making the documentary and her perception of some of the struggles that black actresses face.

Essence.com: Congrats on your documentary, Angels Can’t Help But Laugh, which has been circulating the film festivals. What is the significance of the title?

Terri Vaughn: When I began filming the documentary I was in the midst of making a bold move—out of my [first] marriage. I was reading A Woman’s Worth by Marianne Williamson, and there was a line I read that said, “angels can’t help but laugh.” Immediately, I knew that was the title for this project. For me, the title simply means that throughout all the trials and tribulations, we [as actresses] are still able to laugh and love what we do and stay motivated in the midst of it all.

Essence.com: In your docufilm, Regina King, Malinda Wiliiams, Tasha Smith and Sheryl Lee Ralph speak candidly about the struggle of Black actresses in Hollywood. Are you concerned that folks will perceive you all as ABWs (Angry Black Women)?

T.V.: I don’t believe we came off as angry, but informative. Sometimes having a voice means that people are going to judge you. For once, I wasn’t concerned about being judged by people because my focus was to create a forum to give voice to Black women and bring power and enlightenment. The film is proactive in creating dialogue and acknowledging the plight of Black actresses; its purpose is not to complain. If we just sit around and say nothing like we often do and no light is ever shed, then we’re as much to blame for our position or lack thereof in Hollywood.

Essence.com: There were many older and younger actresses such as Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall, Nia Long and Sanaa Lathan who were not a part of that forum. Why? 

T.V.: Honestly, I would just say they didn’t get back to me. I know Gabrielle and Nia were out of town. I never heard back from Sanaa but did speak with Nia. A lot of it was scheduling because we only had two days to shoot it and then there were some who were afraid and didn’t want to talk about it, and I understood that too. I still love them all and we’re still friends because I do understand their positions of not being ready to voice their opinion on the matter.

Essence.com: I’m sure those actresses who declined felt like they didn’t want to jeopardize the work that they do get.

T.V.: Exactly, they didn’t want to feel like they were going to get blackballed. For me, it wasn’t about that I wasn’t going to show anybody in a negative light. Again, it was a matter of taking our power and having our voice and why should we be afraid?

Essence.com: Did you reach out to the older actresses outside of your peers?

T.V.: Oh definitely. And I would say that the older generation was not so ready to talk.

Essence.com: What would be a start in the right direction to give Black actresses a fair playing ground in Hollywood?

T.V.: A start is anyone who takes the time to watch this documentary that’s a start. Again, our voice is the most important and powerful thing we have. Not only a voice to talk about what’s wrong, but who we are as Black women. The images that are portrayed of us are so limited and don’t show the breadth of who we are. It’s disheartening for me to think that my nieces when they watch television they receive such a narrow view of a Black woman and a view of a woman that I don’t necessarily want them to see or whom they never see in their home. They don’t see Miss New York; they see their mother who has a Masters and is a social worker and they see their aunt who is a producer and an actress so why can’t they turn on the television and see more Black women like them on TV?
Essence.com: So what exactly do you want from the Hollywood powers that be?

T.V.: All we’re asking is that Hollywood gives us a voice for all of our voices. Yes, we do have hoochies and I’m not denying that they are a part of our culture, but just like White women who might have images of trailer trash, supermodels and business execs, at least we get to see all of those images. Give us an opportunity to show all of who we are not just the small part that they feel safe and comfortable in showing. Many of the execs are white males but they don’t know our voice. I don’t expect them to know our voice, so they should listen and allow us to tell you. But don’t tell us that a particular image of us is not true because you aren’t familiar with that particular image and why would you be you’re not a Black woman. Hire more of us to put our stories out there to offer Hollywood a different view and teach them who we are. One way to combat it. We’re not saying they are bad and evil that’s not what we’re saying at all. We’re saying just listen to us. Let us entertain you with all of our isms.

Essence.com: Sounds fair. What has been the most harrowing experience you’ve had in Hollywood?

T.V.: I would say it was the first time I’ve experienced racism in the world as far as going into a room with producers to audition for the part. I can’t even call it racism, but it was the first time I’d experience that level of ignorance since I became an actress. There is no way that this producer could have known because it was so out of line that I refuse to believe there was any way he could have know. I was auditioning and reading the part of a mother and wife and in the midst of my audition he says, “Can you do that neck-rolling thing?” I froze in my shoes. I couldn’t move nor could I believe that he even went as far as to demonstrate the action. In that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Essence.com: Wow, there have been parodies of such incidents, but who knew they were real?

T.V.: Exactly. Here I am playing a grown woman with grown kids so why would I be rolling my neck around?

Essence.com: Do you think they were familiar with your past role as Lovita Jenkins on the defunct Steve Harvey show and wanted you to invoke her spirit?

T.V.: I have no idea, but do I really need to go back and do Lovita again? When I played Lovita and did those mannerisms no one ever told me to do that because it was what came naturally as the character developed and it was from a genuine place. It didn’t come from me wanting to create a stereotype but it was truthful and I just couldn’t do what that producer asked me to do because it didn’t come from a genuine place of being truthful.

Essence.com: Regina King spoke of the okey-doke that the studios often try to pit Black actresses against one another. Do you think the divide and conquer theory is a common practice in Hollywood?

T.V.: I think that this industry does that. I think the energy of this business and city we are in practices it. The belief is that like two black women can’t win. It’s either one or the other. If one’s successful then another can’t be. That’s the energy out here in Hollywood.

Essence.com: Megan Good shared a heartfelt story about Gabrielle Union helping her to land a role in the film Deliver Us From Eva when the director felt she wasn’t right for the role. Do you think there are enough black actresses who make it reaching back to bring their sisters along?

T.V: I think that you do try to help your friends if you are in a position of where you are. I think that we do try to go to bat for our friends.

Essence.com: Well, they say, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans!’ Are you still working with your Take Wings Foundation?

T.V.: Absolutely. I started it 10 years ago to help the young women in the neighborhood where I grew up in the Bay area, which was a drug-infested community with a liquor store on every corner. I have always felt sorry for the girls that were left behind and still living there because I got out and went to college and a lot of them fell by the wayside. Many of those young ladies don’t have any dreams outside of the four corners that they live. So 10 years ago, I invited 40 girls from my old neighborhood to dinner and invited two of my actress-friends Kelly Williams and Suzanne Douglass and we ate, talked, cried and laughed about everything from sex to boyfriends to boosting. We still do the dinner and we award scholarships throughout the entire Bay area, provide funding for special events. For instance one young lady wants to become a lawyer and was a lawyer’s conference in another state and we flew her out there to attend. Some of the ladies also participate in Tavis Smiley’s Leadership Program. Overall, we just try to expose them to different things.

Essence.com: What were some of the adversities you faced growing up in a violent neighborhood?

T.V.: When I was growing up, I loved getting the attention from the drug dealers and I wanted to be their girlfriend. I was jumped a bunch of times on my way to school, and date raped when I was 18, so I definitely can relate to so many of these young ladies and the pressures they are going through. I’m not just preaching, I’ve lived and experience many of the same things they are going through.

Essence.com: As they say the children are our future, so thank you for giving back. In terms of the scope of your career, do you ever worry that your most memorable role will be The Steve Harvey Show’s Lovita Jenkins?

T.V.: Not at all. What I know is that my career and journey in Hollywood has been ordained by God so I know there was a purpose for Lovita. And that was to give me a forum and put me on people’s radar so that I’d be able to reach more people. My reality is that I have so much work to do with these girls and they want to listen to me because they see me on television. I know that God has blessed me in this career if for that only that reason and if that creative voice is taken away then I possible risk losing the opportunity to help these girls so there has to be something bigger in all of this. Most importantly, I always want to be remembered as a fun, truthful, powerful and enlightening voice for Black women

Mediaoutrage– All we can say is banging! Let us articulate better than that. We definitely have a high respect and opinion of Terri Vaughn because of what she is endeavoring to do. That is something that others would probably not do for fear that they might alienate the powers that be in Hollywood. But even further than that is her Take Wings Foundation that reaches out to young women in such a uniquely positive manner. Keep doing your thing Mrs. Terri Vaughn! Great interview. To read the interview in its entirety head on over to Essence.

2 Responses to “Actress Terri Vaughn launches documentary on struggles of black women in hollywood”

  1. menopausemama said

    What a wonderful telling interview! I have heard these stories over and over again–most recently from actresses Bern Nadette Stanis and Debbie Zipp. The other problem with Hollywood is they like to “stereotype” Black actresses into certain roles.

  2. beach chick said

    It is great to hear that she want the voices of Black Women in Hollywood to be heard. It’a about time. I agreed with her as far as the images that are portrayed on television today. They are quite negative…for example, the Flava of Love one particular group of women…mainly Black Women and shows us in a negative light. What about the women that I can relate too..a woman who is trying to balance a family, career, small business while attending college. You don’t see that but you see someone from I Love New York and unfortunately she is representing Black Women. It is unfair because you have the negative images from caucasians but they are also shown in a very positive light. Most often you have more positive of white women than negative. It’s time for a change. I am not ghetto, I don’t live in the projects, I am educated, I know my kids’ father and I am married to him. I want to see more of that image on TV and in movies. I want to see Black Women that I can relate too.

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