“There are very few scripts for Black actors is the number one problem … then you have the same actors vying for the same position (role). Sometimes when I go into production meetings, I am the only Black person sitting in,” said Gray, who operates his Christopher Gray Casting Agency in West Hollywood.
As one of the pioneers in Black Hollywood and among a handful of Black casting directors, Gray is not known in Hollywood production circles as a Black casting agent. He is the only African-American casting director to have cast extras with all of the major studios — 20th Century Fox, MGM Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney/Touchstone, Dreamworks, New Line Cinema and Paramount Pictures — and worked with blockbuster producers and directors, including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Mann and David Lynch.
And although he has cast millions of extras and his movie credits include A-list superstars such as Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Denzel Washington and Will Smith, procuring the next movie or TV project remains an “everyday struggle.”
“Hollywood is who you know. It’s all about who you know. If you don’t know anybody, it’s really hard to break in,” explained Gray, who gave rare, behind-the-scenes insight on how casting directors are hired in Hollywood.
His advice for people who want to be the next Christopher Gray is to learn the behind-the-scenes areas of the movie-making or TV show production business, including wardrobe, costume design, hair or makeup, through apprenticeships. There are more opportunities behind the scenes.
Worse, however, were the accusatory and the insulting: “You’re just projecting, stop it,” one person said, “Star Wars doesn’t need your PC trash” said others in one fashion or another, and “He doesn’t need to be black…“—as though that were the only alternative to being white—”…to be a baddass, people. Go watch Roots and stop trying to take Star Wars from white people.” was the response of one all too memorable commentator on Facebook which I had the personal displeasure to witness.
So, you see, when fans turn to people like [Lucasfilm VIP Pablo] Hidalgo, many aren’t just hoping for answers, they were hoping for a shield. They wanted to hear that it wasn’t just all in their heads, that they weren’t projecting. They wanted to hear that there was actually someone who represented them in this new series, and that they wouldn’t need to squint and tilt their heads to see themselves in a new Star Wars hero. They wanted to stand up proudly in the fandom and assert their feelings without fearing venom and fire for daring to think that a man of color could lead a Star Wars show.
Mia Moretti on the new lead characters of color announced for Star Wars: Rebels. “Rebels, Kanan Jarrus, and the race factor” from Eleven-Thirty Eight.com.
"We need protagonists like Sabine. We need a powerful young Asian woman to stand for the oft-neglected Asian women in the vast and diverse Star Wars audience. To light a new fire in the hearts of young Asian children, and little girls of all sorts so that we might share Star Wars with them. We need a character who takes us back to the Mandalorians’ roots as an omni-inclusive culture of soldiers after the singularly white, nordic group The Clone Wars brought to television viewers. And we need a protagonist like Kanan, a strong man of color in whose heroics a wide range of fans can see a reflection of themselves. We need a character that can inspire fresh awe in young boys of color, someone who can show them that they too can be the heroes of a galaxy far, far away.”
Would Nyong’o be on Hollywood’s radar at all if not for her discovery by Steve McQueen, an Afro-British director of Trinidadian and Grenadian descent? To be more blunt: Would an American director have felt comfortable casting a woman of Nyong’o’s hue as the leading lady of a major Hollywood film? A quick look back at film history and a discussion with an expert on skin color in American culture indicates that this is unlikely.
For starters, there has never been a black actress of Nyong’o’s ebony skin tone to ascend to Hollywood A-list status. And among those black actresses who have succeeded in Hollywood with deeper skin tones, like Grace Jones, they have not been positioned as leading ladies or, more specifically, objects of affection. Those roles have been concentrated among fairer actresses and those with more traditionally Eurocentric features, including Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Pam Grier, Shari Belafonte, Rae Dawn Chong, Cynda Williams, Halle Berry, Rosario Dawson, Thandie Newton, Zoe Saldana, Rashida Jones and Paula Patton—a number of whom also identify as biracial or multiracial. On the small screen, at least, Gabrielle Union and Kerry Washington have enjoyed recent breakthroughs, but while neither woman is fair-skinned, they might not always be described as dark, either.
Had an American been at the helm of 12 Years a Slave, it seems unlikely that Nyong’o or someone who looks like her would have been cast.
Writer Keli Goff at The Root states, “If Afro-Brit Steve McQueen hadn’t made the Oscar-nominated film, a lighter-skinned actress might have been cast in the role of Patsey.”
Read more from her op-ed titeld “Why an African-American Director Wouldn’t Have Cast Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave”.
I wrote down this speech that I had no time to practice so this will be the practicing session. Thank you Alfre, for such an amazing, amazing introduction and celebration of my work. And thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of such an extraordinary community. I am surrounded by people who have inspired me, women in particular whose presence on screen made me feel a little more seen and heard and understood. That it is ESSENCE that holds this event celebrating our professional gains of the year is significant, a beauty magazine that recognizes the beauty that we not just possess but also produce.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty, Black beauty, dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: ‘Dear Lupita,’ it reads, ‘I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.’
My heart bled a little when I read those words, I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.
I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.
And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no conservation, she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then…Alek Wek. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me, when I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. But around me the preference for my skin prevailed, to the courters that I thought mattered I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me you can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you and these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.
And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.
And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.
There is no shame in Black beauty.