I am not the first person to bring this up. Heck, Samuel L. Jackson went on a mini-tirade about this a decade ago
, regards to male actors. But in a day-and-age where meaty roles for black actresses are incredibly scarce, especially in big-budget studio films, it has to be a little grating for the many underemployed African American actresses to see one of the bigger female-minority roles in a major summer tent-pole this year going to not a trained thespian, but a media-friendly musician of thus-far unknown acting capabilities. Rihanna (full name: Robyn Rihanna Fenty) may indeed have the chops to convincingly play battle-ready Petty Officer Raikes who helps Taylor Kitsch fend off an alien invasion in Peter Berg's Battleship
. But one has to ask why a popular musician with absolutely no acting experience whatsoever got the prime gig ahead of any number of African American actresses who have struggled with the glass ceiling that exists in the industry.
For a list of actresses that could have used the exposure, just check out the roster for any Tyler Perry film
. Pundits and critics may scowl, but Perry is the only writer/director who consistently writes meaty dramatic and/or comedic roles for African American actresses, so it's no wonder that the best of them often find themselves on his call-sheet. The likes of Sanna Lathan, Zoe Kravitz, Naturi Naughton, Tika Sumpter, Tessa Thompson, Meagan Good, Monique Coleman, or (my personal pick) Keke Palmer all could have filled the bill. And that's not counting the likes of Thandie Newton, Kerry Washington, or Sharon Leal who have the chops to rise above the seemingly silly source material but would arguably struggle to convincingly play a 20-year old Navy officer. But even Perry has stumbled in this sense from time to time, casting Janet Jackson in three of his projects (she was the weakest actress in both Why Did I Get Married?
films as well as the weak link in For Colored Girls
), and he is allegedly casting tabloid/reality starlet Kim Kardashian
in a small role in The Marriage Counselor
. This isn't even a case like Will Smith, who toiled in several low-profile projects (Six Degrees of Separation
, Where the Day Takes You
) that honed his acting abilities while spending six years on a popular sitcom before being cast in a starring role in Michael Bay's Bad Boys
. This is a well-regarded musician (I don't follow music, but people who do assure me she's the real thing) who has been given a plum role in a major action franchise either because someone at Universal thought her popularity could put butts in the seats or because those involved in casting didn't actually know of any other black actresses who might fill the role.
This isn't a problem that only affects actresses of color, but when roles for this specific demographic are so scarce, it only sticks out more when a major opportunity is given not to a trained actress but to a media-friendly musician who seems to be doing just fine in her 'day job'. In fact, when you look at a list of minority actresses who are considered 'stars' or achieved cross-over mainstream success, a weirdly large number of them (Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Janet Jackson, Beyonce Knowles, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, etc) either started out as musicians or are primarily known for their musical careers. It's hard enough for any working actor to break out among the thousands of struggling wanna-be stars in Hollywood, harder still for actors who aren't of the white/male demographic. But for females who aren't Caucasian, it seems that it's easier to achieve mainstream movie stardom by winning a Grammy or two before you even try to win an Oscar. For the record, Rihanna is not to blame for this industry-wide pattern, and anyone in her shoes would be foolish to turn down such an opportunity. But I cannot help but wonder if the reason she got the gig is because director Peter Berg (who I'm generally a fan of) couldn't think of any actual black actresses who met the physical criteria for the role and didn't bother to actually look for any. A starring role in a likely worldwide smash like Battleship is the opportunity of a lifetime for any fledgling actress, especially one from a racial minority. It's a shame the role didn't actually go to an actress.