Washington Watch Hollywood Edition: The Struggle For Black Actors To Get Roles That Reflect The Black Experience (VIDEO)

Actors Brian White, Richard Roundtree, Dondre Whitfield and Phil Morris joined Roland Martin on Washington to discuss on the struggle for black actors to get the variety of television and film roles that reflect the diversity of the black experience and how the recent release of Red Tails (about the Tuskegee Airman) is helping to change the image of black actors in Hollywood.

MR. MARTIN:  This year saw the release of the movie “Red Tails,” the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and starring an almost all-Black cast, all playing great American heroes.  But it has been a long struggle for Black actors to get the variety of roles that reflect the diversity of the Black experience.

Four men who have succeeded are here today to talk about images of Black men on TV and in films.  We have Brian White, Richard Roundtree, Dondre Whitfield and Phil Morris.  The ladies who work on this show have been very excited about this panel.

Gentlemen, [we’re] certainly glad that you are here.

Well – well –

MR. RICHARD ROUNDTREE:  I want to know why you have all these young kids up in here.


MR. ROUNDTREE:  What is with them?


MR. ROUNDTREE:  [Chuckles.]

MR. MARTIN:  Well, actually, they were all afraid of you, ’cause they were – they like, “Well, we know how the sistahs gon’ respond to Shaft.”


MR. MARTIN:  I’m just lettin’ you –


MR. MARTIN:  — know.

MR. PHIL MORRIS:  We’re here –

MR. WHITFIELD:  — we’re –

MR. MORRIS:  — in the –

MR. WHITFIELD:  — we’re –

MR. MORRIS:  — middle.

MR. WHITFIELD:  — we’re here partially due to him.

MR. MARTIN:  Yeah, Mr. Cool –

MR. WHITFIELD:  Exactly.

MR. MARTIN:  — Mr. Cool right here.

MR. ROUNDTREE:  [Chuckles.]

MR. BRIAN WHITE:  Paved the way.

MR. MARTIN:  I- — it’s – it’s interesting when – you know, I’m very critical when I look at these commercials, and I – and men look like just absolute fools.  Can’t raise children, can’t – can’t do anything.  And then when you look at some of these shows, folks are just out of control.

As African-American men, when you’re sitting here getting these scripts coming across your desk, are you very clear that, “Look.  I’mma represent bruthas, so there are men who are watching me.  They are,” you know, “uncles and” – “and” – “and cousins and brothers, but also guys I don’t know.  They need to see themselves on the screen not just actin’ a fool”?

MR. WHITFIELD:  You know –


MR. WHITFIELD:  — I – I – I’m glad that you said that, and I thin- — because we were talking a lo- — a lot about this earlier.  And as a – a father of two – I have a daughter who’s seven years old, and one of the things that she takes tremendous pride in is the fact that I can actually braid her hair.  And as a father –

MR. MARTIN:  Yeah, that’s a skill set there, brutha.

MR. WHITFIELD:  — I – I m- — I mean –

MR. MARTIN:  [Chuckles.]

MR. WHITFIELD:  — it’s just that – you know, it’s – that is a – a – I see what it’s done for our relationship.  And to have that in my personal life and to reflect that in some of the things that I do in my work so that others can see, you know, “Hey, man, not only are you capable of that.  It doesn’t make you less of a man for doing it.  In fact, it makes you more of a man for doing it because it galvanizes that kind of energy and that kind of emotional connection with your family.”

MR. MORRIS:  You know, I was really fortunate to come out of a household where my father not only was bringing that image to the screen, but brought it home for me to see up close and personal.

MR. MARTIN:  Um-hum.

MR. MORRIS:  So, I got kind of a twofer.  And it is my duty to continue to push that integrity rock forward.

MR. MARTIN:  And – and, of course, folks out there si- — your father, Greg –

MR. MORRIS:  Was Greg Morris –

MR. MARTIN:  — Morris, from “Mission” –

MR. MORRIS:  — from the original –

MR. MARTIN:  — “Impossible.”

MR. MORRIS:  — “Mission Impossible” series – not the movies.

MR. MARTIN:  There you go.

I – I[’ve] got to ask you this, Richard, because what I’ve always appreciated – you talked about … publicly people say, “Shaft,” “Shaft.”  And you’re like, “Look, I did” – “I’ve done more than that.”  But what I most appreciate, whether it was that role, whether when you were on “Rock” –

MR. ROUNDTREE:  [Chuckles.]

MR. MARTIN:  — you were clear – I – see, I – I – I watch stuff, now.

MR. ROUNDTREE:  [Chuckles.]


MR. MARTIN:  You made it clear, “I’m an unapologetic Black man,” that, “I’m going to represent Black male strength when I walk into the room.”

MR. ROUNDTREE:  I had a reality check early on, “Shaft in Africa,” and my oldest daughter was going to Hollywood High.  And she came home and had this long look on her face.  I said, “What’s wrong?”

She said, “Dad, were you naked in a movie?”

“Uh, yeah.”

She said, “Everyone in the school said they show” – “they saw you naked.”

OFF CAMERA:  Hm-m-m.

MR. ROUNDTREE:  And up to that point, I wasn’t really on top of what I was doing on film to that – the way I should have been, but that was a reality check.  I said, “This is” – “This is forever.”

OFF CAMERA:  Forever.

MR. ROUNDTREE:  When you put it up there onscreen, this is forever.  And that moment, I became very aware of what I put on the screen.

MR. WHITFIELD:  And how important it is – and how that actually moves people.  I mean I – our figures – I mean our dynamic, box office stares, it – whew!  Opening up a can of worms.  W- – this is where we’re going.  I mean the – the – the Caucasian stars are not being –

MR. ROUNDTREE:  Held to –

MR. WHITFIELD:  — asked to –

MR. ROUNDTREE:  — the same standard.

MR. WHITFIELD:  — you know, e- — they’re not held to that standard.


MR. WHITFIELD:  They’re not asked to – to wear dresses and – and play drag queens and over-the-top, you know, characters like that, the way – the way ours are.  It was really eye-opening for me when I saw Dave Chappelle do an interview on “Oprah” where he talked about doing this film with Martin, and he walked into his trailer, and there was a dress in there.  And he said, “I must be in the wrong trailer ’cause there’s a dress in here.”

Well, then, the writer, the director, producers – they all go in, and they’re like, “Man, this is gonna be hilarious.”

[Unintelligible] – and he’s like, “No, man.  I’m funnier than a dress.  Just give me something funny to do.”


MR. WHITFIELD:  “I don’t need a dress to be funny.”

MR. MARTIN:  Brian.

MR. WHITE:  Exactly.  I mean you talk about duty and responsibility.  I mean all of our families carved out their – their stake, and they – they created the American Dream and then created a path for us.  I grew up on “The Cosby Show.”  I grew up seeing Phylicia Rashad and Bill Cosby – doctors and lawyers – a- — and the images that we have today that are celebrated and glorified in the media for our people – for African-Americans – don’t measure up to that standard.  So, we’ve gone backwards.


MR. WHITE:  My grandmother i- — is a college graduate and had two brothers that passed.  She claimed her Blackness, was proud of it, fought for education and passed that down to my mom, who passed it down to me to aspire to be educated and successful, et cetera.  And not paying homage to what they went through is – is ridiculous.  And –

MR. MORRIS:  You know, it’s – it’s interesting, because –

MR. ROUNDTREE:  That’s – [crosstalk].

MR. MORRIS:  — we got it at home, but a lot of our people do not get it at home.  So, it is incumbent on us when we put these images out to multi[ple] million[s] [of] viewers to help them, assist them [in] understand[ing] that’s what’s possible.


MR. MORRIS:  “Just because you didn’t have it doesn’t mean” –


MR. MORRIS:  — “it doesn’t exist.”

MR. MARTIN:  Richard.

MR. ROUNDTREE:  No, that’s a very broad brush I think you’re painting, there, because when I – when I look at guys like Fishburne and – and – and Mr. Gossett back there, I mean –


MR. WHITE:  [Crosstalk.]

MR. ROUNDTREE:  — the- — the- — there is a number of us who are doing the right role model –



MR. WHITE:  Absolutely.

MR. WHITFIELD:  Yes, sir, it’s – [crosstalk].

MR. WHITE:  We’re not necessarily being celebrated for doing the – the – the right thing –

MR. MARTIN:  And it’s –

MR. WHITE:  — in the way –

MR. MARTIN:  — interesting.  I was debating some – some folks on Twitter and Facebook, and we were talking about films, and they were talking about – they were highly critical of Tyler Perry and things along those lines.  And I said, “You know what’s interesting?”  I said of all the Tyl- — Tyler Perry films, my favorite:  “Daddy’s Little Girls.” Here was a movie with Idris Elba playing a strong brother.  He said, “Look, I’ve had stuff in my past, but I’m taking care of my kids.”

OFF CAMERA:  Um-hum.

MR. MARTIN:  For me, it is important when I see brothers truly representing on the screen –


MR. MARTIN:  — and making it clear – as Dave Chappelle said, “I’m” – “I’m not gon’ be a buf-” – “buffoon.”   I like comedy.  I like those things, but I do think it’s important when w- — when we see us walking tall, demanding respect and not simply bowing down to somebody else’s stereotype of who we are.

MR. WHITE:  And – and that’s what I’m talking about – celebrating being ahead of the curve, making sure that everybody is aware of the great roles, the great performances, the upstanding portrayals; and, you know, we’re a little bit behind the curve.  You know, we celebrate when the Golden Globes came knocking.  That’s not our organization.  The NAACP Awards is after the Golden Globes.  So, we need to be front-running, saying, “Look at this.  This is the examples we need to be aspiring to.”  You know, the examples are there; they’re bountiful.  They’re just –


MR. WHITE:  — not glorified.

MR. WHITFIELD:  — that’s another issue also, because sometimes the – the organizations or entities that cl- — that claim to be the ones that are our flagships and supposed to be the ones blowing, you know, our – our horn in terms of celebrating who and what we are, are so worried about servicing so many things, that they lose sight and lose track of what the cause was supposed to be – which was actually celebrating us.  They begin celebrating others more than they celebrate us.

MR. MARTIN:  Well, I tell you what.  The one thing that I – I will always appreciate, and why I wanted to have this panel, is because – again – to have Black men speaking about why we must represent on – hey, I – and I make – I make it a point.  I love to have fun on the air.  I love to we- — talk about wearing ascots and all those things along those lines, but I do know for a fact when young kids walk up to me – 11, 12, who literally say, “I watch you.  I listen to you, and I want to hear what you have to say.”  We are presenting an image out there, and I want them to say that, “I’m watching you,” versus some fool over here who’s cussin’ some woman out on some reality show” – ’cause we’ve got to actually have that.  So, I –

MR. WHITFIELD:  Well, because –

MR. MARTIN:  — say –

MR. WHITFIELD:  — y- —

MR. WHITE:  We need – [crosstalk].

MR. WHITFIELD:  — you represent balance –

MR. MARTIN:  And we[’ve] got to have –

MR. WHITFIELD:  — that you –

MR. MARTIN:  — balance.

MR. WHITFIELD:  — you – you can be in television.

OFF CAMERA:  Well, he represents truth – [crosstalk] –


MR. WHITFIELD:  You can be funny.  You can be all those things.

MR. WHITE:  And he represents truth.  There’re not a lot of places where I can turn on the dial and see somebody that looks just like me telling the truth –

MR. MORRIS:  Right.  Not –

MR. WHITE:  — ‘cause[?] – [crosstalk].

MR. MORRIS:  — an agenda.

MR. WHITE:  Yes.

MR. MORRIS:  Yeah.  We can’t always have an agenda, because –

MR. MARTIN:  Right.

MR. MORRIS:  — then it’s – it – it reeks of misinformation and false –

MR. MARTIN:  Gotcha.

MR. MORRIS:  — hopes.  As you know, being a politician, history is written by those in power.


MR. MORRIS:  So, the images that are being put forth are being put forth by those in power.

MR. MARTIN:  Go- —

MR. MORRIS:  The mo- —

MR. MARTIN:  — gotcha.

MR. MORRIS:  — the more of us we have in –

MR. MARTIN:  That’s why I like –

MR. MORRIS:  — power –

MR. MARTIN:  — havin’[?] the power of my microphone.

MR. MORRIS:  — there ya go.

MR. MARTIN:  Brian –


MR. MARTIN:  — Richard – [chuckles] – Dondre, Phil, we certainly appreciate it.  Thanks a lot.  Keep it up, gents.

MR. ROUNDTREE:  [Unintelligible.]

MR. WHITE:  Pleasure.