Andrea Lewis has been acting most of her life, and has starred in series such as Soul Food: The Series, television movie Cadet Kelly, and spent five seasons on Degrassi: The Next Generation. After dealing with countless first hand experiences of being stereotyped for being a black actress, she developed the critically acclaimed web series Black Actress that was featured on the Issa Rae Productions YouTube channel.
Black Actress is a mockumentary style series that depicts Lewis and other prominent black actresses’ everyday struggle to succeed in an industry that thrives on stereotypes. The series captured the laborious day-to-day process of being an actress who constantly deals with auditions, typecasting, and rejections in a fun and comedic tone. The series was honored at the American Black Film Festival last month.
HBR had the pleasure of engaging in an empowering conversation with Andrea Lewis about the inspiration behind Black Actress, and the climate for black women in Hollywood today.
HBR: What was the inspiration behind the Black Actress web series?
Lewis: Throughout my career, I have always been one of only black girls on set; however, a cast mate of mine introduced me to a group of people by saying ‘Oh this is Andrea, she’s the urban one.’ I’m not sure whether or not it was a joke, but it was a very awkward moment to the point that it literally made everyone uncomfortable. I realized that if he doesn’t know any other black people in “real life” then that was the way that he was going to see me, and every other person of color. I know lots of black actresses, some are famous, and others are just starting out; however, at the end of the day all of us are passionate about our art, and are working hard to pursue our dream.
Being in this business, you are often times seen as “this black actress.” At times, we are put in a box because people believe that we can only do certain things; however, at the same time, it’s almost like a sisterhood because we all face the same struggles while chasing similar dreams. I felt that I wanted to create something that showed the story of black women as black actresses being normal people while pursuing a dream. I decided to include interviews from famous black actresses since we all have very similar stories and experiences.
After the initial idea, I attended a conference in New York with filmmakers of color who were putting their work online rather than waiting for a studio/network to green light their projects. I saw that they were taking matters into their own hands, so I decided to turn my idea into a web series.
HBR: What were some of the challenges that you had to face during the development and/or production process?
Lewis: The biggest challenge that I had with Black Actress at first was the concept being primarily geared towards black women. Even though black women are a force to be reckoned with, people still said the concept was “too niche.” People wanted me to make the series more universal, but honestly that’s not what I wanted to do. We constantly had to tell people that it wasn’t a universal story. The series is for people who don’t look like me to gain a better understanding of our (black actress) experiences, and for people who do look like me to get excited. I was even asked if I was going to change the name, but it’s a celebration of black women, so changing the name was out of the question.
When creating art, you have to be confident in your choices because there will be a lot of people who will be against what you are trying to do throughout the entire process. I’m not afraid to talk about race; however, a lot of people are. Many think that conversations involving race have to be negative, but I think that it’s positive to be able to comfortably and openly talk about things like this. I’ve met people from all different races who tell me that they watch and love Black Actress, and that lets me know that they are open to learning about experiences that they may not know about.
HBR: These days, it seems as if people are having more open conversations about race. Because of this do you feel as if the climate for black women in Hollywood has changed since the inception of Black Actress?
Lewis: Most definitely. When I started the series, there weren’t many opportunities for black actresses. Shortly after I started developing the series, Scandal was released, and it was exciting that people were finally starting to put us in the forefront. A story starring a black woman, about a black woman, created by a black woman was almost unheard of at that point. Since then, things have greatly improved. I also love what we are seeing from young women such as Zendaya, Yara Shahidi, Amandla Stenberg, etc. These young girls are doing some amazing things.
HBR: In your opinion what are some of the challenges that black women in Hollywood still face today?
Lewis: There are more opportunities for black women in various roles; however, I think that we are all hoping that this new push towards diversity will last and is not just a fad. Hollywood is an industry based on trends, but we hope that when it comes to diversity that this is just the beginning of a new normal. In the 90’s there were so many diverse shows, and then out of nowhere, the well completely dried up. My hope is that this doesn’t happen again.
HBR: Through Black Actress you have impacted so many young women who have aspirations of becoming an actress. What has been the most rewarding aspect of this process for you?
It’s one thing to have an idea in your head, but it’s another to see an idea come to life. Seeing Black Actress come to life was beyond rewarding. I’ve been acting my entire life, and at one point, those were the things that people recognized me for; however, those weren’t things that I wrote, and they weren’t things that I created myself. People now recognize me for Black Actress, a voice that I created. This in itself was the most rewarding aspect for me.
HBR: Is there any advice that you can pass along to young, up and coming content creators who hope to follow in your footsteps one day?
Lewis: Don’t be afraid of criticism. Be open to it, and recognize that you can always grow from every experience. Even if you thought that what you initially put out was perfect, someone can give you advice that can make it even better. Always be open to growth.