Will ‘Precious’ And ‘Avatar’ Change Things For Black Actresses?

Gabourey Sidibe, Zoe Saldana and more discuss how Oscar attention might make a difference.

BEVERLY HILLS, California — Sunday evening, Mo’Nique was making history by accepting a Best Supporting Actress award and paying tribute to the first black actress to win an Oscar, “Gone With the Wind” star Hattie McDaniel. In a year in which “Precious” put some marvelous acting skills on display and Zoe Saldana went to outer space twice in the sci-fi hits “Star Trek” and “Avatar,” one has to wonder: Are there any boundaries still standing in Hollywood for black actresses?

“As I look around, I think we’re pretty good,” grinned “Precious” star and fellow Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe when we caught up with her before the weekend at Essence‘s annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. “But we can get better. Everything could be better.”

“I think for women in general, it’s getting much better,” agreed Saldana, now the star of the biggest film of all time . “The fight has always been in us. I think we’ve just changed the reasons as to why we’re fighting.”

Mary J. Blige, who also attended the event, said that she had similarly been inspired by the nominations of people like Sidibe and Mo’Nique. “I absolutely think it’s better for black women in Hollywood,” Blige explained. “We understand, and so many of them understand, that it’s hard work — and they’ve done the work. This is why they’re being nominated.”

“It’s getting better every day,” agreed Paula Patton, who when not being known as Mrs. Robin Thicke is the star of “Déjà Vu,” “Idlewild” and other films. “We have a ways to go, but it’s getting better everyday.

“I think it’s done amazing things,” Patton said specifically of “Precious,” arguably the greatest collection of female African-American performances ever assembled — at least, in the eyes of Oscar. “We look at Mo’Nique’s career and being able to showcase her amazing talent. And Gabourey Sidibe is just phenomenal in the film; it’s been very helpful.”

Then there’s Keke Palmer, the 16-year-old “True Jackson, VP” actress who already has several films under her belt, big dreams ahead and said that wins like that of Mo’Nique are making it much easier for her generation. “I definitely see things getting better — we have more young African-American girls coming up and we are doing positive things,” Palmer insisted. “And that’s what we need. I feel like, when I come to a place like [the Black Women luncheon], I get more inspiration and it makes me want to speak out to girls that are younger than me that don’t know they can do it.

“I can do anything that I want to do, because when they did it it wasn’t able to be done,” Palmer said of Oscar winners like McDaniel and Halle Berry who’ve come before her. “And whatever I’m going to be achieving soon, people probably thought would have never been done. That makes me want to work harder and keep making people proud.”

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