I was half watching Stepmom, a movie I never paid attention to when it came out. My main impression apart from a stray observation about how bratty and privileged the kids came off was how unpleasant the Susan Sarandon character seemed – and I was okay with that. It’s okay to be bitter and unpleasant, unlikeable, in fiction as in life, if the rug of your life has been pulled out from under you. Like, it’s okay to not be a saint. But then they upped the sanctified-ness and gave her cancer, to redeem her in the viewers’ eyes I suppose, make her more likeable by making us feel sorry for her: Unnecessary and manipulative in my view. But that’s only me half watching it (maybe there’s more to the story or the backstory).
The thing that really caught my eye, though, was the credits. How had I half-watched two thirds of this film and not noted that Lynn Whitfield was in it? Okay, the half-watching thing, but still…how did they manage to make someone as talented and sexy as Lynn Whitfield blend in to the background?
That’s some Hollywood magic right there.
Who is Lynn Whitfield, you ask?
She won a ton of awards for the Josephine Baker Story back in the day but I remember her from films like the underrated western Silverado, the superlative mini-series Women of Brewster Place
and the darkly magical Eve’s Bayou, and more recently you might know her from the Chris Rock comedy Head of State, a Madea film or two, a guest appearance on your favourite TV show (How to Get Away with Murder), or the new OWN show, Greenleaf.
(sidebar: speaking of OWN series, check out Ava Duvernay’s Sugar. Thank me later.)
And I found myself wondering why she wasn’t more of a thing – why, like Viola Davis playing the best friend in Eat Pray Love, she was relegated to playing fourth fiddle to Julia Roberts. I mean, I get that Roberts has been America’s Sweetheart since the one-two punch of Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman but still in a world as colour blind as people like to pretend Hollywood (not so colour blind after all) is, a talent and beauty like Lynn’s would have had more of an opportunity to come through. Yes? Yes, I know she’s worked steadily over the years and in some quality stuff too but there seems no denying that outside of all-black or predominantly black productions she’s not seen as a main attraction, merely the girlfriend to the main attraction or, as was the case with Stepmom, the doctor I barely noticed (though, again, I was only half-watching).
I found myself doing some mental re-casting, like what if she’d played one of the main roles. It’s not so crazy, right? I mean this was 1998, Lynn was just coming off of the successful Martin Lawrence (i.e. the 1990s Kevin Hart) film A Thin Line Between Love and Hate and the critically acclaimed Eve’s Bayou, and was surely ripe for more mainstream fare. She had sultriness (in fact, if you look up sultry in the dictionary, you might see her picture staring back at you), she had acting chops (see earlier reference to the Women of Brewster Place and specifically *spoiler alert* the scenes after the death of her child), Hollywood already knew of her charisma and ability to fill up a screen (they’d given her an Emmy for inhabiting the charismatic Josephine Baker), so why not imagine her as a leading lady in a mainstream (read: targeted at white audiences) film; and with it being an ensemble cast they wouldn’t even be risking box office – keep Julia or Sarandon, no actually keep Sarandon, now imagine her and Lynn going toe to toe as they tuggah-tuggah re the boundaries of their new familial relationship (as bitter ex-wife and try-hard new wife to Ed Harris…yes, Ed Harris). Can you see how electric that tension would have been? Not Meryl Streep-Viola Davis in Doubt electric maybe but enough to zing a little. Don’t get me wrong, I like Julia Roberts, and I get that she was America’s sweetheart and roles were hers for the discarding. But Hollywood you played it safe, as you always do. Why can you only imagine black actors in uber-black-and-often-stereotypical roles or as the doctor/best friend/wall paper, nothing in-between (only a slight exaggeration; you know how you are)? It’s really your loss as you could have broadened the demographic for this film without deliberately inserting race in to it, just by casting the actress who was an obvious fit for the second (reviled but she’s not that bad once you get to know her) wife role. I mean, she was right there.
No worries. I’ll let my imagination do the job for you. If I ever watch Stepmom again (doubtful, but still) I think I’ll imagine it with my fantasy casting…and less bratty kids.
If this is your first time here, I am Joanne C. Hillhouse. I write books , I write articles (including a personal essay earlier this year for my dream publication Essence), and provide writing and writing related services. And I blog all kinds of stuff including pop culture (Queen Latifah, Natalie Cole, Supernatural, the Walking Dead, Underground, Creed, Survivor’s Remorse among other such). Read, say things, share, come again. Bless.