By all accounts, 23-year-old actor Kiersey Clemons is a Hollywood success story. She had a reoccurring role on New Girl; she had a meaty character in Neighbors 2; she starred in (arguably) the best episode of Netflix's anthology series, Easy; she was cast as Iris West in the DC Film Universe; and now, she stars in September's Flatliners, a modern reboot of the 1990 film of the same name. She is, undoubtably, a rising star, and soon to be a household name. But despite her outward success, there is one thing Clemons yearns for that she may never achieve: having the career of a white male actor in Hollywood.
"There are so many amazing actresses of color, but the amount of opportunity that comes our way is still so small. It does give me a certain amount of uncertainty, because I can't count on the scripts that are written [for people of color] to even apply to what I want for my career. I still want to make tactical decisions. I still want to plot out my career the same way that a white man would," she says, sipping on a large iced coffee at a sidewalk café in Los Angeles. "As much as I hate having to bring up race or gender or even sexuality... it comes into play. It has so much to do with the field that I'm in."
Hollywood says they understand, but they really don't.
And she is, sadly, accurate in her sentiments. Clemons isn't white, or straight, or male — she's a queer, biracial woman trying to carve out a specific career in Hollywood. And as screamingly obvious as it is by now, the odds are — and have always been — stacked against her.
It takes only a quick look at one of dozens of recent studies to realize that women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community in Hollywood are woefully underrepresented and given less diverse roles. For example, a Women in Hollywood study found that women made up only 29 percent of protagonists in the top grossing films of last year. Seventy-six percent of all female characters were white, while only 14 percent were black.
Clearly, there are not enough roles for talented and able women like Clemons to go around, and certainly not enough opportunities for the actor to be particularly choosy. This is a luxury most often afforded by white males, as the sheer number of roles available to this demographic trumps any other by a landslide.
Yet this is the exact reason that Clemons jumped at the chance to play Sophia in Flatliners — not only is she a major character in a big studio feature, she is a female medical student of color. "The opportunity to play a role like that does not come to me very often," she admits, adjusting the neckline on her maxi dress, festooned with a vibrant, leafy pattern. "And I have so much respect for you writing this story and not disregarding my skin color."
Because according to Clemons, being a biracial actor is not something she gets asked about as much as she would like, and playing a black female medical student is not a topic she was asked about once during her press tour for Flatliners. "No one once brought up the fact that I was playing a young, black, female medical student. And yet we're always talking and writing about progression in Hollywood for people of color. Then why hasn't one person asked me about it?"
As we chat, her hand motions become more animated, her voice rises. Her passion is stalled only for a moment — when she notices a bug in my hair, and reaches across the table to pluck it away. Mission accomplished, it's back to the task at hand: Grilling Hollywood for a job poorly done.
"Hollywood says they understand, but they really don't. So often do I get scripts about a young black mom, for example, and the director is this middle-aged, white, Jewish man," she says. "Like, what do you know? If you do know enough of what it means to be a young black woman, then you also know that you should not be directing this movie, and that this opportunity needs to go to a black woman."
...we're always talking and writing about progression in Hollywood for people of color. Then why hasn't one person asked me about it?
It's a pathetic trend the industry has perpetuated time and time again, not only by white-washing roles, but by trusting (and rewarding) white filmmakers with diverse stories, like when Steven Spielberg made The Color Purple, or when Quentin Tarantino took on Jackie Brown or Django Unchained. This is not to say these white dudes cannot articulate empathy or sympathy towards the black experience, but if audiences are looking for authenticity in filmmaking — which, aren't we always? — these white men cannot deliver the truth within an otherwise black story. Nor can they say with any good faith they did not take opportunities away from directors of color.
"There are so many people that are saying they understand. Well, if you understand, why are you the one making this project? Why is the production office filled with white people?" she asks. "You're so selfishly taking that opportunity from a person of color. You clearly don't understand. You're still exploiting the culture when you're not willing to hand over the opportunity."
Clemons is careful to note that no one is exempt from this type of "exploitation" — not even herself. "It would be like me taking a role that was written for a dark skin woman," she offers. "If I understand that colorism is real, why would I use the fact that I have lighter skin to my advantage? That isn't understanding, it's misunderstanding."
The conversation reaches an incomplete end, because there is no happy ending in sight for Clemons or other women like her who are attempting to build their careers as they wish. It would be foolish to say the tides are changing — that women of color, queer women, and other marginalized women — are on their way to being treated with the same amount of respect and opportunity as white men in this already tough industry. Hollywood may not care enough to make real change for women, so, as Clemons knows, it's up to audiences who do care to do put our money where our mouths are.