These days, stories of hair discrimination, particularly against Black actresses, don’t shock us so much as they perpetually disappoint us. Case in point, Jurnee Smollett recounted how a Hollywood executive asked her what she planned to do with her hair when she played the role of Rosalee — a house slave — on the WGN TV series “Underground.”
Smollett told the story to The Hollywood Reporter in one of the most personal profiles we’ve seen of the star of the upcoming HBO series “Lovecraft Country.” Sharing some of the bitter memories from her time working on “Underground” — not the least of which was discovering she was paid less than co-star Aldis Hodge despite having first billing on the show. Smollett also spoke in length about an executive’s request to change her hair.
“So, what are we doing about your hair?” Smollett recalled the executive asking her before a marketing shoot for the short-lived series.
Noting she was wearing her natural curls at the time, Smollett said, “This was a project about enslaved people, there’d be no way for me to straighten my hair, which is what he was suggesting — a hot comb didn’t exist. There are just so many ways in which this industry will try, subliminally or overtly, to erase your Blackness.”
Though that experience was just three or four years ago, at 33, Smollett said she now makes it a point to demand certain things on set, be it a trailer for her son or a hairstylist who knows how to style Black hair. “And I don’t apologize,” she noted.
That newfound unapologetic nature might have something to do with the urging of mentor Shonda Rhimes. She told Smollett she needed to speak up about her needs, particularly as a working mother to her 3-year-old son Hunter. Smollett said Rhimes once told her, “I’m so tired of women like you who don’t own your power. You’re Jurnee f-ckin’ Smollett.”
The horror sci-fi “Lovecraft Country” in which Smollett stars will debut August 16. And for the first time in her 25-plus year career, Smollett will make the same as her male co-star, thanks to the urging of Reese Witherspoon, who pushed the network to close its gender wage gap two years ago. Hopefully, racially sensitive executives and more Black hairstylists are next.
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