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Lifestyle & Trends: Black Families on the Big Screen

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Art imitates life, even family drama. Just think of black films and television shows including "Soul Food: The Series" and Tyler Perry's films. A new holiday movie adds its take to the mix. For that and more entertainment news, we have Newsweek national correspondent Allison Samuels. Hey, Allison.

Ms. ALLISON SAMUELS (National Correspondent, Newsweek Magazine): Hey, how are you doing?

CHIDEYA: I am doing great. So we've been running these series on the black family. Are there certain themes around family that tend to crop up in popular black films?

Ms. SAMUELS: I think a lot of the films are - it talks a lot about a meticulous film as well - this was with Regina King - it talks a lot about the, sort of, some of the slightly dysfunctional relationships we can have with each other. And some of the things that - sometimes we resent each other, particularly, we have clashes and things where if someone's going to school and someone else in the family hasn't, they build a tension there.

And I don't know if that's, you know, not typical for many other family, but I think in the African-American families, I think that, you know, that division or that separation, that line of separation, is always sort of, you know, makes for some tense moments. But I - that's what I've seen for the most part. And everyone's trying to get the mother's attention. Everybody is sort of trying to sort of, you know, the matrix of the family. That person is always sort of, you know, highly regarded.

CHIDEYA: So you interviewed Regina King and in this film she plays a woman who's unhappy in her marriage.

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: King divorced her husband last year. Did you guys talk about that?

Ms. SAMUELS: Well, you know, briefly, though, that she was really - it was a good thing for her to do at that point of her life. She's a single mother to her son who's 10 and she loves him to death and they have a great relationship, but he does spend a great deal of time with his father as well because she feels that that's very important to make sure that that relationship stays intact.

But, you know, she - she was married for a while, so she feels as though she gave it her all and did was she could to keep it together. But ultimately, you know, it's the same sort of situation where when the woman is more successful than the man, it creates tension. And I think that was what she actually sort of, you know, felt like what's going on in her marriage. And I think a lot of women have that when they are a little bit more successful. So she was really honest about that.

CHIDEYA: So let's move on to Donda West, 58-year-old mother of Kanye West passed away after having cosmetic surgery. Kanye West has been extremely quiet in his grief. He pulled out of an event. Are you expecting him to say anything about his mother's death?

Ms. SAMUELS: Well, everyone that I talked to that knows him says he's absolutely devastated, that it even took him - because he was in Europe when it happened and it took him even like, two days to get on the plane, to muster up the strength to get on the plane to fly back. You know, he was a mama's boy. He was her, you know, only child. They were so tight that I think - and they say he's still denial. So I think it's going to be a minute. I think he hasn't even accepted the fact that she's gone.

And you know, to think that she's gone because of possibly a mistake after cosmetic surgery or something that I think he really cannot even - he can't even bring his mind to sort of, you know, he just can't even figure that out at all.

CHIDEYA: Hmm. Let's just talk very briefly about the December issue of Essence. There are three actresses profiled: Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Gabrielle Union. They talk about the pressures and the drama of Hollywood. Sanaa says she's just, quote, "happy to have gotten a job this year." Does that show how bad things are for blacktresses?

Ms. SAMUELS: Well, I think it shows that it's been consistent. I remember - I think I said this before with Gabrielle Union, I asked her what did Halle, you know, what did Halle Berry winning an Oscar mean for her. And she said it didn't mean anything for Halle, really, in terms of getting better roles.

And so, if Halle is having a hard time with her Oscar finding quality roles, then, you know, I can only imagine what it's like for those girls particularly when it becomes a matter of - if you can't be the girlfriend, because in Hollywood, a lot of times, you're the girlfriend. And Tom Cruise is not going to have a black girlfriend. So these girls don't even have the option to be the secondary character as, you know, their partner. So they really do wanted to just - you know, the situation of what role do you play.

And unless there's a Tyler Perry to create a role for you, which is what Tyler Perry does, and he did that for Gabrielle, but if that's the only person who's actually creating roles for African-American women. And so we need more of them. More people like Tyler.

CHIDEYA: Very briefly, competition. A lot of competition between black actresses or not?

Ms. SAMUELS: They seem to handle it well, because all of them are very friendly. And I think that, you know, they have a wide understanding of what - they understand very well what the pressures are and that if they turn on each other, it becomes unbearable to, sort of, deal with. So I have not gotten that when I talk to those girls. I think they really do try to support each other and sort of deal with what they all have to say because they all face it. You know, the racism and the sort of, you know, just no jobs around. So I think they really sort of handle it very well.

CHIDEYA: Well, Allison, thank you so much.

SAMUELS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Allison Samuels is a national correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.