Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph admits to being fired from a pilot episode of a TV show for not being "black enough." Abbott Elementary is a mockumentary about passionate teachers struggling to provide the best education for their students in an underfunded and overcrowded Philadelphia public school. The series follows Quinta Brunson (who also created the show) as Janine Teagues, an overly optimistic second-grade teacher, and a colorful cast of teachers and administrators, including Ralph's Barbara Howard, a seasoned kindergarten teacher.
Sheryl Lee Ralph began her career on television in the early '70s with one-off roles on popular shows like Good Times, Wonder Woman, and The Jeffersons. Her career took off in 1982 when the actor won a Tony Award for her role as Deena Jones in the original run of Dreamgirls. Ralph was soon cast as a series regular on the daytime soap opera Search for Tomorrow and featured on various TV shows throughout the 80s and into the 90s. One of her most prominent roles was as the singer/actor Brandy's mother, Dee Mitchell, in the hit sitcom Moesha.
In an interview with People, Abbott Elementary star Sheryl Lee Ralph opened up about her struggles as a television actor early in her career. She shared an eye-opening moment when a producer fired her from a TV pilot for not being "black enough," a phrase steeped in racism due to the indication that there is one defining characteristic of blackness. Read Ralph's full comment below:
"People's thinking was not very inclusive. You [had] directors who were still trying to tell you how to be Black...I was fired from a pilot because the producer told me I was 'not Black enough.' Those were his words. It was horrible. I can still remember the way I felt."
As with many actors of color, her experience was not just a singular moment but part of a long history of struggles within the industry. Ralph recently shared another humiliating moment on the daytime talk show The View, recounting an experience during an audition. The actor explained how she met with "a big casting director" who told her she was a "beautiful, talented, Black girl" but that no one would go see a movie where she kissed a big star like Tom Cruise. She proudly marches on from that experience, telling The View audience, "Look at me now!"
People of color have struggled to land diverse roles throughout Hollywood's history. Many times they were typecast in roles that fit a particular caricature. Hollywood legend Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award (the first black actor to win the prestigious honor) for her role as Mammy, a stereotypical portrayal of "the lovable, supportive slave" trope to Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel struggled throughout the rest of her career, mainly securing maid roles. She had to contest with other Black women actors who were also only considered for roles as maids and servants.
Recently, there's been a slight shift in Hollywood as more doors have opened to creators of color, allowing them to tell stories about their experiences and communities instead of Black experiences being filtered through white writers and producers. Sheryl Lee Ralph may have been deemed not "black enough" for roles in the past, but with more Black creators in control, that kind of racist thinking is hopefully becoming a thing of the past. Thankfully, Ralph's Barbara and the rest of Abbott Elementary are here to stay, as ABC recently renewed it for season 2.