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'Vanity Fair' Adds Color To Hollywood's Golden Moment

Chiwetel Edjifor (from left), Julia Roberts, Idris Elba, George Clooney, Michael B. Jordan, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong'o, Naomie Harris, Brie Larson, Chadwick Boseman, Margot Robbie, Lea Seydoux.
Annie Leibovitz
Via Vanity Fair
Chiwetel Edjifor (from left), Julia Roberts, Idris Elba, George Clooney, Michael B. Jordan, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong'o, Naomie Harris, Brie Larson, Chadwick Boseman, Margot Robbie, Lea Seydoux.

Today, the March issue of Vanity Fair magazine hit newsstands in New York and Los Angeles; it will be available nationally on Tuesday. This is the 20th annual Hollywood issue, which showcases some of the industry's best talent. But this issue is quite different: Fully half the actors on the cover's three-panel foldout are black.

Befitting the occasion, the Oscar nominees on the cover are dressed in formal wear. George Clooney and Jared Leto are elegant in white tie and tails, and Julia Roberts wears the top half of a dinner jacket, a big grin and little else.

And they're joined by not one, not two, but six actors of African ancestry.

Correcting A Monochromatic Past Trend

Sharon Waxman, editor-in-chief of the online industry daily The Wrap, says this is a remarkable break from the issue's previous record. "It's interesting because, in years past, it's true that Vanity Fair has been criticized for not having more actors of color as part of their celebration of the best of Hollywood," she says.

But, she says, it would have been tough not to include Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, who starred in Mandela; Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed Jackie Robinson in 42; Michael B. Jordan from Fruitvale Station; and, most prominently, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o from 12 Years a Slave.

This season, she says, "there are a lot of films that have fantastic performances that happen to be given by people of color.They deserve, they call out to be on that cover."

Nyong'o appears in the center section of the magazine's three-panel gatefold, and in her shimmering gold gown, she looks like an award statuette. Robin Givhan, who writes about fashion, style and culture for The Washington Post and other publications, says even an inner cover on Vanity Fair is significant.

"It is certainly a magazine that pushes you to the forefront of popular culture in a way that I don't think any other magazine can," says Givhan.

If you're on the cover of Time, you're a newsmaker. Of Car and Driver, you're — well, you're a car. Even Vogue, Givhan says, while hugely prestigious, doesn't have the same kind of reach — it is, at bottom, a magazine about fashion and beauty. Most sane people won't kick the opportunity for a Vogue cover out of bed. But if you're on the cover of Vanity Fair, Givhan says, you've gone beyond those borders to cross several different audiences.

In July 2008, <em>Vogue Italia</em> published the "Black Issue." Naomi Campbell was featured on the cover.
Steven Meisel / via Vogue Italia
via Vogue Italia
In July 2008, Vogue Italia published the "Black Issue." Naomi Campbell was featured on the cover.

Diversity Done Right

Givhan says similar accolades were given to Vogue Italia's now-famous "Black Issue," which featured black models from several countries, but she says this is not the same. The Black Issue, she says, was viewed as Editor Franca Sozzani's response to the purposeful paleness on the runways and in many of the fashion bibles. Givhan believes the Vanity Fair cover is special because it features black actors as part of the spectrum of 2013's excellent performances.

She says she started getting emails and tweets from people as the Hollywood cover began leaking onto the Internet. People were thrilled that black actors had received such prominence from a magazine that doesn't often feature them. "The most interesting tweet I got was one that made the point that this spoke to diversity in the best possible way: It didn't look forced, it wasn't a special edition, it wasn't a special story. It was just 'here are the hot actors and actresses of the moment.' "

Given the criticism it has received in the past, Waxman says, Vanity Fair's March issue might be multitasking: honoring great black actors while maybe tacitly responding to past critics about its lack of diversity on other covers. And that might impact things in the future.

Wave Of The Future?

"There is this feeling that we've arrived at a time in society where this should just be kind of a normal thing," says Waxman. And maybe at some point in the future, a cover like this will be admired for being a nice cover, not a daring social statement. If for no other reasons than practical ones.

"Diversity is important," says Givhan. "Diversity sells."

And there are other markets to be tapped. Vanity Fair's Hollywood cover is just the start of a necessary expansion the entertainment industry will have to recognize, says Waxman. "Let's talk about Hispanics. Let's talk about Asians. They're nowhere to be found in this Academy Awards season, and so I think there's a lot of work we have to do in this filmmaking culture to include not just the African-American experience but their experiences, and that's going to take time."

But, for eager audiences from the communities Waxman mentioned, not too much time. The clock is ticking ...

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.