Kevin Kapenda, Columnist // Illustration by Fiona Dunnett
Like music and film, comedy has long been a form of entertainment that has not only been segregated but has favoured white comedians. Like Hollywood being too white, or African Americans rarely winning the Grammys for album, record or song of the year, comedy has proven to have just as much inequality. After all, late-night talk shows, which have long been viewed as the pinnacle of comedy, have only ever produced one black host – Arsenio Hall. The good news is that, just like the film and music industry, people are noticing the level of inequality in comedy and trying to do something about it. As the son of African parents who immigrated to Canada, I generally grew up watching African American comedians. But in my 24 years of life, never has a black woman been regarded as the top comedian in that sphere. That is until Tiffany Haddish took the field by storm.
Comparable to some of my favourite women in Hollywood, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis and Ali Wong, Haddish was a late bloomer. Her first major gig came at 34 in 2014 at the Oprah Winfrey Network’s (OWN) drama television series, If Loving You is Wrong. However, it wasn’t until 2015 when she scored a breakout, landing a supporting role on NBC’s The Carmichael Show. It was her performance on this sitcom that earned her a role in the 2017 summer comedy movie, Girls Trip, alongside some of the most successful black actresses of our time – Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith. Despite the stardom of her co-stars, Haddish was the one who stole the show and earned numerous nominations for her supporting role.
While Haddish is now a household name, things weren’t always as easy for the comedienne. Born in 1979, she grew up in South Central Los Angeles during the tumultuous 80s and 90s, where a lack of economic opportunities fueled crime, and police brutality was the norm. Her environment, surprisingly, was only a minute detail of her difficult childhood. When she was nine, her mother was involved in a near-fatal car accident, which understandingly made it harder for her to be an adequate guardian. This resulted in Haddish spending much of her teenage years in foster care. Not only did it take her years to break into the industry, but the fact that she survived a childhood most couldn’t even imagine makes her a true testament to the American Dream.
Since the release of Girls Trip, the last year has been a whirlwind for Haddish, appearing on many daytime and late-night talk programs, and gracing the cover of many periodicals, including Essence, Time and The Hollywood Reporter. But what is most special about Haddish’s rise is that she has become the face of black comedy – the first time a woman has ever been in that position. Haddish is more than deserving of being mentioned in the company of iconic black comedians, from Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby to Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and later, Kevin Hart. However, if the rise of Ali Wong and Amy Schumer tells us anything, it is that the women in comedy are no longer waiting their turns to have a breakthrough. They’re kicking down doors and asking the doormen to add them to the list.
Refusing to rest on her laurels, Haddish has transitioned smoothly from Girls Trip to headlining two movies and starring in a new sitcom. The movies include Night School, alongside Kevin Hart, and Nobody’s Fool, with Tika Sumpter. Her new sitcom, which is carried by TBS and sadly not shown in Canada, is titled The Last O.G. and also stars comedy heavyweight Tracy Morgan. In Night School, Haddish plays a teacher whose students are adults trying to earn their GED. Her role in Nobody’s Fool is that of a convict that has recently been released from prison into the care of her “white collar” sister, while in The Last O.G., her character is in the opposite position, as the ex-wife and mother to the kids of a man, played by Morgan, who has recently been released after a multi-year sentence. These roles are both proof of Haddish’s versatility and why I think she will continue to be a force in comedy for years to come. A true trailblazer, there’s nothing like breaking down barriers for both women and African Americans at the same time.