Sheryl Lee Ralph and Keke Palmer
Getty Images/Art treatment by Liz Coulbourn

What Does It Mean to Be “Black Famous” — and Whose Approval Do We Need?

Is mainstream success and recognition, or white fame, even something Black artists should still be chasing?

In this reported essay, writer Kalila Calame unpacks the concept of being “Black famous” and contextualizes it in systemic Hollywood problems concerning whose work becomes “mainstream” — and what that even means.

More than ever before, we are in the era of Keke Palmer. The actress and singer hit career milestone after career milestone, leading her own podcast, and more. In 2023, she continued her streak, most recently with the release of her visual album Big Boss. But Palmer has always been an It Girl in Black households, among her Black fans — so why has her success felt under-the-radar in so-called “mainstream” circles?

“It’s so interesting seeing the conversation around Keke Palmer having her breakout or superstar moment,” tweeted Teen Vogue editorial assistant Aiyana Ishmael. “It’s wild, we live in different worlds because in my household Keke been a star for forever. Akeelah & The Bee was my dad’s favorite movie. It went triple platinum in my home.”

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There is no doubt that 2022 marked the “reinvention” of Palmer, as she said herself in Vogue last summer. The multi-hyphenate graced the cover of several magazines, such as Vanity FairTIME, and The Hollywood Reporter, hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time, and started her own digital streaming network, KeyTV. Arguably one of Palmer’s most significant feats of 2022 was starring in Jordan Peele’s Nope, which garnered praise from critics. The sci-fi horror film was also one of the biggest box office films of the summer. Critics described Palmer’s performance as her “breakout role.” This was especially surprising to Black Twitter, but was reported as an epiphany by others. 

Palmer’s first acting role was in 2004 when she played Queen Latifah’s niece in the film Barbershop 2: Back in Business. Since then, she has starred in Akeelah and the Bee (arguably her actual breakout role), Madea’s Family Reunion, Fox’s Scream QueensHustlers, and countless other shows and films. Palmer was also the first Black girl to star in her own Nickelodeon sitcom, True Jackson VP, as well as the youngest talk show host in history with 2014’s Just Keke on BET.

Before her “breakout role,” Palmer was what one would call “Black Famous.” Writer and cultural critic Michael Harriot defined Black Famous in a 2019 tweet, explaining the concept as “the gap between black stardom and white anonymity. For instance: The highest possible rating on the ‘blackfamous’ scale would be someone EVERY black person knew but was unknown by EVERY white person.”

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While Palmer’s Hollywood resumé is exceptionally long, most of her work has mainly been successful among Black audiences. If you take a look at her past award nominations, Palmer has mainly been acknowledged and honored by ceremonies such as the NAACP Image Awards and the BET Awards — award shows that specifically honor outstanding Black talent. Consequently, Black fame, or an artist being Black famous, is a direct reflection of studios withholding proper promotion of predominantly Black projects.

So what was different about Nope? Ultimately, the success and brand of Jordan Peele. Since his directorial debut in 2017’s psychological horror film Get Out, Peele has undoubtedly become the face of today's horror genre. The film was so universally praised that it earned four nominations at the 2017 Academy Awards, and Peele won for Best Original Screenplay, becoming the first African-American screenwriter to win in this category. Prestigious critical acclaim, such as an Academy Award, placed Peele among the likes of Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, and Halle Berry; Black entertainers who have gained notable attention and have found success even in front of white audiences, or, gained “white fame.”

When it was announced that Keke Palmer was cast in Peele’s third film, Black Twitter rejoiced. Everything Peele has produced since his debut with Get Out has garnered substantial commercial and critical success, including UsCandyman, and the short-lived HBO series Lovecraft Country. It was a no-brainer that Nope would automatically become a blockbuster hit. In line with Peele’s mission to bring Black talent to the forefront of cinema, Palmer was granted the opportunity to be propelled into what was arguably the biggest spotlight of her career. Outside of the Black community, Palmer was most recognizable to white audiences for her funny internet memes, including “sorry to this man” and “the gag is.” Now, Palmer is recognized for the true quadruple talent that she is, one that Black Twitter has been championing for years.

Keke Palmer in Nope (2022)

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

The same phenomenon can be said of Dreamgirls icon Sheryl Lee Ralph. In an early 2022 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ralph recalled when she was on the set of 2019’s CBS sitcom Fam when an executive producer had no idea who she was. “I was quiet and he said, ‘Do you sing?’” remembered Ralph. “And I said, ‘Whoa.’ ...So even in unsuspecting places, that can be very much a thing where there are certain people who have no idea who you are and what you’ve done after all these years.”

Ralph has had a career in Hollywood as an actress and singer since the 1970s. Ralph originated the role of Deena Jones in the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, and has starred in multiple films like The Distinguished Gentleman and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Her iconic role as Dee Mitchell on the ‘90s sitcom Moesha earned her five NAACP Image Award nominations — again, a predominantly Black accolade. 

Now, Ralph has finally gotten her due, thanks to Abbott Elementary. On the hit ABC sitcom created by Quinta Brunson, Ralph plays Barbara Walters, a no-nonsense veteran kindergarten teacher, similar to the core of her past character on MoeshaAbbott Elementary has received overwhelmingly positive social media attention and critical acclaim since its debut in late 2021. For her role on Abbott, Ralph was nominated for a 2023 Golden Globe and won the 2023 Critics Choice Award and the 2022 Primetime Emmy Award for Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series — her first-ever nominations for all three prestigious ceremonies.

Both Nope and Abbott were backed by immense marketing campaigns exposing Palmer and Ralph’s talents to more mainstream audiences. The marketing for Nope was massive, including a Super Bowl ad spot and a permanent movie-based attraction at Universal Studios. Peele was already backed by Universal Pictures due to their five-year exclusive production deal with his company Monkeypaw Productions; Abbott, produced by Disney and Warner Bros., has also had large marketing campaigns on both television and social platforms, as well as streaming homes on Hulu and HBO Max. 

Ideally, this is what any production would want, but unfortunately, marketing pushes like this are infrequent for Black-led productions. A 2021 study conducted by McKinsey reported that films by Black professionals get less funding, less marketing, and less distribution than other films. It was found that “fewer Black-led stories get told, and when they are, these projects have been consistently underfunded and undervalued, despite often earning higher relative returns than other properties.” 

This significant disparity is often why many Black actors don’t cross over into the mainstream limelight until years into their respective careers. It’s not lack of talent, but rather lack of investment that excludes these Black actors from mainstream attention. The study also pointed out that “unless at least one senior member of a production is Black, Black talent is largely shut out of those critical roles.” That is why having the likes of Jordan Peele and Quinta Brunson in the industry is critical for the development and progression of Black on-screen talent — and off-screen, too.

Sheryl Lee Ralph and Quinta Brunson in Abbott Elementary season 2

Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images

While there is still a large amount of talent that are considered “Black Famous,” until Hollywood finally gets the memo to support deserving diverse projects, all we can do is continue to support our Black legends ourselves. In the same THR roundtable interview with Ralph, actor Larenz Tate, another Black Famous star, most known for his roles in classic Black cinema like Menace II Society and Love Jones, had this gem to say about being Black Famous: “People may not recognize us for the things that we feel so proud of… the things that we’re so excited about, and it happens. But the real people know Loretta (Devine). The real people know Sheryl, the real real people know. So that’s what’s important.”

Conversely, sometimes mainstream attention doesn’t necessarily equal success. Black-led films such as The Woman KingTill, and even Nope, were snubbed from all categories in this year's Oscars nominations. All three films received exceptional critic and audience feedback, yet were still shut out. When discussing the 2023 Oscars, director Gina Prince-Bythewood told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year that The Woman King was, in fact, not snubbed at all. 

“The film was not nominated for one single craft. Not one single extraordinary performance was recognized,” wrote Prince-Bythewood. “And when has that happened for a successful film that hit all the so-called markers? It’s not a snub. It’s a reflection of where the Academy stands and the consistent chasm between Black excellence and recognition.”

This invites the question, is mainstream success and recognition, or white fame, even something Black artists should still be chasing? Within the Black community, “success” can be viewed in multiple different lights. Growing up in the Black community myself, actors considered Black Famous, like Larenz Tate, were everything to me. Black-led films like Love JonesThe WoodDrumlineLove & Basketball, and Baby Boy were so iconic to us that it’s almost baffling that these films haven’t reached more eyes, or even seem to exist outside the Black community. On any given day, I can hear a number of my fellow Black peers reciting iconic lines from their favorite Black movies, or see a debate on Black Twitter based around these unforgettable characters. “The real real people” that Tate speaks of are our own community. Regardless if our Black artists are recognized by these historic, predominantly white institutions, they know with certainty that Black audiences will support them.

Nia Long and Larenz Tate in Love Jones (1997)

Courtesy of Everett Collection

A great example of this undying support is The Best Man franchise. The classic ‘90s all-Black franchise was recently continued with a limited series on Peacock titled The Best Man: The Final Chapters. Like the original movie and its 2013 holiday sequel, the series was promoted to Black viewers who initially made it successful. After its premiere week, Variety reported the series was the first Peacock original to land in Nielsen’s Top 10 streaming rankings, and the biggest series premiere since Bel-Air, another Black-led show. 

While being seen as “just” Black Famous can seem like a small pigeonhole in the grand scheme of Hollywood, it can also be a matter of perspective. While these entertainers don’t choose how or when they hit the mainstream, and if studios will even finance their projects, Black audiences continue to invest in these artists to see themselves reflected on-screen. Like others in my community, I have found unrivaled joy in relating to characters that embody my culture, while simultaneously watching these artists carry their own torch through the systemic racism of Hollywood. 

It’s unmistakable that the industry does not see Black artists and their stories as having value until they are deemed profitable in the public eye. Until then, they are placed behind the fence, the label of Black Famous. What the industry doesn't see is that behind that fence is a thriving community, championing Black talent and proving that they are indeed excellent.

Look at powerhouses like Peele, Issa Rae, and Tyler Perry — all three have used their mainstream fame to create their own lane and recognition. The same can now be said for Palmer with the creation of KeyTV, using her mainstream stardom and the wealth of her image to champion voices that bigger studios would dismiss. “I wanted to use my platform to showcase these Black creators, so they can be in some of the spaces I’m in and be seen,” stated Palmer in a recent Revolt interview. “Many of us are out here doing a lot, but it’s hard for people to see our work — our community has a lot to offer, and people don’t know or credit us for what we’re offering.”