A Different World Icon Dawnn Lewis Gets Real About The Glass Ceiling That Black Actresses Face

A Different World cast photo
(Image credit: NBC)

Boasting the runs (largely) of all-time classics like Seinfeld, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters and Friends, the 1990s was a great decade for sitcoms, especially considering more great shows starring predominantly Black casts came out of that era than any before it. Among them was the spinoff to '80s ratings juggernaut The Cosby Show, A Different World, which followed a group of college students at a fictional historically Black university. Thirty years after A Different World star Dawnn Lewis wrapped her role on the groundbreaking series, the actress has some thoughts about the glass ceiling Black women still face in the industry in 2023. 

Dawnn Lewis has certainly continued bringing her acting skills to audiences in the years since starring as Jaleesa in the classic ‘90s sitcom, most notably as a voice actress in animated series like The Simpsons and Lower Decks, while also taking on memorable guest-starring roles on big shows with pointedly diverse casts, such as Grey’s Anatomy and The Boys. In an interview with People, the actress shared her thoughts on where Black diversity currently stands in Hollywood, 35 years after getting her start in the industry. 

I believe we've taken several steps forward, that cannot be denied, but I also recognize that there is a ceiling that only a handful of us are allowed to press through. You can be the exception. We still feel limited. We're grateful for the variety of platforms now on which we can have opportunities. Because of the variety, one person can't be everywhere, so they've got to spread it out somewhat. But then, depending on the platform, you get either a nod or you don't from the industry. So yes, there are more opportunities, but at the same time, they just raised the ceiling just a little bit higher, so you still feel like you're bumping your head.

Lewis shared that she still feels like there’s a “ceiling” when it comes to the success Black women in Hollywood can obtain, and there are more than enough examples out there to justify her take. She followed that up by saying: 

You look at the Oscar nominations. It's like, 'Seriously? Seriously?' Really, what does a person have to do? What does a person have to do? Viola Davis — nothing for The Woman King? What does a person have to do? Do you know what I'm saying?

The 2023 Oscar nominations notably snubbed Viola Davis’ performance in The Woman King, with numerous other performances by people of color that deserved recognition also being left by the wayside. After the nominations came out, The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood shared that she believes her movie was overlooked in multiple categories due to where the Academy stands when it comes to “the consistent chasm between Black excellence and recognition.” She also shared that her experience was that many Academy members “simply didn’t want to see the film.” 

On the topic of the Academy Awards, which is supposed to reflect and recognize Hollywood’s best and brightest, Halle Berry is still the only Black woman to have won a leading performance Oscar and that was over 20 years ago. From Lewis’ perspective, there are more opportunities out there compared to what the industry looked like in the 1980s, when there were far fewer avenues and platforms for episodic programming in general. But even now, the sky's limit still hasn't been tested, and the ceiling has only been “raised” a bit higher. 

Lewis’ words certainly signal Hollywood needing to continuously grow in terms of diversity, and not only when it comes to performances, but having people behind the scenes make the decisions. Amidst Lewis’ honest thoughts, you can hear her as Captain Carol Freeman in Lower Decks Seasons 1-3, now streaming with a Paramount+ subscription

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.