University of Georgia
Terry College of Business
The film industry says all the right things, but its continued exclusion of African-Americans is a national disgrace
PEOPLE Magazine March 18, 1996
With the academy awards two weeks away, we are taking an intensive look this week at one side of Hollywood rarely exposed to bright lights: racial discrimination. "The exclusion of minorities from the film industry is one of Hollywood’s dirty little secrets," says senior writer Pam Lambert, who wrote our cover story. "Despite the stars all of us can name, once you get behind the scenes, blacks remain the invisible men and women."
Four months ago a team of PEOPLE correspondents in Los Angeles began interviewing black and white actors, actresses and filmmakers about racism in Hollywood. Our first reporting came from national correspondent Lois Armstrong, who in 21 years with PEOPLE had already interviewed such prominent black stars as LeVar Burton, Billy Dee Williams, Danny Glover and Blair Underwood. Then staff correspondents Karen Brailsford, Betty Cortina, Johnny Dodd, Lynda Wright and Paula Yoo called 130 sources and gathered more than 60 interviews.
Meanwhile, in New York City, reporting was coordinated by two of our newest senior editors: Mari McQueen, who joined PEOPLE from New York Newsday in October; and Howard Karren, who came from Premiere in January. Some of the most challenging sleuth work involved compiling for the first time minority employment figures from Hollywood’s notoriously restrictive craft unions. "What surprised me was the extend hard data on minority employment are still not available," says McQueen. "Allegations of discriminatory practices by the entertainment industry are hardly new. It’s startling that so little definitive research has been done until now."
Hollywood, of course, is the leading creator and exporter to the world of images of American life. But what is most disturbing is not that an exclusionary industry is portraying America incompletely to the world, it is that the makers of the most vigorous and polished of our popular entertainment to Americans themselves. Is there little wonder that, in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson verdict, many whites looked at their black neighbors and colleagues and felt for the first time that they did not know them at all?
Those of us in the print media have an equal responsibility to report accurately on American life and also to reflect it. Twenty-two percent of PEOPLE’s editorial staff of 255 is composed of minorities and 13 percent is African-American, but they represent only 7 percent of our managers. A staff lacking in diversity is at risk of losing vitality and responsiveness to the social mosaic that surrounds it, and stories like this one vividly remind us just how complex that mosaic can be. "We’re never profiled unless the issue is race," black filmmaker Regional Hudlin told correspondent Karen Brailsford. At people, we plan to make it our challenge to change that.
Fresh from her triupphant Broadway run in Dreamgirls, where her sinewy portrayal of the Diana Ross character won her a 1982 Tony nomination, Sheryl Lee Ralph was ready to storm Hollywood. During one of her first studio meetings, she found herself talking to a top producer about her future. Recalls Ralph: "The man looked at me and said, ‘You’re obviously beautiful and talented, but what do I do with a beautiful black girl in a movie?’"
In the decade since that conversation, Hollywood still hasn’t figured out what to do with Sheryl Lee Ralph. Despite critically praised roles in movies including The Mighty Quinn (1989), in which she played Denzel Washington’s feisty wife, and Mistress (1992), in which she was Robert De Niro’s fiercely ambitious girlfriend, the actress says, "I’m still looking for my break. I’ve made good, not good enough. There should be room for more than just a few."
The reality, however, is that when African-Americans like Ralph come knocking on Hollywood’s door,, the response too often is still "Whites Only." Despite the widespread perception - fueled by the rise of big-draw talents like actors Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston or directors Spike Lee and John Singleton - that blacks are enjoying a boom in Hollywood, a shocking level of minority exclusion remains. "Don’t look at the token, visible stars who are market draws. You see them in a sea of whites," says Jesse Rhines, assistant professor of political economy at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming book Black Film/White Money. "Ask yourself, how many blacks are behind the camera?"
Exact figures are hard to come by, but those that exist contradict Hollywood’s image as a politically progressive community where the only color that counts is the green of ticket buyers’ money. After an exhaustive fourmonth investigation, PEOPLE has found ample evidence that the film industry, for whatever reasons, continues to resist the inclusion of African-Americans, onscreen and off. Others, such as Latinos and Asians, have been similarly blocked. But our investigation focused on blacks, both because they are American’s largest minority and because of the widespread belief that they have successfully broken through Hollywood’s barriers.
The statistics tell quite a different story. While African-American made up 12 percent of the U.S. population, and 25 percent of the moviegoing audience:
Only one of the 166 nominees at this month’s Academy Awards is this month’s Academy Awards is African-American - a live section short film director.
Of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 5,043 members, who nominate and choose the Oscar winners, fewer than 200 - or 3.9 percent - are African-American.
Only 2.3 percent of the Directors Guild membership is black, according to the guild’s 1994 figures.
A mere 2.6 percent of the Writers Guild is African-American.
Blacks account for less than 2 percent of Local 44, a 4,000 member union that includes set decorators and property masters.
What’s wrong is considerably more significant than whether Whitney Houston - whose performance in Waiting to Exhale and on its multiplatinum soundtrack was passed over by the Academy this year - gets another conversation piece for the powder room. Hollywood’s creations are the mirror in which Americans see themselves - and the current racially skewed reflection is dangerously distorted. "The consequence of exclusion by the film industry is cultural apartheid. It’s happening now - white America doesn’t understand black America," says Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., who is currently writing the screenplay for her stage hit Having Our Say, about the pioneering black professional women Bessie and Sadie Delaney. :A lot of racist images are made unsciously, and whites just aren’t aware they’re doing it. With black writers and producers on the inside, they would be able to call them on it."
But for African-Americans, breaking into Hollywood can be like climbing a mountain of marbles. In the union ranks, rampant nepotism and byzantine work rules mean it may take longer for a black aspirant to become a makeup artist than a heart surgeon. As for higher strata, about the only black faces getting near Hollywood’s executive suites are studio security. Insiders say the number of African-Americans at a studio vice-president level or above can be counted on the fingers of one hand. "The fact that you can still name the people [blacks in various jobs] illustrates the problem," says John Mack, president of the Urban League’s Los Angeles chapter. "The continuing reality is that if you’re an African American, it’s still a good ol’ boys club."
Within that fraternity, studio executives, producers and superagents make handshake deals on the beach at Malibu or after backyard barbecues in Bel Air. And if blacks are shut out of the socializing, then they’re also cut out of the wheeling and dealing that takes place. Such was the case last month as a small dinner party at the Malibu home of record and movie mogul David Geffen. The dozen or so guests who shared caviar, roast duckling and small talk with visiting President Bill Clinton - among them co-Dream Works SKG founders Steven Speilberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg - were exclusively white, and exclusively made.
Hollywood’s power circle "has levels of segregation that would not be accepted in IBM or American Express," says black filmmaker Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang). "An individual actor or director can come and go, but those people are there for decades. That’s where we need to make great changes,"
The dearth of black executives has broad impact, ranging from the kind of movies made to the ways in which minorities are depicted - when they are cast at all. Actor-writer producer Damon Wayans (Major Payne) tells the story of his sister Kim, who costarred with him on the hit TV series In Living Color. After she pitched a Doris Day-type vehicle, "the studios loved the project and said they’d hit it, " says Wayans, "but they wouldn’t do it with her because it wasn’t black enough.’"
TV veteran Tim Ried (Frank’s Place) had a similarly disheartening experience trying to make his first film, Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored. He says that the warm coming-of-age story about a black boy in the segregated South was rejected by every studio because it was considered "too soft" - or, as he sees it, "too human." Reid subsequently scraped together a shoestring $2.7 million budget from BET Pictures (a joint venture between the black TV network and Blockbuster Entertainment), and the movie opened in January to enthusiastic reviews. "The view of us perpetuated by Hollywood and the press is that of a dysfunctional, angry, frustrated populace prone to violence and self-destruction," he says. "Along comes a movie that says we are human, that we’re compassionate, that we care for our children and our culture. That’s [seen as] subversive."
When Hollywood does decide to make a black-theme movie, it wants to do it cheap. Though Waiting to Exhale boasts stars Whitney Houston and Angela Basset, its bankroll was slim by Hollywood Standards: an estimated $15 million, compared with the $35 million spent on the average studio movie. (The picture has so far earned more than $65 million.)
"The budget ceiling for African-American productions is dramatically lower than for so-called mainstream projects," says Warrington Hudlin, who has produced for his brother Reganald’s movies. Hudlin cites the experience after their first studio film, House ____ grosses over 10 times in $2.5 million budget. "Or would think that the inter pretation would be, ‘Here ______ guys who have ____ ears to the group so let them come back with a more challenging budget to make even more money,’" he say. "But instead the sponse was, ‘No, you’ll do another movie in the same budget range.’"
Part of the studio’s justification, Hudlin says, is their contention that "blacks don’t sell overseas." Yet he points out the Eddie Murphy’s 1988 movie Coming to America, made for million with a virtually all-black cast, a whopping $350 million international. And last year’s Bad Boys, starring the lesser-known Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, scored $75 million overseas. (It’s U.S. take was $64 million.) "There conventional wisdom that catches on, Hudlin says. "Statistics hold on to it."
Current wisdom also says that things have never been better for black actors. They "are having a field day," say s one who is, three-time Oscar nominee Morgan Freeman. "I don’t think Hollywood lives and dies on greed. Jobs are not given because of race. They’re predicted completely on money."
Few argue that black actors’ prospects haven’t improved from the days when there was room for only one major African-American star per decade - Sidney Potier in the ‘60s, Richard Pryor in the ‘70s, Eddie Murphy in the ‘80s. "I don’t do auditions anymore," says Pulp fiction star Samuel L. Jackson. "Denzel, Fish, Forest [Whitaker], Wesley - we don’t have to deal with those problems. We’re not colorless, but we’re above that."
But Jackson admits that his new-found stature - "I’m told using my name adds class to a film" - hasn’t protected him fro some of the old pitfalls. The actor says he lost the lead opposite Geena Davis in an upcoming movie "because it was a white heroine and there is some attraction between them. They didn’t think the audience would go for it." Hew adds, underscoring the irony, "They said they didn’t want to portray the bad guy as African-American , but that was a bulls--t concern."
Jackson says the film industry often seems to have tunnel vision when it comes to black talent. "There is an A-list," he says. "And if they can’t get us, they say, ‘Well, we’ll wait till we can.’ They’re not looking for the next us."
Nor, it appears, is Hollywood really looking for African-American women, period. After all, there is barely enough work to keep Angela, Whitney and Halle Berry busy. "You can’t keep your clients working on what’s written for black actresses," says Robin givens’ manager Barbara Stark. "You’ve got to put them up for roles that aren’t written black." The poster girl for "color-blind" casting is Whoopi Goldberg, a category-defying original who has built a career on parts earmarked for whites, including her Oscar-winning turn as the dizzy clairvoyant in Ghost.
Hollywood does appear more receptive these days to such nontraditional casting, particularly for male actors who typically have a wider range of roles available than the foxy hookers and sassy mamas that black actresses are so often asked to play. But it’s a virtue born of the actors’ necessity, because there are so few roles written for blacks. "Whoever’s writing is writing what they know about," says Morgan Freeman. "And I would think that the bulk of the writing, like the bulk of the population, is not black."
Nor are the overwhelming majority of the directors, the cinematographers and the union crews. "Unions are probably the ultimate good ol’ boy network in terms of protecting their turf and their people," says the Urban League’s John Mack. "You find father bringing in son." It’s a situation Shirley Moore knows all too well. "It took me eight years to go from stage sweeper to [union] prop master," says Moore, who in 1987 founded the Alliance of Black Entertainment Technicians to help others sidestep the shifting union requirements that made her progress so glacial. "I could have been a f---in’ doctor in that time."
La Lette Littlejohn struggled to become a union makeup artist for a decade, even after making a name for herself in advertising and fashion work. "It’s a Catch-22," she says. "You need to be hired on a union show in order to join the union, and you need to be in the union to work on the union show." And the rules for gaining union membership are not only unpublished, but constantly changing. Over time, Littlejohn realized that as her work hours increased - getting closer to the threshold that current word-of-mouth said would earn a union card - she was often removed from jobs. "They were blocking me," she says.
"The union would find out where I was working and pull me off the show." Littlejohn finally became a member of L.A.T.S.E. Locta 706 only last year, as the result of a "star request" by black actor-actor-writer-director Robert Townsend, for his TV series Parent’hood (on the WB network).
Even those African-Americans who scale the hiring barriers can never forget that they’re on alien soil. On the set of the upcomning Sgt. Bilko movie, actor Daryl Mitchell, who costars (as Dexter, the short-order cook) on TV’s The John Larroquette Show, tried to join in his colleagues’ running movie-trivia game. Someone would describe a scene and the actors, and another player would guess what film they were from. "They didn’t ask one question that I figured that they were white actors," Mitchell says. "Finally I just started yelling out ‘Sidney Poitier’ and other black stars’ names. They died laughing." Later, Mitchell says, the group admitted they didn’t realize their references had been so exclusively white. "I know I’ve got to rest twice as hard as the next man," Mitchell adds. "You have to be up for the fight."
Recently, when sound mixer Russell Williams, who won Oscars for his work on Glory and Dances with Wolves, tried to board a truck on location to remove his audio equipment, he was stopped by a burly security guard. "That kind of stuff happens to me all the time," Williams signs. "He naturally assumed because I was black, I wasn’t getting on one of those trucks." More significantly, the acclaimed sound mixed still considers his career to be limited by what he calls "the melanin factor." Says Williams: "The more successful you are, the more they hate you. If there is some other way to keep you out of the good jobs and the good seats, they’ll find it."
One coveted seat Williams has managed to slip into is at the Academy;
his first Oscar win and two letters of recommendation got him in. (Each
of the Academy’s 13 branches has its own membership requirements. Some
are straightforward, others mystifying; for instance, director Reginald
Huddling is a member, while his brother and producer partner Warrington
is not). Williams, the Hudlins and others regard the Academy’s limited
African-American membership as a major factor behind its pattern of slighting
black artists - just as the absence of adequate Hispanic representation
probably accounted for its most notorious recent blooper.
What happened was that "Canció n del Mariachi," Los Lobos’s guitar-driven ballad in last year’s Desperado, was nearly declared ineligible for consideration as Best Original Song because its Spanish lyrics were deemed "not intelligible" by the Academy’s music branch. (The Academy later blamed a "clerical mistake" for the ruling.) Frank Lieberman, the Academy’s spokesman, says that data on its racial demographics "is not information that we keep," but that there is "no voting [by] color in the Academy."
Perhaps the most glaring black Oscar snub this year is that of Don Cheadle, who was named Best Supporting Actor by the National Society of film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for his performance and Mouse, Denzel Washington’s trigger-happy sidekick in Devil in a Blue Dress. "The fact that Cheadle didn’t get a nomination is deeply, deeply disturbing," says Warrington Hudlin. "Not only should he have been nominated, he should win." Other Oscar-worthy performances, many insiders feel, include Washington’s private eye, Easy Rawlins, in the same movie, Laurence Fishburne’s starring role in Othello and composer Kenny "Babyface" Edmund’s chartttopping score from Waiting to Exhale.
But the Academy can’t shoulder all the blame for Exhale’s being slighted. Fox didn’t mail out viewing tapes to Academy members for their consideration - a common promotional technique - though it did send out 5,043 copies of the clunker A Walk in the Clouds, starring Keanu Reeves. Fox declined comment. Says Newsweek film critic David Ansen: "It’s obvious that whoever made [Exhale] didn’t have enough clout to force the studio to send [videocassettes] out."
Similar complaints were among the many heard by the chairman of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, Gilbert F. Casellas, during a meeting with civil rights organizations and film industry reps and unions in L.A. last month, after which he announced that his office would start looking into allegations of discriminatory hiring in the industry. "There really does seem to be a problem," he s "Some of the grievances I have been told about are blatant and egregious." But when asked for specifics, Casellas declined to comment.
Currently some efforts are being made to get more African-Americans inside the studio gates. Last week marked the celebrity -studded launch of HIP (Hollywood Internship Program), a project sponsored by the City of Los Angeles to offer inner-city youths access to entry level jobs. (See box, page 51). And the fledgling DreamWorks studio is discussing a minority training program with the Urban League.
But many blacks say it’s time to take matters into their own hands, as with efforts by directors like Spike Lee to help blacks break into the guilds by employing as many as possible. "I got 11 [black] people into the union," Lee exulted after shooting Do the Right Thing in 1989. "We got waivers to hire them - and by virtue of them working on the film, we found ways of getting them into the union."
Eighteen years ago, Warrington Hudlin founded the Black Filmmaker Foundation,
which has since helped mature dozens of budding cineastes, including Lee.
He says there was a time when he thought that economics rather than race
dictated who would succeed in the movie business. But then he got wise.
"If Hollywood wasn’t racist, it wouldn’t be American. I’m neither complaining
nor whinning." Hudlin says, "I like to always operate from an illusion-free
Magazine Editors, like musicians, seek to bring people together to create something new - and then listen for the desired response. By that standard, PEOPLE’s March 18 cover story, "Hollywood Blackout," struck a note that still reverberates. The article, which pointed out that African-Americans and other minorities continue to be severely underrepresented in Hollywood, produced the biggest reaction in PEOPLE’s 22-year history. Within two weeks we heard from more than 550 readers on both sides of the question (see Mail, page 1), while newspaper columnists and TV shows ranging from NCC’s Showbiz Today to ABC’s Nightline debated the issue.
And then it got interesting. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, citing PEOPLE’s finding that the 166 nominees for this year’s Oscar included only one African-American, announced a boycott of the Academy Awards telecast on March 25. From that moment on, though, the issue turned to Jesse Jackson’s tactics and not the underlying questions raised by PEOPLE. "Show me the wonderful performances that have been overlooked," erupted an Academy official. Whoopi Goldberg belittled Jacksons on the ABC Oscar telecast. The unofficial industry response came from a Hollywood trade magazine, Variety, whose editor criticized Jackson’s boycott and accused PEOPLE of "having run out of Princess Di banners." While conceding that the business is "notoriously exclusionary," he went on to conclude, "No matter what anyone tells you, Hollywood hires on merit, and the opportunities are there."
The real issue, of course, is not whether deserving black Oscar nominees were overlooked by the Academy’s voters. The issue is that there are so few black candidates available in the first place. The film industry remains one of the most racially exclusive major businesses in America. Only a handful of the 152 movies released by the major studios last year starred or costarred in African-American woman. For a black actress to win a role important enough to allow full expression of her talents, and then get the recognition of an Oscar nomination, requires formidable talent indeed.
In fact, such talent was abundantly on display in Los Angeles last week
at the Black Academy Award Nominees Dinner. This intimate gathering, held
every the night before the Oscars, has been drawing prominent blacks in
Hollywood for most of the past 20 years. Its goal: to recognize the most
accomplished blacks in films. Guests included established figures such
as Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson and Oprah Winfrey, and honorees were
stars like Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Laurence Fishburne and Denzel Washington.
The mood was warm, supportive and upbeat. Even after losing in her category
of best live-action short the next night, director Dianne Houston vowed,
with a smile, "I’ll be back next time with a feature."
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Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander