In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, I thought I’d to write about the progress of African-Americans in Hollywood. I wish I had a more positive report.
About 12% of Americans are black, and you don’t have to do a multi-million dollar NEH-funded study to know that they’re way underrepresented in TV shows and movies. And it’s worse behind the camera. There are too few black writers and directors, and many of those who do make it are pigeonholed in what’s euphemistically termed “urban entertainment.”
30 years after Sherry Lansing became the first woman to head a film studio, you still can’t find an African-American anywhere at the top of the Hollywood heap. Yes, yes, Oprah, but I’m talking about within the industry establishment. Somehow people like Oprah - people who did it on their own, in some ways in spite of the system - seem to prove my point rather than contradict it.
In Hollywood’s defense, the industry hasn’t done all that much better or worse towards people of any color than any other industry. And in some ways, the business has a rougher row to hoe, especially when it comes to programming and casting.
Because no matter how open-minded and progressive they are, producers, directors and executives have to try to figure out how their choices are going to play with audiences - who, of course, are mostly white. And the attitudes of audiences - black or white - are filled with racial trap doors. Add a black actor to your mostly white sitcom and its tokenism, write a black sitcom and whites won’t watch it. Make a black character a judge or a doctor and he’s not black enough, cast a black actor as a gangbanger and it’s stereotyping. What seems to be simply creating entertainment can suddenly become grappling with 200 years of American history and the racial attitudes of 300 million Americans. Popular culture is a powerful force for change, and no other business has such a heavy social burden.
Which doesn’t explain the dearth of blacks in the writer’s room, the director’s chair or the executive suite. And many point out that when the black experience is fully represented behind the scenes, it will unfold naturally in movie theaters and on TV.
Case in point, Tyler Perry was met with blank faces at the studios when he brought his medea character to town. But it wasn’t because the people he was pitching were racist, they were just ignorant. They had never heard of his wildly successful stage shows because they weren’t his target audience. And the fact that he has gone on to make piles of money in TV and film has done more for African-Americans in Hollywood than any protest or quota or legislation.
Hollywood struggles with issues of race, because Hollywood is part of America, and America is still struggling with issues of race. What’s interesting is the town’s schizophrenia. Its progressive politics do not seem to have translated into progressive business behavior.
Hollywood is ultimately a town that looks for safe ways to assuage its liberal guilt, ways that don’t necessarily require people to make changes where they live and work. Because Hollywood is a business run on fear. Not fear of the black man, but fear of doing anything new or unproven or unfamiliar. How else can you explain “Ocean’s 13?”
So how will progress be measured for people of color in Hollywood? In my opinion, it will not be based on numbers but on attitudes.
We will know we have progressed when black actors read for parts not specifically described in the script as black. When sitcoms aren’t black or white but funny. And when it’s no longer worth noting that the president on “24” is black because a black man actually makes it to the white house. Oh, yeah. Happy Birthday, Dr. King.
I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can download a podcast of this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at kcrw.com/thebusinessbrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.