by Dennis Romero
LA Weekly (February 25, 2015)
It’s standing room only inside the 900-capacity Montalbán Theatre on Vine Street, where one of the most diverse industry crowds you’ll see during the Hollywood awards season has gathered to talk candidly about race and ethnicity in television.
A sea of black, brown and white faces fills the seats. Onstage, the conversation is led by Kenya Barris, creator of ABC’s hit show Black-ish; rapper and actor Common; Marla Gibbs, who co-starred on The Jeffersons; and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who at one point complains, “We don’t discuss race like we did 30 years ago.”
A 92-year-old white veteran of the industry counters Simmons’ claim, recalling that dialogue about race wasn’t so forthcoming in the 1970s and ’80s. Despite the on-screen diversity of the bell-bottom era (even Latinos saw TV time with Chico and the Man), the industry veteran says discrimination was more palpable then. He racks his brain to thaw out an example that’s frozen somewhere in his memory. He straightens up as it comes to him. “Jungle bunnies,” he blurts out.
An uncomfortable silence descends, then is broken by the host, journalist and author Touré – a necessary move, considering that part of the purpose of the event was to celebrate the pioneering work of that old white man, Norman Lear, who brought minority families to the small screen with Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times and even the short-lived, Latino-themed a.k.a. Pablo.
Lear was rightly honored that January night as a pioneer who fought the good fight to bring diverse stories to a reluctant industry. And nobody’s suggesting the uncomfortable recollection was a sentiment he endorsed. “That’s not my America,” Lear said later, in reference to the mostly white TV casts of today. But even in Lear’s rainbow-colored America, the public rarely turns its attention to the issue of race in Hollywood unless it’s a white man talking.
Bill Maher recently declared on Jimmy Kimmel Live that “to be a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal principles. … All my life I’ve been for people who have been the downtrodden, the oppressed, the minorities. I’ve been for blacks, gays, women, Mexicans….”
But a review of Maher’s crew roster for Real Time With Bill Maher, his HBO series shot in L.A., reveals only a single Hispanic or Asian surname. Maher was not made available for an interview, but a rep says, “I know his script supervisor is Latin.”
In contemporary Los Angeles, people still use the word “Latin”?
The industry has a serious diversity problem, and it doesn’t appear that the business can quell critics by greenlighting a handful of minority-driven TV shows (Empire, Fresh Off the Boat, Jane the Virgin) or by celebrating a globe-trotting Mexican director (Academy Award nominee Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu of Birdman) who has little in common with the American Latino experience.
No nonwhite actors or female directors were nominated for this season’s Academy Awards. Ava DuVernay could have been the first African-American woman nominated for Best Director for helming the critically acclaimed Selma, but she was shut out. The Directors Guild of America snubbed her for its top honor, too. In December the data hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment revealed that then-studio chief Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin had joked via email about the African-American-flavored films President Obama might finance if he was an industry mogul (“Should I ask him if he liked Django [Unchained],” Pascal quipped).
This week saw the release of The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report by Darnell Hunt, director of the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. The results were not available at press time, but Hunt recently hinted that his latest data will reveal that the industry hasn’t improved much since his 2014 analysis, which showed that out of 172 movies and more than 1,000 television shows, about one in 10 leading roles in films went to minorities, and about one in 20 leading roles in scripted television went to people of color. This, in a county where half the population is Latino. This, in a state where Latinos have surpassed whites as the largest racial-ethnic group. This, in a nation that’s one-third nonwhite. “In L.A.,” Chris Rock said in a scathing essay published this winter in The Hollywood Reporter, “you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans.”
In fact, because of the so-called browning of the nation, “The gap between where the industry is and where America is has actually grown,” Hunt says.
The business is changing slowly, but the barriers remain steep. “The problem is the agencies, the casting directors, the film studios – the executives in all parts of the entertainment industry,” says Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the L.A.-based National Hispanic Media Coalition.
The industry was founded largely by Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century. Ironically, they were people who “seemed to be anything but the quintessence of America,” writes Neal Gabler in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. Many of them “regarded themselves as marginal men trying to punch into the American mainstream,” he writes.
Elyce Helford, director of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Middle Tennessee State University and an author who has written about Hollywood, says the male, Jewish founders of the Hollywood studios embraced an often white-bread vision of America in order to prove they weren’t here to expand the tribe, stoke socialism or infuse American culture with Jewish values.
“They quickly discovered that the best way to be a good American is to fit in,” Helford said. “There’s still a fear of anti-Semitism that leads to a focus on, ‘Let’s not do ethnicity.'”
Historically, when the industry did do ethnicity, it did it poorly. Since the days of the blackface Jazz Singer, Hollywood has had a long run of clowning minorities. It could be argued that people of Asian descent are victims of the last bastion of unrepentant Hollywood buffoonery, even if one of the latest examples, the Kim Jong Un character in The Interview, doesn’t seem worthy of defense.
“People are conditioned to laugh at Asians,” says Guy Aoki, founding president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. “They can make fun of Kim Jong Un, but they’re also making fun of Asian people in general.”
Asian-Americans got a shot at the mainstream spotlight in 1994 with ABC’s Margaret Cho-driven TV series All-American Girl, which promptly failed. Before that, in the 1980s, Latinos got excited by the hit movies Stand and Deliver and La Bamba.
A 1999 memorandum of understanding between the major television networks and the NAACP helped spark diversity initiatives at the big studios, including writer training and executive development programs. But critics say those programs are too often used as a fall-back excuse when Hollywood is called out for its sluggish progress. “They’re like lottery systems,” UCLA’s Hunt says. “You’re not really making any wholesale change. That’s not the answer.”
Hollywood’s diversity numbers are some of the worst of any industry.
The membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the folks behind the Academy Awards, is roughly 94 percent white and 77 percent male, the Los Angeles Times famously reported in 2012. Less than 2 percent of Academy members are Latino.
African-American entertainment executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs was elected president of the Academy the next year, and in 2014 the Academy Awards were historically inclusive: 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan born in Mexico, was awarded Best Supporting Actress, and Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director.
Then there’s this year.
Though the nominees miserably failed to reflect the diversity of moviegoers (“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest,” host Neil Patrick Harris quipped), the winners at least made an attempt to compensate for that oversight.
Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette proclaimed in her victory speech, “It is our time to have wage equality once and for all.” And Best Song co-winner John Legend declared that racial injustice and voter rights are still issues “right now in this country.”
When bestowing the award for Best Picture, Sean Penn angered some Latinos when he said of Iñárritu: “Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?” The two worked on the film 21 Grams together and Iñárritu later said he wasn’t offended. The two had traded many unmentionable “tough jokes,” the director said.
Iñárritu also said onstage that he hopes Mexican immigrants can “be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones that came before and built this incredible, immigrant nation.”
From 1927 to 2012, 99 percent of Best Actress winners were white, 91 percent of Best Actor winners were white, and 99 percent of Best Director winners were white males, according to an analysis by Lee & Low Books. The writers and producers branches of the Academy are 98 percent white, the publisher found.
The stats are only slightly better elsewhere in the business. The Directors Guild of America says that a mere 13 percent of first-time TV directors are nonwhite. The Writers Guild of America says nonwhites make up 11 percent of TV writers and 5 percent of film writers.
Lawmakers had a chance to address the issue of Hollywood diversity when, late last year, they passed a five-year, nearly $1.6 billion tax giveaway for productions that stay in California. The legislation, co-sponsored by L.A. area Assemblyman Mike Gatto and endorsed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, was an attempt to stem the flow of industry work to other tax-incentive states such as New York.
Gatto says he thought of attaching diversity hiring goals to the legislation – after all, 61 percent of the Californians giving Hollywood that money are nonwhite – but that he couldn’t find a way around freedom-of-speech concerns. “The actors in a film, even the writers and the director, they are part of the content, and when you start mandating content, you cross over something that is not First Amendment-permissible.”
Still, he said, “I think Hollywood can do better.”
The greenlight and financing power of the studios is most often cited by experts as the key to Hollywood’s homogeneity. “I don’t think there’s one person of color in Hollywood who can greenlight a film,” says Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.
Martha Lauzen, executive director of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, agrees. “We will see greater diversity on-screen when we see greater diversity behind the scenes,” she says.
Because there’s so much money on the line – it can take $100 million (including marketing costs) to get a hit studio film off the ground – there’s an extreme reluctance to take chances when it comes to casting and choosing directors, experts say. A white man can seem like a safe choice, especially now that half a film’s revenue can come from overseas markets, markets that often are paying to see a certain vision of American culture. Leads are by default taken to be white unless otherwise written, which is why it was big news when it was rumored that black British actor Idris Elba would be the next James Bond.
Hollywood’s choices “come down to fear,” says director Victoria Mahoney. “It’s risk-averse.”
When she does get meetings at studios, Mahoney, who’s African-American, says she’s a rare sight. “Often what happens is I come through the door and they can’t believe I got there,” she says. “When I go into a room to meet financiers, I’m often the first person like me they’ve ever interacted with.”
Showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh, creator of the Starz show Power and a veteran of The Good Wife and Hawaii Five-0, has had similar experiences in Hollywood. “If I were to tell you that I don’t have meetings where I’m the only person of color, that would be wrong,” she says. “A lot of times I’m the only woman.”
The major talent firms, Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, ICM Partners and United Talent Agency, wield immense power and can make or break films by packaging stars, directors and financiers. They represent about two-thirds of directors, lead actors and writers in the business, and about 90 percent of the agents are white, according to Hunt’s 2014 report.
The agencies’ control over content includes lists of available actors, which are sent to studios and directorial clients involved in projects packaged by the agents. They publish regular rankings of talent and directors. Rarely, critics say, do those lists include minorities.
One Hollywood source took a look at a recent agency list of available directors. It had as many as 130 names, she said. Three were women; three were people of color.
Montrel McKay, who worked in global finance at William Morris Endeavor and who is now an executive at production house Electus, says a lot of directors, actors and projects are choked off by often-white, often risk-wary talent reps. “A lot of stuff,” he says, “gets cut off at the agency level.”
Hollywood unions, from the big names of the Directors Guild of America to the prop warehouse workers of Teamsters Local 399, are known to keep a tight hold on membership, which has access to some of the best-paying work in Greater Los Angeles. Forbes estimates that even Hollywood lighting and rigging technicians can make more than $100,000 a year. Electrician supervisors can make more than $75,000. This in a county where the median per capita income is $27,749.
Neither the Directors Guild nor the Writers Guild provided someone to be interviewed for this story.
A spokesperson for the Academy said president Isaacs was too busy working on the Oscars to talk about them. Likewise, of the six major studios we contacted for this story, only Fox, which has had a good record of gambling on minority shows almost since its inception, granted an interview with an executive.
Experts say that the big three film schools, USC, NYU and UCLA, must also turn out diverse graduates so that industry executives have no excuses when it comes to weighing candidates for jobs. After asking multiple times, only USC came through with its School of Cinematic Arts graduate diversity figures, which show that whites account for 43 percent of students.
In Thom Andersen’s 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, narrator Encke King notes that Hollywood-made films have often been hostile to their immediate physical surroundings, sometimes portraying L.A. as a crime-ridden hellhole on the edge of apocalypse. Author “Mike Davis has claimed that Hollywood takes a special pleasure in destroying Los Angeles,” the narrator notes.
And for a long time, African-Americans and Mexicans were villains, too, or at best were in the background and out of focus.
Minorities and their neighborhoods are here to serve Hollywood, and not vice versa.
The industry’s diversity problem is perhaps most pronounced when it comes to Latinos, who made up nearly one-third of frequent moviegoers in 2013, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. A USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism study last year looked at the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 and found that Latinos only got about 5 percent of speaking roles. For Asian-Americans, that figure was 4.4 percent. And for African-Americans it was 14.1 percent.
A 2014 Columbia University study found that, “Whereas the Latino population grew more than 43 percent from 2000 to 2010, the rate of media participation – behind and in front of the camera, and across all genres and formats – stayed stagnant or grew only slightly, at times proportionally declining.”
From 2010 to 2013, no Latinos were show creators, network presidents or studio chiefs, Columbia found. (The relatively new president of CBS Entertainment television, Nina Tassler, is Latina.)
And Latinos and Asians have sometimes been elbowed out of decent roles that were hand-built for them. The real-life Mexican-American CIA operative Tony Mendez, who’s the subject of the Academy Award-winning film Argo, was, of course, portrayed by the film’s director, Ben Affleck. Scarlett Johansson reportedly will star in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell, a Hollywood take on the Japanese anime movie. The 2014 film Chef has a man live out his dream with a Latino food truck he calls “El Jefe.” Of course, the lead is played by a white guy, Jon Favreau. Even seeing “Gary Sanchez Productions” flash on-screen as a movie gets under way turns out to be a cruel mirage. It’s the production house of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who named it for a fictional “Paraguayan entrepreneur and financier.”
Hollywood has celebrated the “Mexican wave” of directors – Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. But critics also point out that Hollywood has more quickly accepted and developed three foreigners of relatively upper-class background than it has Latinos born and raised in its own backyard.
“They come from the elite; they have nothing to do with the American Latino community,” says Alex Nogales, of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
“The industry can’t keep saying that we’re trying,” Nogales says. “It’s all about the results. And the results have been very clear for years and years.”
USC film and pop culture scholar Todd Boyd says much of the racial disparity boils down to money.
“Until people can generate the funds necessary to play in Hollywood on their own terms,” he says, “it’s not going to change.”
It has finally started to happen. And perhaps it’s not a coincidence that it’s happening outside of Hollywood. Tyler Perry Studios was established in Atlanta in 2006 and has since released more than a dozen films, which collectively have grossed more than $700 million. “There’s been a major exodus of black talent to Atlanta” because of Perry, says UCLA’s Hunt.
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez of Sin City fame founded the Latino-centric El Rey television network, carried on Time Warner Cable and other systems, in 2013. It’s based in Austin, Texas.
“It’s almost easier and more efficient to build a whole new system from the ground up,” Rodriguez says. “There is a dearth of diverse roles, and if no one is creating those roles, it’s fundamentally a larger problem. The solution will only come with more of us not just speaking out but taking it upon ourselves to create the opportunities.
“I’m not a big fan of pointing fingers and saying ‘woe is me.’ Tyler Perry has the right idea. It’s more empowering if we do it ourselves.”
Television veteran Jeff Gomez started his Starlight Runner Entertainment in New York as a way to produce film, TV shows, video games and other “multiplatform narratives” for the likes of Disney, Viacom and Sony. Gomez says opportunities abound in our 500-channel universe and on YouTube. “We just need to learn how to leverage our voices.”
In 2009, then-NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman founded Electus with the backing of Barry Diller. The company is behind Jane the Virgin and a large slate of reality shows, both on air and on YouTube, where the hit K-Town, billed as the Korean-American Jersey Shore, found a home. Silverman produced Ugly Betty and other network shows with diverse casts, but the move to his own production house, he says, gave him more freedom to hire nonwhite actors and executives.
“We really believe in multicultural programming,” he says. “As a network programmer, I wasn’t always allowed to program it. They would say it’s niche. But on the digital side, we’re given great opportunities to pursue it.”
Films with casts that are 21 to 30 percent minority fared better than movies with any other racial-ethnic mix, earning a median box office take of $160 million, according to Hunt’s last UCLA study. Those films also saw the greatest return on investment. With major network TV, “median household ratings peaked” for shows with casts that were 41 to 50 percent minority, the report found.
That lesson is not lost on Norman Lear, who pioneered the effort. And Lear is not letting his age get in the way of his continuing quest to more accurately shape the American story. Last month he announced he was pitching a show he described as an all-Latino version of his 1970s-’80s hit One Day at a Time.
It would be produced, of course, by Sony.