Hollywood Is Kinda Racist—Reality Check, So Is America
Last week Chris Rock sent shock waves through the film community when he shared his opinion about Hollywood. “It’s a white industry,” the comedian wrote in an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter, adding that he wasn’t knocking the business for being a “kind of racist” place. “It just is,” Rock said matter-of-factly.
The trade magazine hailed Rock’s essay as “blistering,” The Washington Post called it a “must-read,” and Flavorwire described it as “searing.” And then, for all the folks who doubted Rock, the hacked emails between Sony chair Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin hit the Web on Wednesday. In the private missives, the pair offensively joked that President Obama’s favorite movie is probably one featuring a black cast—such as The Butler, Ride Along or Think Like a Man. As Shonda Rhimes aptly put it on Twitter on Thursday night, “Calling Sony comments ‘racially insensitive remarks’ instead of ‘racist’? U can put a cherry on a pile of sh*t but it don’t make it a sundae.”
Pascal and Rudin deserve the criticism they’ve received for their comments—and the duo has since apologized for their casual bigotry—but their emails are also a reminder that Hollywood’s racial problems are merely a reflection of America’s divisions.
“As much as this country tries to say it’s diverse and embrace the idea of multiculturalism, we’re still very segregated in how we live our lives,” says Gil Robertson, a veteran entertainment journalist and the president of the African American Film Critics Association.
The results of a survey conducted by CBS News released this week reveal that race relations are at their lowest point in nearly two decades. According to the findings, 36 percent of respondents said race relations have gotten worse over the past few years, while just 22 percent think they’ve improved. When broken down along racial lines, the divide is even more striking. More than half of black respondents believe that race relations are “generally bad,” and 47 percent of their white counterparts think they’re “generally good.”
The country’s divisions have also been evident in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. Those incidents have been interpreted differently depending on a person’s racial background.
“This [racism] is something that’s deeply rooted in our society, deeply rooted in our history,” President Obama said in a recent interview with BET about the national protests over police tactics in communities of color. “But the two things that will allow us to solve it: Number one is the understanding that we have made progress, and so it’s important to recognize that as painful as these instances are, we can’t equate what’s happening now with what was happening 50 years ago. If you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they’ll tell you that things are better.”
Similarly, the television and film industry has become more diverse in recent years—it’s not as racist as it was during Hollywood’s golden age. Shonda Rhimes’ slate of shows is proof that that the industry is not as whitewashed as it used to be. But finding films written or directed by black, Latino, or Asian American artists, or that feature actors who are people of color in prominent roles, is still rare.
“When it comes to casting, Hollywood pretty much decides to cast a black guy or they don’t,” Rock wrote in his Hollywood Reporter essay, describing how white characters are always viewed as the default. “We’re never on the ‘short list.’ We’re never ‘in the mix.’ When there’s a hot part in town and the guys are reading for it, that’s just what happens. It was never like, ‘Is it going to be Ryan Gosling or Chiwetel Ejiofor for Fifty Shades of Grey?’ ”
According to the comedian turned director, roles for women of color are even harder to come by.
“You can go to whole movies and not see one black woman. They’ll throw a black guy a bone…. But is there a single black woman in Interstellar? Or Gone Girl? Birdman? The Purge? Neighbors?” Rock asked, despite knowing the answer. “I go to the movies almost every week, and I can go a month and not see a black woman having an actual speaking part in a movie.”
For Robertson, the lack of diversity on the big screen is easy to trace to who’s in charge of the studios. “With the exception of Zola Mashariki at Fox Searchlight and James Lopez at Screen Gems, there are really no other black people who have the authority to greenlight a project,” he says. But instead of waiting for Hollywood to realize that communities of color like seeing themselves on the silver screen, Robertson implores filmmakers to think outside of the studio system.
“It’s time for us to get outside the box and do things that provide a platform for black expression,” he says, highlighting the work Ava DuVernay has done with her film distribution company AFFRM. On Thursday, DuVernay became the first black woman to garner a best director Golden Globe nomination for her film Selma.
“That speaks to Hollywood finally getting it,” Robertson says of DuVernay’s recognition. But he’s only cautiously optimistic. “It’s too early to tell where we’re headed, but I’m hopeful the train continues to head in this direction.” Let’s all hope that the same can be said for the rest of the nation.