Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hollywood's White Out Problem Goes Deeper than the Oscars

#OscarSoWhite is trending on social media and it's getting contentious. Prominent A-List black industry insiders like Jada Pinkett-Smith, her husband Will Smith, and Spike Lee are boycotting this year's Oscars and encouraging their peers to do so. It's a noble gesture, but for me the "Oscar White Out" is the symptom of a much bigger problem within the entertainment and film industry. Hollywood has a race problem, but so does America. It's the pink elephant in the corner of the room staring at us, yet many of us still refuse to recognize it. 

The topic of race and racism is a divisive subject that pits those who are misguided and believe we live in a "post-racial" society since the election of President Barack Obama, against those who embrace ignorance, racial division, and prefer to keep that status-quo, with those who recognize and acknowledge institutionalized racism and white privilege's impact within our society. When these voices converge, there's a lot of noise and the chance to have a meaningful dialogue to move us forward as a nation gets lost in anger and rhetoric.

I am disappointed by the lack of diversity in this year's nominees, but am not at all surprised. Same thing happened last year and in previous years we get happy when one or two actors of color get nominated. We get so ecstatic about their nominations that we overlook the broader problem within the film industry. When Halle Berry, Denzel Washing and Monique won their Oscars, we considered it a crack in the glass ceiling, they let us in. We choose to see the glass half full and count it as a win and milestone for blacks in the film and entertainment industry. While that's true, the problem is we've been doing this since Sydney Poitier was the first black male to win Best Actor from the Academy in 1964.

The real problem is Hollywood has maintained a "white out" since it's inception. There is practically no diversity and white males dominate in decision-making roles behind the camera. While I'm thankful for disruptors like online streaming services such as AmazonPrime, Hulu, Netflix and premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and Starz because these platforms have helped present more diverse stories that get a pass by major studios and the six major television networks. However, it's still a fraction of what is pumped out in Hollywood. Next time you watch your favorite network show, look at the credits and pay attention to the names of the executive producer, show creator, and director of the episode. See a pattern?

The grim reality of white privilege within Hollywood can be found in a wide variety of film industry data and studies on diversity. Reports like, The 2015 Diversity Report, produced by the Ralph J. Bunche Center, examines relationships between diversity and the bottom line in Hollywood. 

When it comes to the executive suite, the Ralph J. Bunche Center report found:

  • Film studio heads were 94 percent white and 100 percent male
  • Film studio management was 92 percent white and 83 percent male
  • Film studio unit heads were 96 percent white and 61 percent male
  • Television network and studio heads were 96 percent white and 71 percent male
  • Television senior management was 93 percent white and 73 percent make
  • Television unit heads were 86 percent white and 55 percent male
Organizations like The New York Film Academy, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and others have highlighted the gender gap and lack of diversity between women and white men within the industry. These groups have been looking at inequity within the industry for more than 40 years. 

Jada Pinket-Smith has made a lot of noise on this issue in recent days. I wonder if she would still see an urgency in calling for a boycott if her husband Will Smith wasn't snubbed for his role in Concussion. I think Janet Hubert, famous for her role as the first mother in the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" was right to call Jada out on her boycott in the media. Hollywood has its "Talented Tenth," of black actors, producers and directors who manage to break through and become the few elite who have earned and been given power to produce in Hollywood. They include Oprah, the Wayne's Family, Bill Cosby, Lee Daniels, Denzel Washington, Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes, Spike Lee, Kerry Washington and Don Cheadle, among others.

Each of these individuals has have their own stories of adversity within the entertainment industry with the battle scars to prove it, but the bigger problem is that the needle for key jobs within the industry hasn't moved despite the small percentage who are brought into the fold and manage to direct a hit, produce and own the rights to their work.

There is no easy answer to this problem. It's more than two-hundred years in the making. Part of me is happy to see a renewed interest in dialogue on the topic. But we have to get past dialogue, we need those who sit at the top to acknowledge they've created an inequitable system. Own it and come up with a real strategy that can level the playing field. I'm not talking diversity programs where the "Talented Tenth" get cherry picked to be the face of black, Hispanic or Asian American's that rise to the top in Hollywood. I want equitable acknowledgement and action that future generations will look back on history and say this is when the change began.

Diversity strengthens us. Diversity of race, religion, socio-economic background, gender and thought adds more to the conversation. It makes our storytelling for film and television that much richer and compelling. As our nation continuing to grow and evolve, our entertainment, marketing and advertising needs to evolve to reflect the many voices that make up the fabric of our country. If not, we'll lose important voices and the chance for achieving progress towards racial inequities.


Patty said...

Just watched Michael Moore, on MSNBC. He stands with Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee, regarding the boycott of the Oscars. Happy to see a white male, stand up for diversity!
Enjoyed your article. Your title..... says it all!

Karim said...

Very passionate write-up. My thing is, how do you start to go about fixing it? It seems some progress has been made on the gender side.

Aaliyah Miller said...

Karim, good question. I think the studios execs have to play a role and I think their needs to be an honest acknowledgement of our unconscious bias and how that plays into our decision-making, which has kept the status-quo.