Serious Question: Is It Time for Some Affirmative Action In The Film Industry?

November 15, 2013  |  

The representation of people of color, particularly black folks on television and on the big screen has been uninspiring (to put it nicely on a Friday), but are we at the point where we need some serious affirmative action, by way of quotas, to ensure proper representation in the film and television industry? It’s a thought. A serious one, if you ask me…

From Shadow and Act:

Yesterday, across the pond, during the Broadcast and Screen International Diversify conference panel titled “Flight of the Black Actor,” black actors including Lenny Henry and Kwame Kwei-Armah called for broadcasters to implement quotas to increase racial diversity on UK screens…

In high-end drama, there’s no faces that look like me. We need to lobby the government. Maybe quotas isn’t the right language, maybe we should call them shared targets,” said star of stage and screen Lenny Henry. Kwei-Armah, now artistic director of theatre company Center Stage in Baltimore, added, “The US set quotas. They did that thing that we’re so scared to do here…[In the UK, there’s very little diversity of the roles for men or women of color, but in the US there’s a diversity of opportunity […] I’m in a permanent state of maudlin that one has to go to the States,” referring to actors like Idris Elba, David Harewood and others who had to move to the USA to work consistently.”

Let me tell you something. The UK film industry has to be pretty damn bleak if black actors and actresses have to leave from there to come over here to try to find work.

And just to add a little bit more perspective to what I mean, consider the following report, The 2013 TV Staffing Brief, which examines employment patterns on 190 broadcast and cable television shows. The report is compiled by the Writers Guild of America, and as part of bargaining agreements, television shows that have membership within the guild are required to submit data about women, minorities and older writers, which are the three groups of writers who traditionally have been underrepresented in Hollywood. With regards specifically to minority representation in the writer portion of television employment, the data shows that when you compare the 1999-00 and the 2011-12 seasons, minority (people of color) writer representation had increased from 7.5 percent to 15.6 percent. This means that while the country continues to get browner and darker (at a percent of 36.3 percent of the U.S. Population in 2010 alone), the television landscape – at least in the writers’ room – still remains largely white. Moreover, while blacks represent the largest share of minority television staff employment (6.5 percent in the 2011-12 season), that increase has only been .7 percentage points since it was 5.8 percent in the 1999-2000 season. At 12 percent of the U.S. population, black television staff still find themselves underrepresented by a factor of nearly 2 to 1 in employment.

And it is not just in the writers’ room where we find such discrepancies. A study released by USC’s Annenberg School For Communication & Journalism has shown that out of the 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8 percent of speaking characters were black, 4.2 percent were Hispanic, 5 percent were Asian, and 3.6 percent were of other ethnicities. According to this report in the LA Times, Academy Award voters are a lot less diverse than the average movie viewing public, with the lot of Oscar voters being nearly 94 percent white and 77 percent male. And this report by the Directors Actors Guild shows that not only did white males direct 73 percent of primetime episodic TV on the main networks, cable and premium cablebut TV direction by minorities has mostly stalled, with the rate of minority male directors declining from 14 percent in 2010-11 to 13 percent last year (ironically, the number of minority women directors increased from three to four percent – so we see where the extra percentage point has gone).

What all this data suggests is that the lack of representation behind the lens, particularly in spaces where casting, character development and show creation is happening, has direct correlation to why what we see on television is so, for the lack of a better term, white and contrary to the overall experience and image of all people of color. But outside of vanity of image and making sure that television represents us “right,” there are bigger concerns about how Hollywood has been able to skirt around and over what should be considered obvious protection under the country’s equal employment opportunity laws. After all, we are talking good ol’ fashion labor issues here. You know, the right to work?

According to this article in the October 2012 edition of the University of Manchester’s Oxford Journal entitled, Closing Doors: Hollywood Affirmative Action And the Revitalization of Conservation Racial Politics, not only is it a labor issue, but it is one that Hollywood has been fighting against since shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, when affirmative action policies started to take shape nationwide. According to Eithne Quinn, author of the piece, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (or EEOC) held a one-day hearing in Hollywood in March 1969, to hold the film industry accountable for “patterns or practice of discrimination in violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibited employment discrimination based on an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin).” At the hearing, testimony was provided about how the film industry was one of the worst practitioners of racial discrimination of any industry in the country and how Hollywood executives routinely engaged in recruiting systems that “have as their forseeable effect the employment only of whites.” As result of the hearings, the Justice Department prepared lawsuits under Title VII against the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, six of the seven major film studios at the time, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and “a good number of craft unions.”

However, and according to the article, after some lobbying followed by a PR-blitz, which included famous black actors and civil rights leaders (including then-NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins, who basically soft-shoed cautious support of the film industry during a luncheon in his honor sponsored by a Hollywood bigwig), the case never made it to trial. And subsequently, Clifford Alexander, the head of the EEOC, who called for the hearings, was removed from his position by then-president Richard Nixon. Thereafter, studio management was free and clear to propagate the continued exclusion of minorities and has since engaged in things like nepotism, favoritism and union restrictions to ensure that Hollywood would remain pretty white.

Currently, most major studios do offer diversity training programs, which require them to train and consider minority applicants. And even still, the overall representational numbers both behind and in front of the camera remain dismal. It would be easy to assume that since these programs seem to be failing in bridging the gap in representation that the problem might be with the pool of talent itself. However, as pointed out by the Hollywood insider’s website, WomenDirectorsinHollywood.com, in regards to hiring women and minority directors, “Part of the problem may lie in the fact that the DGA compliance officers— the enforcing mechanism (the Diversity Task Force)— is made up DGA members who are often employed by the very companies they are supposed to be monitoring.” Like the fox watching over the hen house…

With that kind of legacy, it would seem that every option should be put on the table to ensure that blacks, as well as other people of color, are provided equal employment options including the use of quotas. And why not quotas? Merit based hiring only works when talent and skill is judged without bias. And as we have been witnessing, all things have not been equal. And quite frankly, it requires lots of stupid faith to rely on a system, which has been historically racist, to be the gatekeepers of who or who does not have merit. Those who see affirmative action, including the use of quotas, as some sort of hand-out forget that most industries in this country had to be pushed into equality in the same respects, including all major league sports, education and even government agencies. And addressing racial inequality in this country has to be just as intentional as it was when the founders made these inequalities, including forced integration and distribution.

We can yell all day about “making our own movies,” but regular followers of black film industry sites will note that there are plenty of black films produced every single year. However, getting these films distributed, on major screens and out to the masses of moviegoing audiences has become virtually impossible for many. I can’t wait for the day – if it happens – when black folks in this country are self-sufficient and away from the system of white supremacy. But we are a long way from that happening. So, in between time, no option for our equality and advancement should be taken off the table.

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