The specter of liberal “Hollywood elites” has been widely used by conservative and right-wing politicians and media to demonstrate all the perceived wrongs about America—including the quest for equality and diversity among Black Americans and other people of color.
Indeed, the results of this year’s Academy Awards demonstrated growing diversity among the nominees and recipients. Those of us who believe in a more equitable, diverse nation felt a measure of satisfaction from that golden Oscar’s apparent progress.
But it’s also apparent that progress is still slow—and slowest among those behind the scenes.
In fact, according to a new study, the American film industry is the least diverse industry in the country.
Though this is an industry that deals with fantasy, I found the stark distinction between the illusion of progress and the reality something that should be of concern to all fair-minded people—even those who care not one whit about Hollywood, Oscars, and popular culture.
My education on this matter was sparked by Franklin Leonard, a Black Hollywood producer, writing in The New York Times a few days ago.
Leonard noted that Hollywood’s professed support for the Black Lives Matter movement rings hollow based on what he’s seen working there over the past two decades. He interweaves findings from the new report into his opinion piece.
“Far from offering relief, each new assertion by a talent agency, film studio, television network or streaming service that ‘silence is complicity’ and that ‘we must do better’ felt like a pinch of salt in a gaping wound.
“And more broadly, how many lives have we lost in part because of the dehumanization of Black people that Hollywood has perpetuated for more than a century?”
“I found myself unable to ignore the gap between these meticulously workshopped platitudes and the daily words and actions I’ve witnessed in Hollywood, which reflect values I knew cost not only dollars but lives: How many movies like ‘Black Panther’ have we not made?
Before his Hollywood career, Leonard had worked for several years at McKinsey & Company, a worldwide management consulting organization.
When the firm offered its pro bono services to “work globally to advance racial equity and economic empowerment among Black communities,” Leonard suggested—as a representative of the Blacklight Collective, a group of Black Hollywood executives—that McKinsey explore the status of Black people in Hollywood.
McKinsey agreed—and launched an extensive study. In March, the corporation issued a report of its findings: “Black representation in film and TV: The challenges and impact of increasing diversity.”
The study documented that finding about the American film industry’s relative lack of diversity compared with other business sectors—and the result: a loss of $10 billion that the industry could reap if it made steps to overcome its laggardly status.
“Barriers that undermine equity in content development, financing, marketing, and distribution come at a substantial cost to the film and TV Industry.”
Addressing those barriers would lead to financial gain that would, of course, be felt across the industry. And it would increase further as more diverse content draws in other viewers who aren’t currently a part of the audience.
To me, what was most important was the impact of the lack of diversity on what Hollywood shows the public—and here, Leonard’s description is the obverse of the conservatives’ depictions of Hollywood.
Leonard wants to make sure readers understand that this absence of diversity and the systemic racial bias that the report found are not simply “unfortunate;” they are societally important. Here’s where I think all fair-minded people may want to take notice.
To make his point, he offers a “history lesson”: the role of abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, who stressed even as the Civil War was raging that the narrative and images of Black Americans were critically important in the quest for a pluralistic society.
I never recall having seen a picture (or statue) of Douglass in which he wasn’t dressed in a suit and tie, a serious expression on his face.
Douglass was born a slave. Yet, writes Leonard,
“Through sheer force of will, [he] made himself the most photographed American of the 19th century, partly driven by a belief that his now-iconic image, when paired with rhetoric, could debunk representations of Black people in his time as caricatures and nonhuman specimens.”
He was—and is—also widely quoted. This one leaped out at me when I explored some of his observations:
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
According to his biographer, David Blight, an historian at Yale, Douglass’s campaign succeeded in changing many white people’s minds about Black Americans.
But only 20 years after Douglass’s death, in 1916, Leonard points out that Hollywood produced its “first blockbuster, ‘The Birth of the Nation,’ which created the Ku Klux Klan’s hooded, cross-burning iconography.
“The propagandistic film, given a special screening at Woodrow Wilson’s White House, supercharged the organization’s bloody resurgence and solidified the view of Black men as criminal predators in white America’s imagination.”
How far have we progressed since then? The McKinsey report underscored the persistence of racial stereotypes:
“both on- and off-screen, Black talent is pigeonholed and funneled by race-related content, which often plays into stereotypes.”
Leonard adds a 2016 Vox analysis: of gang members depicted onscreen, 62% were Black.
“Is it surprising then, that the casual murders of Black people—both those captured on smartphones and many more that preceded the smartphone era—are predicated on the perception of us as violent, criminal threats?”
He asks the same questions about anti-immigrant sentiment and Latino immigrant characters shown on film in criminal acts, and the “stories Hollywood has helped tell about women generally, and Asian women specifically”—preceding the Atlanta mass killing.
The McKinsey report points out that the underrepresentation is most substantial in terms of off-screen talent: directors, producers, and writers. And that’s where the disconnect and barriers to diversity occur.
The dynamic that has closed off Black representation in these groups changes when, for example, the rare Black producer turns to a Black writer and/or Black director.
But both on- and off-screen, the Black film professional must navigate what the report calls “40 pain points” to hang on and make a living.
A similar trend is occurring on TV shows. “…more than four out of five shows with a Black creator have a Black show runner. However, out of all show runners, only 5 percent are Black.”
Most significantly, in terms of top executives, 87 percent of TV executives and 92 percent of film executives are white—and the vast majority are male. And that, of course, is where the decision-making takes place.
To encourage true and lasting diversity, the report suggests ongoing collective action, with an “independent, well-funded third-party organization” at the helm “to ensure diverse representation, especially among off-screen talent and executives; increase transparency and accountability” [more regular publication and sharing of progress reports]; and “seek and financially support a wide range of Black stories.”
What does a “third party organization” mean? An earlier McKinsey report on improving racial equity had spoken of “collective action that brings together public-, private-, and social-sector stakeholders.”
Leonard feels such an organization is feasible, based on how the industry responded to combat loss of billions of dollars through piracy and theft of intellectual property.
The audiences are there, he states, pointing out that in those unusual instances when films have two or more Black people involved as creator, producer, director, writer, they yield 10% greater profits at the box office for every invested dollar compared with films that have zero or one Black person in those off-screen positions.
He concludes his piece by lamenting that all the promises he’s received from corporate America have receded. But he points out that the film and TV industry is basically a business.
In the 20 years he’s been involved, he’s heard many assertions that ‘’substantively addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion would cost too much and earn too little.”
But now data confirm what he and others have been saying:
“Inclusion isn’t expensive. Exclusion is.”
“How much longer will corporate boards and shareholders tolerate the suboptimal, almost laughable financial outcomes driven by a whitewashed status quo?”
I am eager to hear your thoughts.