Hollywood and the Images of Black People

Frederick Douglass. Image from Faheem Jackson; found via pexels.com

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.

He writes:

“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.”

He asks:

“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.

Annie

48 thoughts on “Hollywood and the Images of Black People

  1. Wow. “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.” And your excellent blog post doesn’t touch upon the prevalence of blackface (donned on and off screen by all sorts of white actors in the past) along with other minstrel show traditions/norms/tropes woven into the entertainment industry…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My sense—though I could be wrong—is that this McKinsey report is the first thorough study.

      Yes, that Douglass quote says so much. And now we have a President and nearly half a Congress who are determined to begin redressing the wrongs. If only…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Annie, while Hollywood dallies, Tyler Perry has built an impressive movie and TV studio in Atlanta using an old military camp. He will produce all kinds of movies that Hollywood is slow to do and do them well. They do not want for money..

    As an aside, when there was a big row about no Black films or actors in any of the Oscar key races, there was an excellent movie that the NFL paid people in Hollywood to pigeonhole. Will Smith starred in a true story as a former Nigerian forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu in the movie “Concussion.”

    Omalu is very well qualified and, in spite of having never seen a football game, broke the story on the CTE brain damage due to football and the NFL’s efforts to mask his findings. This movie was the finest one Will Smith ever did in my view and their was silence as the NFL made it so with Hollywood. Plus, Omalu became a hero to football players suffering from the trauma and should be a role model for many, but especially Black youths.

    Keith

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, Keith. I had actually thought about Tyler Perry, but he seems to be the exception that proves the rule. I hope we’ll see many more like him in the near future.

      The “Concussion” story is infuriating on so many levels!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just had an episode with WP in which I sought help bc immediately after putting up my Wednesday post, I noticed it didn’t appear in WP Reader or in my email notification. They couldn’t figure it out at first, then told me I was unsubscribed. Sent me link to resubscribe which failed to work. Then insisted I did it unintentionally—even though it required them to resubscribe me!! Next time you’re on my blog or any other where you don’t get notification, check to see if it says “you are following…”

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Annie my blogger friend Linda has had similar problems with some of her posts not showing up in Reader at all, or sometimes hours later. Some of the H.E. were helpful and some not. I don’t think they could figure out why it happened either..

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That was interesting Annie, esp. the stats. I see so few movies anymore that I feel like I have nothing to contribute as I think movies in general have deteriorated, regardless of who is making them or staring in them or directing them. I watched the first fifteen movies of the Oscars and hardly recognized anyone so turned it off and read a book instead.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It seems to be true that movies in general have declined in quality, though don’t forget that we tend to remember only the best ones from past decades — there may have been just as many junk movies 50 years ago as now, but nobody remembers them.

      Still, good and original work is still being made. An example relevant to this post, which I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it, is Get Out (2017), the first movie written and directed by Jordan Peele (a black man, if you’re not familiar with the name). It’s technically a rather high-grade horror movie, but racism is central to the story, in a bizarre and gripping plotline. The concept and execution are unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and it very clearly represents a black viewpoint. If you watch it, try to avoid finding out about it first, and let the twists and surprises do their work. For me it was one of the two best movies that year.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s a good point, Infidel. How many memorable films are there, after all?

        I wanted very much to see Get Out, knew of Jordan Peele’s work, had heard lots of good things about it. But horror is not my preferred genre, so I passed on it. But maybe if it becomes available again…

        Ok: what was the OTHER best movie of 2017?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Get Out isn’t particularly gory or anything, it’s just that the underlying idea is so chillingly evil, and jarring (to some) because the white characters who seem at first to be ordinary cringey-but-well-meaning liberals turn out to be perpetrating something so horrific.

        what was the OTHER best movie of 2017?

        I was thinking of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water — another unique, gripping, and highly original work. Good movies are still being made.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. True Annie….but if people think good movies aren’t being made, they are apt to tune out, no matter who is makings them. I feel the same way about tv shows….where there is more diversity but not necessarily more quality, and much of it seems so violent.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I would like to see Father and Promising Young Woman and Nomadland when they come out here sometime. The rest of the nominations I don’t even know what they were about. I read a book years ago called Nickeled and Dimed – On Not Getting By in America – and I assume Nomadland would be a similar tale. Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/Nickel-Dimed-Not-Getting-America/dp/0312626681 It was written by a journalist who worked min. wage jobs for a year all across America. I know people were upset when Chad Bosewick did not win best actor, but maybe the Anthony Hoplins movie had broader appeal as it dealt with Alzheimers? I might consider Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I didn’t think I would like Green Day when it came out a few years ago, but a friend recommended it and I did enjoy it. And BTW I have no idea whether it was written/directed/produced by someone black or white or even if the storyline was accurate. It was just a good movie. So I might watch 3 or 4 in a year, and like you said the rest are sci-fit or geared to the younger market. I don’t even have Netflix, just basic cable TV, but my mother gets tons of movie channels with her cable package and I flick through them and many just do not seem that appealing.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I saw and enjoyed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”—mostly bc of the acting. That was the film for which the incredibly talented Chadwick Bozeman was posthumously nominated for an Oscar. Such a terribly sad story. Viola Davis was wonderful too—as she always is.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I kind of liked Soul.
    I think this is the review that had me waiting for the movie to start streaming.
    https://www.npr.org/2020/12/25/948998059/in-soul-jon-batistes-music-helps-bring-pixars-first-black-lead-to-life

    There are mixed reviews on the movie, all the way from one that talks about how much effort the makers put into getting the jazz and the neighborhood right (like including a barbershop scene because enough people from those neighborhoods told them that barbershops are very important in black communities) to reviews that claim the movie is racist, and even a review which mildly praises the movie but objects to it’s depiction of what they call Hindu or New Age beliefs and complains that it never mentions god’s final judgement or angels.
    One of the trivia details is that the hands playing jazz were animated from a performance by Jon Batiste. For what it’s worth.
    Okay, I have no idea how many of the cast and crew are black or Korean or white males, but I’m giving the movie points in my book for caring about getting things right instead of just slapping on virtual black face and selling it as an inclusive movie.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love Jon Batiste, and I’m very eager to see Soul. I saw him talking about it and read an animator’s description about his long and slender fingers’ lending themselves to the animation process. I also love jazz, so it’s sure to be enjoyable for me. Thanks, MDavis.

      Like

  6. I’m late to this discussion but wow, eye opener. Those statistics speak volumes. Agree with many here who comment that they are not all that familiar with the people who actually create the films — ethnicity? gender? hard to tell on names we don’t recognize — but so encouraging to see this issue coming forward. As for the barbershop comment, I caught notice of vaccines being delivered in barbershops as a point of trusted venue. Interesting. BTW don’t like horror films either.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, barbershops and hair salons for women have long been cited as important gathering places for Black Americans to converse about issues of living. I don’t know if there’s an equivalent in other countries/cultures.

      Like

      1. According to the Cabot Cove Gazette, the hair salon (where nails are also done) is a very important gathering place, a good place to find out what is going on in town.
        (/s)
        Serious note – I’m pretty sure that the only cultures who don’t have such a gathering place are cultures/people who are solidly enough in charge that they don’t feel the need to talk about issues with the rest of the neighborhood. Although, those people/groups may do the same gathering thing, but on a canvas of a different scale. Anyone going to Monte Carlo this year?

        Like

  7. You may be right, MDavis. Perhaps it’s my insularity. Jessica Fletcher’s milieu may even have been inspired by a real life situation. But I’m thinking of local gathering places, not resorts that attract the rich and famous—or others.

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  8. Monte Carlo was the rich and famous part; I was referring to your two separate references with what I assumed were clearly two separate thoughts…I trust you agree we’ve belabored this long enough. Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. An interesting side note: D.W. Griffith responded to criticism of Birth of a Nation’s racist stereotypes and positive depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, by making “Intolerance,” a film about the dark sides of prejudice and oppression. Not surprisingly, Birth of a Nation was a much bigger hit than Intolerance, but the latter was a rare production during its time—and the present time.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I am reminded of Malcolm X”s observation: “The white liberal is the worst enemy to America, and the worst enemy to the black man.” Could there still be truth to it? It sounds like it may be true in Hollywood where they preach incessantly on race but run their own business quite differently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the legislators who enacted the recent voter suppression laws, which are primarily aimed at disenfranchising minorities, are far worse enemies to black people than white liberals.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. JP quoting Malcolm X as a truth teller—wow!

      I read your comment—and immediately had the thought that Gail expressed below: compared to whom or what?

      At least Hollywood is making efforts to address its wrongs. The deliberate damage being done to Black people specifically and to our democracy by this coordinated effort to stop people from voting is not something I’d ever thought we’d see in the US. Disgraceful!

      Like

      1. I thought the point of your piece was that despite talking a good game, Hollywood has not actually changed much.

        I have many disagreements with Malcolm X, but here he makes a good point about those who infantize black Americans and attempt to become their savior while removing personal agency and responsibility from them. I think most black individuals today would agree that they are just as capable as anyone else of showing an ID and signing their names. At least that was my experience the one time I worked the polls at a local election. It was the first time my state required ID and I expected some problems. I was wrong because nobody questioned (or lacked) an ID all day long in a precinct where exactly two white people showed up all day.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. My point was that the all-white men at the top who have been the decision-makers are hypocrites; I have no idea what their political leanings are. They have been making decisions based on their determination of what will make them the most money.

        I am hopeful that the thorough findings of the McKinsey report that these men are not making wise business decisions will accelerate the progress that’s been made among actors and among some Black entrepreneurs like Tyler Perry who have done very well and are opening the door for others.

        I regard the rest of what you’ve written as baseless. The remnants of what was the Grand Old Party are using an orchestrated campaign to suppress the vote. I trust you have seen the video of the Heritage Foundation woman bragging about writing all these laws that Republican governors then rushed to sign.

        I am not interested in a replay of the claims of fraud that have been resoundingly disproven. Enough is enough.

        Like

  11. such a thoughtful, important post, Annie. The Invisible Man, the advent zombie movies, viewers now more open to indie films & shows… I think/hope people are becoming more compassional…

    Liked by 1 person

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