Producer Peter Rawley recalls trying recently to get a top talent agency to see two Indian actors. Most agents, he has found through the years, would rather go with a sure thing than take a risk on signing “ethnic” talent. In this case, he had to assure them that many people in India speak English.
“They said, ‘Why would they do that?’” said Rawley, a former agent. “I had to explain to them that English is one of the official languages in India. Once I was at a studio and I was pitching a Simon Bolivar story. I told them, ‘You know, Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of South America?’ and they said, ‘Liberated from whom?’”
For minorities in Hollywood, change has come very slowly. The subject once again came to the fore Sunday night at the Academy Awards when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won the top acting honors and Sidney Poitier received a lifetime achievement award. In her acceptance speech, Berry said her Oscar could open doors for other women of color. But despite these heralded awards, real diversity remains an elusive goal in Hollywood, according to those who work in the industry and those who observe it.
“The wins that we saw on Oscar night are arguably well deserved--they gave some great performances,” said agent Rob Kim of United Talent Agency, one of a handful of Asian American agents in town. “I don’t know that it necessarily matters that much. Does [Berry’s] win mean more roles for African American women? I don’t think so. I think more people will want to hire Denzel and more people will want to hire Halle Berry.”
Some believe that the awards might have made academy members feel good--and served as a source of pride among African Americans--but that in terms of recognition of minority talent, it was too little, too late.
“I think it’s a little too obvious--it’s like all of a sudden [the academy] remembered that we exist,” said director Leon Ichaso (“Pinero”), who is Cuban. “There have been incredible performances in the past which were totally ignored. That award should have been given to Denzel years ago, and to many others.”
The questions facing Hollywood are complex and layered. They include the dearth of minority representation at all levels, from script writers to studio executives, producers, agents and managers. Perhaps even more important in a bottom-line-driven industry is the studios’ growing reliance on the international market, where having minorities and women in starring roles is considered a detriment, particularly in action blockbusters.
In 2000, nearly 46% of the studios’ total profits came from sales abroad, according to the weekly publication Screen International. The so-called “event movies” or blockbusters account for 60% of the studios’ box-office revenues, according to the publication.
“None of this is going to change the fact that you cannot package or sell [a movie] to the world market today with a black woman,” said James Ulmer, author of “James Ulmer’s Hollywood Hot List,” which tracks actors’ global marketability. “I don’t see [the Oscar win] as changing an industry where white male actors drive the train of the international marketplace.”
Behind the camera, minorities are just as underrepresented. Hollywood may be seen by outsiders to be a politically progressive enclave, but the industry’s hiring practices and the opportunities available for nonwhites have not progressed much in 30 years, said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC’s School of Cinema-Television.
“This contradicts the perception of Hollywood as being liberal,” said Boyd, who also wrote and produced the 1999 film “The Wood,” a coming-of-age drama about three young African Americans in Inglewood. “If it was so liberal and on the vanguard, we would not be sitting here 30 years later talking about African Americans being nominated. Hollywood is really reprehensible in this regard.”
As with almost everything to do with race in America, the Berry and Washington wins have become the subject of contention. Behind the scenes, some academy members wondered whether too much was made about the race issue. Some even wondered if the academy’s “guilt” in overlooking minorities for so long would play a deciding role in granting the Oscar to Washington.
Ron Howard, director of “A Beautiful Mind” and winner of two Oscars Sunday night, told La Opinion last week, “The only thing that would prevent [Russell Crowe] from winning, is that the academy, out of guilt, try to repair the damage that it did to Denzel Washington by not having given him the Oscar for his performance in ‘The Hurricane.’” After his win, Washington made a reference to race being irrelevant, and pleaded with the media to recognize him and Berry as actors and not African American actors.
African American actors have had the most Oscar wins and nominations of any minority group--seven. Through the years, four Latino actors have won Academy Awards: Benicio del Toro for best supporting actor for “Traffic” (2000); Anthony Quinn for best supporting actor for “Viva Zapata!” (1952) and “Lust for Life” (1956); Rita Moreno for best supporting actress for “West Side Story” (1961); and Jose Ferrer for best actor for “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950). Two Asians have won Oscars: Miyoshi Umeki for best supporting actress for “Sayonara” (1957) and Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields” (1984).
Berry and Washington could flex their muscles by demanding diverse casts and getting behind minority-driven productions, said Bridget D. Davis, senior vice president of film at Edmonds Entertainment, Tracey Edmonds’ production house.
“If [Berry] can get films made, then that would help,” said Davis, who is African American. “I don’t think this is a world-changing event but a slow change in the right direction.”
Some minority directors, such as Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”) and Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) have reached a level where they can dictate who is hired for a production. And certainly, stars such as Washington, Will Smith (an Oscar nominee for “Ali”) and Wesley Snipes (star of “Blade 2,” which took in $33 million in its first weekend) have box-office clout, at least in the U.S. market.
But those are the exceptions. The major Hollywood guilds (actors, writers, directors and producers) are 80% to 90% white, according to the most recent statistics. Only four of the 44 partners or board members at the town’s top five talent agencies are women, and there are no minorities. Although there are three women with the power to greenlight movies at the major studios, there are no minorities.
Hollywood will not change until change occurs at the top levels, said David Park, an agent at UTA.
“Until minorities are in a position of power and until the people doing the buying have a vested interest, you are not going to see many drastic changes,” said Park, who is Korean American. “Directors and show runners hire their friends--this is a town of relationships. You hire who you know. The key is getting people of color to a level where they can hire their friends.”
The low percentage of minorities in Hollywood comes at a time when the U.S. moviegoing audience is becoming more diverse. According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, in 2001 more than 30% of the American moviegoing audience was Latino, African American or Asian. The Latino population is the heaviest in moviegoing, with a per capita viewing of 9.9 films per year, representing 15% of admissions.
For actress-turned-writer Tina Andrews, it’s been a long, hard road to acceptance. In 1977, Andrews landed a leading role in the soap opera “Days of Our Lives"; she played a working professional and was the first black actress to have an interracial relationship on daytime television. As she recalls, she kissed her white colleague on a Friday show; by Saturday, the network received 5,000 negative letters. Eventually, she was written out.
She says she is now working steadily as a writer (she wrote the CBS miniseries “Sally Hemmings, An American Scandal” and is now working on the Coretta Scott King story for CBS).
“There are those who would say to me, ‘Oh you speak so well....’ At first, I was offered only the urban contemporary city story or a comedy,” Andrews said.
“I am the eternal optimist,” she added. “The [Oscar] wins were for all of us, but we need to apply it to the bigger picture so we are not waiting another 70 years.”
In terms of casting, most studios and production houses go through mainstream casting agents to find talent, rather than through boutique casting agencies that specialize in minority talent.
In most cases, the studios specify the race or ethnicity of the talent they seek or change it depending on the kind of movie they are making. For instance, Alicia Nash, wife of John Forbes Nash Jr., the subject of the Oscar-winning film “A Beautiful Mind,” is Salvadoran. Yet she was played by Jennifer Connelly (who was voted best supporting actress).
But increasingly, more studios are putting out casting calls that are not race- or ethnic-specific. MTV and Nickelodeon have been leaders in this regard, understanding that their young audience is both diverse and less concerned about ethnic backgrounds. (For example, MTV’s feature film “Save the Last Dance” was about an interracial teen romance.)
Universal added Latino film label Arenas Entertainment to produce and distribute films targeting Latino audiences. Although more opportunities are opening up for minority talent, there is still a lot of educating to do, said Ivan de Paz, executive vice president of talent for Arenas.
“I have seen a change in attitude,” De Paz said. “It’s a great challenge. But it’s very empowering to be there in the forefront to help them see what we are about.”