Black filmmakers and executives get honest about their experiences in Hollywood
After George Floyd’s killing in the custody of Minneapolis police last month, Hollywood entertainment companies sent out a flurry of statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement’s fight against police brutality and systemic racism.
Studios, music labels and streaming services promised donations to antiracist nonprofits and declared their commitment to diversity. Internal memos called for reflection on the industry’s poor record of inclusion and diversity.
Still, the entertainment industry’s long history of failures when it comes to race continues to weigh on the minds of many of the Black filmmakers, executives and others interviewed by The Times. Many note the stark absence of Black executives in studios’ ranks. The Writers Guild of America West’s Committee of Black Writers on Friday published an open letter to studios demanding that actions follow words.
The Times interviewed nearly two dozen Black entertainment industry professionals, spanning directors, producers, writers, designers, agents and executives. They discussed systemic racism in Hollywood, what needs to change and their frustration with years of talk and little action.
“This conversation needed to happen for a long time about racism and race in our industry,” said Cynthia Erivo, the actor, singer and songwriter who was nominated for two Oscars for 2019’s “Harriet.” “It feels like for the first time people are listening.”
How the attention to racism and police brutality is challenging Hollywood
Will Packer, producer, “Girls Trip,” “Night School”: I, like many people in the business, have been contacted by my white colleagues and peers, reaching out to say, “Where do we go from here?” I welcome that. We’ve been here and felt this before. For many of us, it’s a generational anger and a generational exhaustion. But at the same time, there is something different this time. I didn’t get this volume of calls around Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or Eric Garner.
Ava DuVernay, director, “When They See Us,” “Selma”: You have certain people who are really reaching in, in a way that’s active and progressive, and you have folks that are going through the motions. And in this moment, there are no more motions. That kind of empty exercise is being duly noted by me and others.
Kasi Lemmons, director, writer, “Harriet,” “Eve’s Bayou”: I’ve had some time to think about these diversity reports that came out last year. Looking back 12 to 13 years, the numbers are so bleak especially in terms of what I am doing: writing and directing — and especially for directors of color and underrepresented women, they made less than 1% of the studio movies. That gave me pause. Because you expect or hope what seems obvious in an industry that deals with aspirations and inspiration, it feels like a perfect place for us to be our better selves.
DeVon Franklin, chief executive, Franklin Entertainment: How can what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or so many other countless Black men and women who’ve lost their lives, happen? Because there’s a dehumanization. That dehumanization is by no means completely at the doorstep of Hollywood. However, when you see the persistent images that Hollywood portrays of Black men and women in demeaning positions, being violent and so forth, it contributes to the dehumanization.
What actions can create meaningful change in the entertainment industry?
Darrell D. Miller, lawyer, entertainment department Chair, Fox Rothschild: What Hollywood can do, I think, is to actually act upon some of the changes that have literally been talked about for years: Bring more images, more voices, more talent, more producers in the rooms to create content more representative of our society.
John Ridley, screenwriter, “12 Years a Slave”: This is not charity, it’s not do-good work. These are amazing individuals. The talent is here, the will is here, the moment is definitely here, and I just get tired when people of good hearts and right minds say, “I’m going to donate.” But what are you doing? In terms of staffing showrunners, did you even interview a person of color for that position, or did you hire them because they were someone’s friend?
Lorrie Bartlett, co-head of talent department, partner and board member, ICM Partners: First of all, it’s [about] educating people and shining a light on unconscious bias, antiracism and antihate. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, but I’m not a racist.” There needs to be a real sense of understanding, by omission and silence contributing to a problem that exists. That is the first step.
Nina Shaw, a founding partner of Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano: There are lots of people asking me what I think they should do. My response is the same: You, as white people, should speak to each other. I want you to take ownership, I don’t want you to ask me what you should do. It’s always the same: Treat it like it really mattered to you. Every bonus now should be based on how diversity has been achieved.
Ashley Holland, agent, WME: Clients can demand this type of representation incorporated into their teams. If a powerful actor or director has someone trying to sign you, you can say you’re not interested in signing if there’s not a Black or brown person or woman on the team. If clients don’t make these kinds of demands, people don’t think it’s required.
Jeff Clanagan, chief executive, Codeblack Films: You can recruit at certain colleges. Try recruiting at the HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities). This conversation has to stay relevant in the same way that the #MeToo movement stayed relevant.
Melina Matsoukas, director, “Queen & Slim”: I want to make these stories on my sets. But the burden of diversity shouldn’t just be on Black filmmakers, it should be on everyone. Do you ask your white counterparts to open their sets and demand that they hire people of color on sets or the writers room? Is that happening?
The problem of white gatekeepers
Robin Thede, creator and star, “A Black Lady Sketch Show”: We don’t want a handout, we want to do the work. There’s a reason why you have an Ava DuVernay and an Issa Rae and a Lena Waithe, who are performing at a super high level. These people have worked their asses off. So no one is asking for the studios to just greenlight everything Black. That’s going to be awful. We want to be vetted just like everyone else. The problem is, Hollywood doesn’t see us.
Lemmons: I have witnessed people overlooking young Black people, just not seeing them. If there’s not a Black person in the room, or a women or indigenous person, are they seeing talent? Or are they seeing talent that looks like them?
Ridley: There are times when you have to explain to people in the room who are not of color why is it important that this goes into the story or that it be told this way.
Rob Edwards, screenwriter, “The Princess and the Frog,” “Treasure Planet”: Hollywood is a grim microcosm of larger society. I’ve been in this industry for 35 years. I’m not getting meetings to write a white project. I’m only called in to write about a sharecropper or a black baseball player. My dad’s a doctor. I share very little with that sharecropper experience, but I fear I’ll never be able to write about my own experiences because it never registers on any list of accepted Black narratives.
Datari Turner, independent film producer, “Uncorked”: We had a Black president of the United States before we had a Black person running a major studio in Hollywood. Tyler Perry has built an incredible business, an inspiring, big studio, but he still has to go through Viacom and Lionsgate to distribute his movies and TV that are run by white people. You have to have Black people run a studio. If we had a Black person running a studio, they would make more movies according to their tastes and how they grew up.
Profiling in the industry
Miller: I went to my first Vanity Fair Oscar party, and after going through five checkpoints I walked in and finally got to the door, and I was told the chauffeurs are around the corner. I’ve come to Hollywood and I’m at the top of my game. But I haven’t escaped the external reality.
Deirdra Govan, costume designer: I went into a high-end store, I was shopping for an A-list celebrity for a studio show. We had an account with the store. I spent $50,000, but from start to finish I was profiled and questioned. When I went to pick up the clothes, I was sequestered by security with the receipt in my hand. It was humiliating. The celebrity called the president of the store to say how inappropriate the behavior was.
Lena Waithe, creator, “The Chi”; writer, “Queen & Slim”: In our workplace, we’ve got to be nice to people, we’ve got to have dinner with them and sit next to them at premieres, you know what I’m saying? It is a truly traumatic thing for a lot of Black artists because you’re constantly having to rub shoulders with your oppressors.
The burden on Black executives and creators
Thede: The burden on Black people right now is to not only continue to fight the good fight, but also to educate people who want to join the movement. It’s a good thing, but it adds to the level of exhaustion. That’s why there was that moment of, “Check in on your Black friends.”
Jermaine Johnson, manager 3 Arts Entertainment: I do think that people, especially white people in positions of power, need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable; it is monumentally important to the change we need to make. At the top, so long as equality feels like oppression, then we need a reality check for ourselves.
Packer: I have to be successful, I’ve got to make sure I do my Kevin Hart comedies, I’ve got to make sure I’m respected and maintain relationships, and I also have to try to use my position and my power to tell stories that otherwise no one else would tell. If I don’t do any one of those well, I might be hurting the next Will Packer that comes through.
George Tillman Jr., director, “The Hate U Give”: When I go to pitch at different studios, if you have an African American lead, you’re going to get less money. You’ve got to jump up and down to convince them that this is something that’s universal.
The problem of how police are portrayed
Turner: Hollywood creates imagery for the world. Look on social media; you will see comments that 99% of cops are good, the majority cops do not do this. … A lot of this is because Hollywood has made more cop shows in the last 60 years than any other genre of film. “NCIS,” “Law & Order,” “SWAT,” the list goes on and on. The cops are always portrayed as heroes.
Jermaine Johnson: As long as they get the man, it doesn’t matter what civil rights they trample along the way. It’s always a point of frustration for me. Turn on any procedural and see that they cut corners, break rules, but as long as they get a guilty verdict it doesn’t matter how many people they interrogated illegally.
Jelani Johnson, partner, Macro Management: On some level Hollywood has always acknowledged the corrupt nature of police. Films like “Serpico,” “The Departed” and “Training Day” show how police can be corrupt but, always offer a “good cop” as a positive counterpart to the bad ones. Inversely, if you look at the relationship that black writers and directors have with police, you’ll find a much different story; a story more reflective of our community’s true relationship with the police.
Telling authentic stories
Tillman: The first scene in [“The Hate U Give”] is a scene I experienced when I was a kid growing up in the late ‘70s, where my parents and relatives were always telling me, “How do you conduct yourself around a police officer, how do you conduct yourself when you’re out of your neighborhoods?” That’s something my father was taught, he was teaching me in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I’m teaching my son in 2020.
Waithe: “Queen & Slim,” for obvious reasons, feels extremely relevant right now. But the truth is, it was relevant then, and it was relevant 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 100 years ago. We’re artists who are showing you what it is like for a Black person to encounter a police officer, and oftentimes, it can end in death.
How to fix Hollywood’s pipeline problem? Do diversity programs help?
Tina Perry, president, OWN: I think it starts even earlier, with figuring out how to tell high school students what this industry is, what opportunities exist and the types of jobs that are available. I’ve had interns come to us from L.A. and South L.A., and they didn’t know all the potential ways they could work in the industry. There’s something about the exposure at an early age that’s really important.
Franklin: No studio would outsource their film slate to human resources. So the idea that most diversity initiatives are run through human resource departments is one of the reasons why they don’t work.
Jermaine Johnson: At a very basic level ... we need to pay interns. People of color can’t afford to do unpaid internships. I applaud some diversity programs for their aspirations, but there’s tokenism in them. Sometimes they are just press releases on how they are performing diversity. If you are doing it right, you don’t need to tell us every six months.
Tendo Nagenda, vice president, original film, Netflix: If you’re someone who’s college educated, you’ve probably gone into a lot of debt, so if you’re someone making $30,000, $25,000 a year working 80 hours a week, it’s not really a sustainable thing, especially if you’re coming from a family with financial hardship. I amassed an extreme amount of debt to invest in my career in the hopes that at the end of the rainbow, I would be able to pay it off.
Holland: I was the beneficiary of the 1.0 version of agency calls to address diversity. I was an intern during the second class at CAA when they switched over from friends’ [kids] as interns to a mechanism for recruiting and 50% had to be diverse. I’m the product of [diversity and inclusion] initiatives. Does that mean everyone is getting everything right? No.
DuVernay: What I’ve found is the folks on the ground doing the work are not getting the influx of money from studios, networks and agencies, because those checks are going to the [high profile, legacy social justice organizations] you know. That tells me it’s performative. Performance doesn’t fix systems and structures. I don’t think it’s coming from a place of malice, it’s coming from a place of ignorance. People just don’t know what to do.
Erivo: The work people are doing right now happening across the world is kind of incredible for me. It’s really heartening because I don’t think we can effect the change needed if it’s not happening the world over. Again, the more we speak about this, the more stories we can tell, the more people can’t deny it’s happening.
Brandon Lawrence, agent, Creative Artists Agency: Going back to the prior days when we were taking it on the chin, frankly that is not going to fly anymore with executives in this business and beyond entertainment. People are tired of having to justify culture in the context of making money. When I think about America, I think culture is one of the biggest exports and Black culture is at the epicenter. It’s smart business to include Black people in the decision-making process.
Matsoukas: Racism in Hollywood is a pandemic born from over a century of erasure, segregation, white nepotism, redlining, the rewriting of history and pushing false narratives, cultural looting, and ostracism. The only way forward is to dismantle these practices within these institutions in an effort to bring true diversity to the entertainment and media industry.
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