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An Open Conversation on Black Representation in the American Film Industry

African American Footprint in Film Industry

diversity in film industry

The black actress and comedian Leslie Jones has been incredibly visible the last several months thanks to the promotional excitement for her role in the all-female Ghostbusters reboot. Like any Hollywood actress, she has been on various talk shows and obtained spotlights on the front covers of popular magazines like Elle and Entertainment Weekly. Such visibility should be a dream come true, a certain sign of “making it” in the industry — the effort it takes for a talent to work their way up far enough to land a part in a major blockbuster seems like it often warrants some awe-filled prestige.

Then why did Jones just experience enough horrendous public harassment to drive her from a social media platform this summer?

Harassments ‘slipped’ by Twitter Management!

On July 18th, Leslie Jones announced that she was leaving Twitter after being hit with an onslaught of targeted harassment and racially charged hate speech from a stream of online trolls. The attack lasted for several hours, with Jones attempting to engage and dismiss the hundreds of people slinging racist comments and photos her way. She was called a primate, sent pictures of gorillas, and subjected to sexual harassment and pornographic images.

After hours of this without any intervention from Twitter management, Jones called it quits. The entire vile and racist dogpile can be seen here.

Twitter responded by suspending the account of Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right editor at Breitbart who had helped encourage the harassment, thanks to his history inspiring his followers to attack women on the platform. It took Jones leaving the site with a tearful farewell message before the social media website took definitive action.

Although there has already been gender-based controversy revolving around the Ghostbusters remake, Jones in particular has received the worst of it. Not only was she subjected to targeted racial harassment, but she sparked debate when she was unable to find a designer willing to help her with a dress for her premiere on the red carpet. She even received criticism for making the observation, like from the blogger BryanBoy, who called her “entitled.” One can infer several reasons why her hunt for a dress may have proved unsuccessful, but in the end it’s not really surprising that a tall, older black actress starring in a major Hollywood movie would be shunned by dress designers — and that she would be called “entitled” for calling them out.

Why is this sort of treatment not surprising? If many figures in the news media were to be believed, we are living in a post-racial America where this can’t possibly still be an issue. But here we are, and these are Jones’s Twitter mentions.

Will the Discrimination Ever End?!

This incident isn’t an isolated abnormality. When it comes to black people and movies and the publicity surrounding them, flags have been raised since — well, since the beginning of watching movies.

black representation in american film industry Though there’s been change, this year has seen a new wave of criticism against the American film industry for white-washing movies and failing to castblack actors in prominent and career-boosting roles. Not only is it difficult for a black actor to even find the opportunity to star in a major movie, let alone win a prestigious award, but accomplishing such publicity seems to inspire trolls armed with racial epithets. Jones’s experience highlights the difficulties of public life for a black actress achieving fame. A long history of obstacles for African Americans trails behind her.

After eight decades of annual awards, the Academy has only ever nominated a small number of African Americans, and even fewer have won. In the more recent decades, things did seem to improve. For just a few examples, in 1991, Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in Ghost; in 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both won best lead actor Oscars; in 2005, Jamie Foxx won the Best Actor Oscar for his lead role in Ray, and Morgan Freeman took home the Best Supporting Actor for his part in Million Dollar Baby. Movies seemed to be heading toward greater inclusivity.

Then there were the 2015 Academy Awards nominations, where despite the release of such films as Selma that explored the history of black experience in the ongoing American Civil Rights Movement, there were no black actor nominations. When Chris Rock hosted the awards ceremony back in January, he called for casting inclusivity in both his jokes and serious monologues, stating to the audience:

We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors — that’s it. Not just once.”

But this is not even the first step. First comes casting, then comes a nomination, and then comes… if observations indicate anything, the answer is a stream of racially charged harassment on social media, then the blind implicit racism expressed by those defending the harassers or criticizing the black actors complaining about the harassment.

In the end, there is a long list of obstacles for any aspiring black or brown actor. Focusing on one step at a time is just too overwhelming. After all, the film industry hasn’t mastered what appears to be the first step: casting. When filmmakers like Woody Allen comment that they only cast black actors in parts written specifically for black people, it’s hard not to then realize that those parts just aren’t being written.

Or at least, white filmmakers aren’t really writing them. The actress comedian Mo’nique, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the 2009 film Precious, pointed out that films with largely black casts tend to be low-budget films:

The offers I oftentimes receive are less than what I got 11 years ago, and that was before I won the Oscar.”

Black Filmmakers get Less Funding for their Projects

When black filmmakers write parts for black actors, they just don’t come with the same budget and backing as a big Hollywood movie from a white director. But why is that the case, and how does this not become a clear problem when we see that influential white filmmakers simply do not write parts for people of color?

Or worse, when they write misguided, stereotyped parts! The film industry is still slowly pulling itself up out of a long history of writing token roles for minorities, as Aziz Ansari points out:

“[I] see a montage of every Indian character that I remember seeing growing up. And it’s just: gas station, gas station, gas station, gas station, weird guy from Indiana Jones who eats brains, Zack Morris making some sort of curry joke.”

This sort of casting is harmful, exemplary of an obstacle for black talent that Hollywood is still struggling to eliminate. American novelist Ralph Ellison touched on the idea when he said:

“[m]ovies are not about Blacks but what Whites think about Blacks.”

White filmmakers have a track record of failing to show accurate minority experiences.

When Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx spoke about his experience in the record industry, the same sort of limitations and exclusions that would come up in film casting arose in music as well. When he pitched his ideas, the record company would reply,

“Well, Jamie, you’re an urban artist,”

implying that his work would not appeal to everybody. Foxx replied by suggesting a Li’l Wayne concert, attend and scope out the audience, look for the “urban section” amongst the sea of white arms in the air.

A creator in the industry who doesn’t actively seek to include will inevitably exclude. A recent example of active inclusion can be seen with director J.J. Abrams, who publicized his decision to cast his films in a way that represents the actual population of the country we live in – meaning more women, black, Hispanic, Asian in roles.

When Mo’nique described what she saw as the best solution to address racial disparity in Hollywood, it included having “a real and open conversation”. This means pushing for projects with plentiful interesting roles for minorities, nominating and promoting those filmmakers and actors, and actively speaking out and confronting the problems that are highlighted when a black celebrity is subject to a massive racist online attack.

Black Representation and Equality in the Film Industry is Important because Everyone Watches Movies.

Kids sit down in front of the television and their phones and take in the films, coverage, and award ceremonies. When that black representation is more often than not excluded, then children of color feel excluded and non-minority children get the wrong impression on how the world is represented. They fail to see in-depth minority experiences. Those children grow up and with their lack of experience and resulting lack of empathy, they then, oh, let’s say… log onto a social media platform and send a black actress a slew of gorilla pictures until she is driven from the site. The exclusion of black experience from film is not something that exists in its own shining Hollywood bubble. We all see it, the effects have trickled down throughout the generations, so let’s talk about it.

3 comments

  1. It’s sad how social media companies allow plenty of racist abuse :/ Leslie is an incredible talent and a striking woman.

  2. No one deserves to be ridiculed or have hate speech thrown at them. It is gross and mean!

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