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Jim Crow Hollywood 101

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Powerful master of the universe filmmaker George Lucas spoke recently to John Stewart about how even he was unable to get his new film “Red Tails” on the Tuskegee Airmen made.  Red Tails took two decades to produce. Despite the film’s “jingoistic” patriotic American brio Hollywood didn’t want to back or distribute a film with an all-black cast and no white male savior.  According to Lucas, major studios balked because the absence of white characters would translate into minimal overseas box office.

Lucas’ experience is no revelation.  The American film industry remains among the most segregated in the country.  When white America settles into its seat at the local multiplex on the weekend it’s generally met by the comfortable image of middle American heroism, romanticism and drama–safely scrubbed of any black, brown, Asian or Native American faces.  As one of the most powerful mediums of cultural propaganda on the planet, the film industry is still an empire of white corporate control. A 2002 study by UC Santa Barbara professors Denise and Bill Bielby concluded that rampant cronyism, arbitrary hiring practices and the racial biases of bottom-line oriented foreign investors have kept both the film and TV industries bastions of whiteness. Further, the absence of studio heads of color exacerbates the exclusion of people of color from the old boy networks that often dictate hiring, promotion and the green lighting of films in the industry. This includes development and apprenticeship programs. According to the online journal Diverse Issues in Higher Education, “Of the 2,057 entertainment companies contracting with Hollywood’s Writers Guild…only 12 offer writing programs targeting people of color.”

 

Lucas on the John Stewart show 

But now that the U.S. has transitioned to post-racialism and colorblindness maybe we can bring back minstrelsy (officially that is; Tyler Perry notwithstanding)  and have white actors like Ben Affleck and Tom Cruise play patriots of color in full blackface regalia to lure the heartland and racist global audiences to “black” movies.

Comments

  1. danielrudolph says

    I found it odd he was acting like this was the first all-black action movie. Perhaps it’s the first with this kind of budget (meaning marketed to white people), but I can think of lots of examples that would have played in theaters in black neighborhoods.

    • Mikecheck says

      He is really only talking about the big studios. Most decent movies in the past with a dominant African-American cast were mostly either from independent studios or they were not commercial successes. In none of his interviews about this topic does he seem to suggest his is THE movie with an all black cast.

  2. Irene Delse says

    Wow. Even if these Hollywood majors underestimate the white public in the US and overseas, are they not aware that the urban population of Africa is a market of fast economic growth? And they don’t know about “Nollywood”, the film-making industry of Nigeria? This is bigotry compounded with ignorance.

  3. says

    Tom Cruise in blackface. Thanks for that image, now excuse me while I jump head-first into a half-full bottle of booze…

    In all seriousness, though, it all comes down to assuming that white audiences don’t want to see movies with no white heroes. Would it be worth debating if that’s a chicken/egg issue? Like, would more white Americans become more interested in movies like Red Tails if they had more to choose from? Particularly more movies of higher quality?

  4. Lynnea says

    Wow, I can’t believe that someone would green-light Indiana Jones 4, but not a movie with black protagonists. It’s a messed up world, for sure.

  5. josh says

    Not saying that racial issues in the US are all solved and forgotten, but it was interesting to me that he gave overseas returns as a primary reason for the reticence of major studios. So are foreign investors bottom-line oriented or are they racially biased? Or is the thought that they could have made money (20 years ago) but didn’t realize it because of biases or ignorance? I’d be interested in the by-continent or by-country breakdown of the estimated return for a film like this.

    Regardless, I don’t doubt that there is a lot of momentum in the ‘who you know’ network that works against minority film-makers.

  6. Konradius says

    Speaking as someone outside the US who loves to go to films with a racism theme (I loved discussing the movie “a time to kill” with other film-goers afterwards for example); I think the prominent reason why the film would do less well in Europe is the american patriotism as talked about in the interview.
    The point that this is an all-black-cast would among my friends be a distinct advantage in discussing what movie to go to.
    Now this is of course a gigantic self selecting bias and I do not know what the mainstream dutch reaction would be.

  7. jolo5309 says

    But if it is a success, then women will want to star in action movies, then Asians!

    *Watches Rush Hour and Haywire*

    Oh wait, nevermind…

  8. James says

    I honestly think the producers/financiers were (and still are) wrong on this. Audiences will go to see films with all or predominantly black casts, just like they’re prepared to buy music made by black musicians, or buy tickets and subscribe to cable for sports events with all or mostly black athletes.

    There will likely always be a small minority of people who will drag their heels through conscious or unconscious bigotry and prejudice, but by far the biggest determinant of box office return will continue to be what they invest in the films in terms of quality and marketing.

  9. carolw says

    Damn. I was really looking forward to this movie. I wanted to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen. What a shame.

  10. Orlando says

    With the rise of small, HD digital cameras and VOD and iTunes outlets for movies, it will be interesting to see if there is a shift away from the big budget spectaculars towards lower budget movies that are watched on TV or iPads. That is liable to exert more pressure on Hollywood, and afford non-middle america a way to make and view less stereotyped productions. Or not. We shall see.

  11. Pteryxx says

    @carolw: Red Tails DID get made finally, and is opening in theaters next weekend (Jan. 20). Lucas just had to produce it himself via Lucasfilm Ltd.

  12. SallyStrange (Bigger on the Inside), Spawn of Cthulhu says

    I’m from the older generation of white Americans that have grown up with hip hop as a major cultural force. It kind of baffles me why, when you have millions of white kids (and, now, adults too) eagerly seeking out music and performances by black musicians, people still think that these same white people wouldn’t be okay with watching movies with an all-black cast.

  13. Kenny says

    When I ‘settled into my seat at the local multiplex’ I thanked God the latest ‘Karate Kid’ film was “safely scrubbed of any black, brown, Asian or Native American faces.”

    • blackskeptics says

      Where is the rest of your list of current Hollywood blockbuster films that feature black and Asian casts? Oh, yes, that’s right, Red Tails took two decades to make.

      Crickets…

      • Kenny says

        Flight
        Dolphin Tale
        Invictus
        Independence Day
        Omega Man
        Hotel Rwanda
        Hotel for Dogs
        Mission to Mars
        Shawshank Redemption
        Every Star Trek movie…

        • blackskeptics says

          Again — where are the recent Hollywood blockbusters, or any mainstream films, for that matter, with predominantly of color casts? You’ve listed a grand total of ten titles (two of which are over a decade old) with either one marquee name that predominates in mainstream film (i.e., Will Smith and Morgan Freeman, the latter of whom has three of the ten titles on your list)or a few actors of color sprinkled into the movie. This stands in stark contrast to the hundreds of films released annually by the industry. For further research consult the Screen Actors Guild 2006-2008 Report which contains its most recent data for diversity in Hollywood:

          “White performers nabbed 72.5% of all roles in 2007-2008, with African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American and “Other” actors accounting for the remaining 27.5%, down from a record of 29.3% the year before.  Notably, White performers now account for 76% of all lead roles in film and TV, up from 74.4% the year before”

  14. Mikecheck says

    Even shows with the “token black” can now be called the “token show” for many television companies.

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