Thursday, Sep 21st

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Minorities in Entertainment, Has it Gotten Better? SAG’s David White Speaks on Why We Need to Make It Happen

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Sitting in his office overlooking the hills of Hollywood, one would think David White, National Executive Director of the Screen Actors Guild was in a world of his own.  But this deeply committed man thinks way beyond the glitz and the glam of Hollywood. 

Appointed as the National Executive Director in 2009, David fights to ensure the rights of artists and that the industry improves the lives of unrepresented groups in Hollywood. He is a man of civil rights and compassion but better yet, he is a man committed to improving racial diversity in the film industry and David knows this is not an easy feat.  Since 1937, the Screen Actors Guild has worked to have a realistic portrayal of minorities and true representation of American Society in film. 

Although it has improved, there are many strides people of color need to make in Hollywood.  David speaks with B.Couleur about casting and minorities, the next black film renaissance, the growing absence of the black experience in entertainment and what that means for black actors--especially black women.

BC:  Thank you for speaking with us today.

DW: I am happy to be here.

BC: Why did you want to work with the Screen Actors Guild?

DW: I found the idea of working with the Guild very intriguing and knew I would enjoy the challenge.  Moreover, our mission is important. The entertainment industry is more significant than people realize. SAG works in several ways to help build a protective space for actors to be able to work and thrive. The life and professional work cycle of a performer is extremely challenging. Working performers are often paid little amounts of money for each job and so it is our goal to put together enough work and provide equitable conditions.

BC: In Hollywood, finding work can be extremely daunting especially for minority actors. On the onset, did you find discrepancies with the number of projects or roles given to minorities?

DW: I noticed inconsistencies from the beginning.  I started working with SAG as General Counsel in 2002 and did not have a lot of experience in entertainment.  However, as I became increasingly aware of the images that were being projected, I saw a disturbing pattern. When I graduated from college in 1990, I experienced the resurgence of black films in the late 80’s, thanks to directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton and Bill Cosby.  It appeared the studios and production companies were taking greater risks in telling our stories.  It was an incredible period and when you think about the evolution of our films, it was an explosion of creativity and culture not limited only to the black community but to the mass population. During that time, mainstream audiences embraced black films and it seemed like we finally broke through the glass ceiling and it was going to go on forever.

BC: When did it change?

DW: In the 90’s there was an increase in funds for independent filmmaking and at some point Fox, UPN and the WB were making the decisions to produce numerous shows like Martin, Living Single, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air that were successful and targeted African Americans.  By 2005, these types of shows began to lose their luster and independent financing began to dry up. In addition, the WB and UPN merged to form the CW, so the money and distribution vehicle for black projects began to disappear.

BC: According to the Casting Data Report, 2007 marked the highest ethnic minority representation on record but these numbers have since dwindled. Why do you think that is?

DW: The highpoint for African American casting was indeed in 2007 where the number of roles cast for black actors was 14.3 and now it is at 13.3.  The truth is the early increase grew stagnate and the channels begin shutting down.  In my opinion, the NAACP and other groups who monitor this process watched that initial success and when their interest waned, the engines behind the escalation died down.

BC: What types of growth have you seen in recent years?

DW: Since 2000, there has been real progress in the distribution and financing of Hispanic culture with Univision and similar companies for Spanish speaking audiences; however there has not been a similar increase for English speaking Spanish cultures in the US.   We have seen a real growth for older women and in the LGBT category with television networks like LOGO and shows like Glee.

BC: There seems to be a lack of interest in the studios investing in black entertainment.  Can you talk about that?

DW: Hollywood by definition is a very risky business and most films do not recoup their costs.  You have executives who say if they cannot make money on a film domestically, internationally, syndicated and on DVD, they are not willing to take the risk.  The studios do not believe they can get those numbers with black films.  When I think about the forties and fifties when black artists went to Europe to escape racism and achieved fame, the idea that in 2011 England, France and Germany are not going to appreciate stories about African Americans and Latinos is absurd.  Unfortunately, the industry is driven by a group of risk averse decision makers who continually make inaccurate assumptions about the abilities of people of color and storylines about their communities and this persists generationally.  There are also problems within the talent pipeline.  If a writer comes from an Ivy League school, he or she can call their alumni and have a better chance of breaking in.  If that same writer comes from a black institution, it is almost impossible to get through the door. In Hollywood, there is no oversight body to examine these issues and that is a problem.

BC: In the Age of Obama, do you feel Hollywood is desensitized to the black experience?

DW: The Obama election opened new doors as people became more comfortable with the idea that a black man can be an excellent president.  What existed before came from guilt or pressure to have a more diverse society.  In my opinion, it seems the “politically correct” engine has lost power because of the perceived success of black people in the Obama era and diversity is not a priority anymore.  I do not know if this is the complete explanation but I think its part of it.

BC: With the exception of a few upcoming television projects featuring Kerry Washington and Angela Bassett, there are limited roles offered to black women.  How do you feel about the treatment of black actresses in Hollywood?

DW: I think the progress for black actresses in Hollywood is moving in both directions. The most obvious direction is one of disappointment. There are a reduced number of roles for black women and even fewer complex ones, which allows them to display the full spectrum of their creativity beyond surface level comedies.  I do think there are more opportunities for black women that they were not offered 20 years ago. For example, Taraji P.Henson played a police officer in the movie, “Date Night” with Tina Fay, so the fact that she was a black woman did not have an impact on the role.  She was just a tough cop.  However, for every role like this there are hundreds of talented black actresses auditioning for these same parts because there are so few.  Another issue is traditionally the film industry holds a certain standard of beauty for its leading ladies and every woman who comes to Hollywood tries to conform to it to get roles.  Black women have historically challenged this standard and more recently have succeeded in changing and broadening it.  Although black women are making strides, the industry is very difficult for them and it needs to change.

BC: What is the future for black entertainment?

DW: I remain optimistic and I think the next black film renaissance will look a little different and will be more globalized and less focused on one end of the spectrum of our experience. There is a tremendous amount of talent in this industry.  I believe gifted people will find a way to get through.   I believe audiences want to receive the African American experience, so black actors should take more risks. Do not wait for that breakout moment, keep at it and make it happen. The entertainment industry is one of the few industries left that at any moment today can be your day.


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