‘Star Wars’ star John Boyega, other Hollywood stars know diversity needs to be more than a ticked box
As an industry, Hollywood has been saying the right things when it comes to improving diversity. But diversity alone isn’t enough if the workplace remains a hostile environment for Black people and other people of color. Without meaningful cultural change, movie studios and TV networks are only engaging in surface-level efforts and giving the appearance of inclusion without addressing the messier reality that racism is endemic to the way Hollywood does business.
John Boyega spoke to this in a recent interview, describing his “Star Wars” experience as a bait-and-switch that allowed Disney to disingenuously pat itself on the back.
“What I would say to Disney,” Boyega told British GQ, “is do not bring out a Black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed aside.”
What he’s describing is performative diversity. And it gives multi-billion dollar corporations cover to say: Look how diverse this project is — everything is fine!
“I call it the philosophy of, ‘Oh, let’s just give people some jobs,’” said Aymar Jean Christian, a professor at Northwestern University and the author of “Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television.”
But hiring people of color (and those from other marginalized communities including disabled and transgender people) doesn’t automatically create an equitable workplace. Here’s how culture writer Alicia Kennedy describes the predicament: “Allowing more people into corrupt systems doesn’t do anything to destroy those systems.”
The problems are evident when you look at financial compensation.
The Netflix series “Dear White People” is a show about Black students at a predominantly white university. In a social media post earlier this month, Black actor Jeremy Tardy explained why he would not be returning for the upcoming season: Lionsgate, the studio that makes the show, wouldn’t budge on his salary.
“This news was disturbing,” Tardy wrote, “because one of my white colleagues — being a true ally — revealed that they too had received the same initial offer and had successfully negotiated a counter offer.”[Most read] Second stimulus check updates: Democrats to redraft coronavirus relief bill in bid to jump-start negotiations »
The two showrunners for “Dear White People, Justin Simien and Yvette Lee Bowser, are Black. But they don’t determine the show’s budget. That’s in the hands of Lionsgate, which told Deadline.com that the dispute with Tardy was “purely a financial negotiation regarding deal terms” and that the studio is “committed to equal treatment for all talent regardless of race, gender, age or sexual orientation.”
Tardy sees it differently, accusing Lionsgate — and Netflix — of hypocrisy: “These companies have recently released statements and even donations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I am calling out their shameful practices of discrimination and racial inequality with regard to how they have historically undervalued and lowballed people of color.”
Money is a key decision driver in Hollywood and a blunt indication of how much (or little) your talents and input are valued. Those perceptions can be riddled with racial bias, conscious or not, and it disproportionately penalizes Black women and other women of color who also experience the gender pay gap.
“If Caucasian women are getting 50% of what men are getting paid, we’re not even getting a quarter of what white women are getting paid,” Viola Davis said in 2018, noting that her white female peers deserve equitable compensation. “But guess what — I deserve it too. So does Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry. We’ve put the work in too.”
Hiring award-winning Black actors but underpaying them? That’s performative diversity.[Most read] Drive-thru flu shots? Vaccine vouchers? How getting the flu shot in Illinois will be different this year. »
It’s not just actors. Last year Adele Lim, the Malaysian-born co-screenwriter on the hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” walked away from the sequel when she learned Warner Bros offered her screenwriting collaborator (a white man) somewhere between $800,000 and $1 million for the second movie; her offer was a fraction of that, at around $110,000.
This is why just focusing on diversity precludes any conversation about what’s actually happening once people are hired.
Racism — covert or otherwise — is baked into the system. You see it in the knee jerk justifications for chronically underpaying people of color. Or asking them to work in environments where they are otherized and subject to microaggressions — and then accusing them of not being tough enough, or talented enough, when they raise the alarm.
The very people hired in the spirit of diversity are being set up to fail.
Consider this: The majority of union hairstylists are white and very few are skilled and knowledgable about working with Black hair. The same goes for makeup artists, who fail to ensure they have a selection of foundations and powders that compliment darker skin tones. Hiring Black actors and then expecting them to shoulder the responsibility (and cost) of doing their own hair and makeup? That’s performative diversity.
“The quickest solution, beyond just hiring people in any job, is allowing people of color to be executives,” said Northwestern’s Christian. “Executives see themselves as representative of the audience, but they’re not, so there are different kinds of consequences for that in terms of who is greenlighting these shows and who is giving notes to showrunners. And it’s not just executives, I’m also talking about the agents and managers who are representing all of these people.”
Consider the subtle ways the status quo is often reinforced. Jeff Lowell is a white executive producer whose TV credits include the sitcom “Two and a Half Men” and the Netflix series “The Ranch.” Recently in a series of tweets — beginning with the disclaimer: “Middle aged showrunner rant” — he vented that young writers “are completely ignorant of television history,” such as “All in the Family,” “The Honeymooners” and “The Odd Couple.”
What was conspicuously left unsaid: The shows he listed are white shows.
Would a young writer today benefit from watching them? Sure. Is he wrong to ask his staff to familiarize themselves with certain shows? Of course not.
But a white boss publicly announcing that the best shows in television history are all white shows is not a neutral statement. Not only does it reveal a limited worldview, it puts any writer in his employ on notice: If your touchstones as a person of color aren’t my touchstones as a white person, you don’t belong in this industry.[Most read] Lt. Gov. Stratton warns of 20% across-the-board income tax hike if Illinois voters reject graduated-rate constitutional amendment »
Lowell said as much in his final tweet of the thread: “Let this serve as a warning to my staff — if you guys come back next season and I say ‘Felix Unger’ or ‘Archie Bunker’ and you look at me like I’m speaking another language, you’re fired.”
It’s hard to know if meant that entirely seriously, but either way this is what gatekeeping looks like. (Lowell has since deleted his tweets.)
And it’s insidious because it is a more nuanced form of racism — likely unintended, but does it matter? — that tends make white people (and institutions) defensive when called on it. But avoiding the conversation because it makes people uncomfortable isn’t the answer; too often in Hollywood, white people don’t even question why they consider white cultural references to be the default, and therefore the pool from which best examples are drawn.
Let’s flip Lowell’s premise around: At a time when studios and networks have pledged to better reflect diversity both on and off screen, shouldn’t Lowell’s job, as a showrunner, be dependent upon his knowledge of shows centering, or created by, people of color?
The writer Brandon Taylor has a novel called “Real Life” that came out earlier this year, and in it a Black character makes the observation that “when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth.”[Most read] ‘Girlfriends’ star Reggie Hayes was on top of the world. Now the Chicago native is struggling to find work and battling congestive heart failure. »
In other words: It’s always up for debate — and in Hollywood, it’s the white power players who cast themselves as the final arbiters. Boyega said as much in his GQ interview.
How does an industry come to grips with this reality? How motivated are companies and their boards of directors when it comes to rethinking a system that has been so personally profitable for a select few and allowed them to concentrate their power?
Michelle Silverthorn, the founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation and author of “Authentic Diversity: How to Change the Workplace for Good,” said networks and studios should be asking themselves, what is the deeper goal? “Are you just saying diversity matters and then you’ll try a whole bunch of initiatives, see what sticks but have no way to measure success? And then if it fails you can say, ‘I tried, but it’s them — we gave them a chance and it didn’t work out.’ If you are really invested in change — which, I don’t know what they all are — what do you want your executive team to look like? If you’re putting up all these statements that you’re an anti-racist organization and then I look at your C-suite and it’s all white men, then how anti-racist of an organization can you be?”
Instead of working to change “hearts and minds,” Silverthorn said, “I would like to see them put some rules into place. Such as: We will not put a movie or show into production unless we have 40% people of color who are in senior level positions on that project, whether it’s editing or casting or whatever. Once you put a rule like that into place, people’s behaviors will change to meet that requirement.”
There’s a psychological cost to working in an environment where your qualifications and achievements are forever questioned. Where you are subject to veiled racism, which you’re expected to brush off even as it affects not only your daily experiences but your career path. It’s demoralizing. It’s denigrating. “It feels like death by a thousand cuts,” Silverthorn said, “and then when you get to the final cut, if you leave, you’re told you didn’t want it enough. You are the problem. We need to recognize that this is trauma being inflicted on people who are being told, ‘You don’t belong.’ When John Boyega talks about what it was like to stand up for a movie that was not standing up for him? This is happening again and again.”[Most read] The Dreadhead Cowboy asks for help days after animal cruelty arrest: ‘Lori come help me. I can’t do it alone’ »
Hollywood prides itself as a tough business. Dog eat dog and all that. If you can’t cut it, kid, those are the breaks. It’s a convenient way to camouflage or explain away racism and abusive practices.
And it’s a mentality of shifting blame, said Silverthorn, where it becomes: “We’re not going to change anything with our systems because our systems work and they make us a ton of money. Every once in a while we’re going to say we care about diversity, but we’re not willing to do the actual work to make it matter.”
Even when a project appears to tick all the right boxes, the backstage reality might tell a different story. The CBS courtroom drama “All Rise” debuted last year featuring a diverse cast as well as a diverse group of writers.
Five of the show’s seven original writers have since quit, including Shernold Edwards who told the New York Times: “We had to do so much behind the scenes to keep these scripts from being racist and offensive.” Would this story have come to light if the Black Lives Matters protests and activism of recent months hadn’t led to an increasing courage among creatives to hold institutions publicly accountable?
Sunil Nayar was a co-showrunner on “All Rise” along with the creator, Greg Spottiswood, the latter of whom is white and also reportedly the source of much of the show’s discord. In that same story in the Times, Nayar said he felt he had been brought on board for the sake of appearances: “It became clear to me, when I left the show, that I was only there because I’m the brown guy.”
A Black woman, Dee Harris-Lawrence, was hired in his place. The show’s producing studio, Warner Bros, elected to make no changes in Spottiswood’s employment status, and instead “provided him with a corporate coach, a Black woman, to advise him,” according to the Times.
Diversity is the essential first step.
But who gets second (and third and fourth) chances and who feels pushed out — more or less constructively evicted — has to matter just as much.