Russell Simmons Believes Not Just Whites Behind Hollywood Race Issues: "Self-Segregation Is a Big Problem"
The entrepreneur and philanthropist, one of the speakers at this weekend's Produced By conference, reveals what happened after he said he'd rather see Kim Kardashian as president over Donald Trump and sounds off on Bernie Sanders ("an honest heart") and Hillary Clinton ("understands the establishment well").
Russell Simmons is just one of the headliners who will speak at the Producers Guild of America's eighth annual Produced By Conference, which will be held on the Sony Pictures lot June 4 and 5. The 58-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist co-founded Def Jam Recordings, has produced movies like 1996's The Nutty Professor and, most recently, founded All Def Digital to reach out to urban millenials. Here, he holds forth on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and how to effect change in Hollywood.
You've always been politically outspoken. If Trump is elected president, how will that impact the entertainment business?
I don't think he'll have much impact on entertainment. It's funny, because I've known him for 30 years, and as a person who lets everyone do what they want, he's a liberal in many ways. Whatever it is that was anti-Semitic, Islamo-phobic, homophobic or racist in any way, was sort of just in jest. He really ends up hugging everything and everybody. I don't want it to come out that I'm not afraid of him as president — I'd rather Kim Kardashian be president. I said that, and we haven't spoken since.
As a multimillionaire, do you identify with the establishment?
I'm an occupier. I occupied Wall Street every single day. I like all the ideas that Bernie [Sanders] promoted, and Bernie has an honest heart. But having a white woman who understands the establishment well, and has the entire Democratic party already in her pocket, go to Washington [is better]. A white woman with the same agenda as President Obama may find the obstructionists a little less — I'm not saying racist — but a little less troublesome.
What about racism in Hollywood?
I don't believe it's racism. Self-segregation is a big problem. People segregate themselves, white and black, and I think we have to learn to love or to see each other as the same, because we are. We have the same aspirations; our stories resonate the same. My office at All Def Digital is 68 percent minority, [whereas] our would-be competitors, they have only 2 or 3 percent [of their staff who are minorities]. We find that integration does very well [commercially]. Hollywood should be the leader, but there's not a single black agent with any power in town. Not one. I'm not knocking the guys who are working, but Will Smith can't keep the agent who might have helped develop him if that agent is not in the room [when decisions are made].
How does that change?
I'm hoping that we can start a process to see the sameness in each other. That's what Hollywood should do because we should lead America in this challenge. We should by example lead.
Universal was developing a movie about your life. Where does that stand?
Another big studio bought it, and they're aggressively pursuing it. I'm not supposed to talk about it — it's another studio, with dear friends, who are breaking their neck, and they want to make it huge. [It's] a definitive history of hip-hop. I'm kind of like a hip-hop Forrest Gump. I see my life story that way, because I watched a lot of smart people do a lot of great things.
Do you have any advice for younger producers?
Tell the story that's in your heart and that you love. My thing about diversity is my personal experience; I feel comfortable telling those stories. I walk the street, I smell what's in the street. I've been a commercial guy all my life, I can't help it. But if you have an interesting and different perspective, what you think may not be commercial — if it's good and well-executed — it will touch everyone anyway.
This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.