Working in Hollywood When You’re Not White: Three Players Reveal All
"The system works to my disadvantage for no other reason than that I am a person of color." So says 'Dear White People' writer-director Justin Simien, who, along with veteran producer Stephanie Allain and 'Master of None' showrunner Alan Yang, let THR in on their heartfelt, sometimes funny dialogue (and why the word "minority" is "the worst word").
This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The topic America never wants to discuss is now all anyone in Hollywood can talk about. Should the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shoulder the blame for a field of white nominees in the acting categories, or is that merely a symptom of a more complex problem that touches almost every facet of the filmmaking process — from the agents pigeonholing their clients to executives not championing work by people of color to awards tastemakers ignoring diverse voices in favor of familiar ones? To shine a light on these issues and more, THR invited three Hollywood players to have a conversation on Saturday, Jan. 23 — Stephanie Allain, 57, the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, producer of 2005’s Hustle & Flow and, when she was an executive at Columbia, a champion of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991); Justin Simien, 32, the former publicist who wrote, directed and produced 2014’s Sundance award-winning Dear White People; and Alan Yang, 33, who cut his teeth on Parks and Recreation before co-creating and executive producing the Aziz Ansari-starring series Master of None for Netflix. “The Academy is the endgame,” says Allain, but “the problem is totally systemic throughout Hollywood.”
Stephanie, you were the Columbia executive who shepherded Boyz n the Hood. How difficult would it be to make that film today?
STEPHANIE ALLAIN The script was amazing, and content, especially literary content, always rises to the top. What was interesting about that was, in the early ‘90s, we were suffering from so many losses in South Central, and the script really tapped into it in a commercial and personal way. Luckily, there’s not a lot of drive-bys going on right now. (Laughter.)
ALAN YANG It’s topical, it’s topical.
JUSTIN SIMIEN It would be so hard to make Boyz n the Hood or Do the Right Thing at a studio. I’m not knocking independent film, but it is different when you just make it on your own, take it to Sundance …
ALLAIN This is why it’s so important to have support at the studio level. And you could see, with John [Singleton] and Robert Rodriguez and others, when you have an opportunity to be inside the system, you get the support in marketing, distribution. It’s a different offering than when you’re trying to make important or culturally sensitive work from the outside.
The 1990s and early 2000s were the halcyon era of black films. What happened to that $9 million black film that used to make $30 million?
SIMIEN The industry has definitely gotten more myopic. It has shrunk. The onus is now to make sure the bottom line looks good to whatever corporation owns you. And that just changed the kind of movies the studios make. We’re in a system where this year, we just make whatever made money last year.
ALLAIN Back in the day, the studios made all kinds of movies. They could make a $5 million Boyz n the Hood and a $100 million Last Action Hero at the same time. And then we went through that period where the mini-majors were a place to go, but they quickly decided they wanted to make Oscar movies. The business is a living thing; it changes a lot.
The awards-targeted films today that get a minority protagonist tend to be about the most amazing person of that race who’s ever lived. But award movies with white protagonists are just about a white person who did a thing: It’s a white dude who fought a bear, it’s a white lady who lives in Brooklyn, it’s a white lady who invented a mop …
YANG I’d love to hear David O. Russell’s response to that.
SIMIEN There is an obsession with black tragedy. If you see a black movie, it’s typically historical, and it tends to deal with our pain. And listen, there have been some excellent films made in that vein, and there are some painful parts of black history that should be explored, but it is kind of weird that only those films bubble up to the surface. It’s people who are enduring these horrible tragedies, or they’re saintlike.
ALLAIN Or they’re villains.
SIMIEN You know what that says, very subtly? It says that we’re not human. Because human beings are multifaceted.
YANG Asian and Indian people are decades behind even black culture. We don’t have lead characters. When we made Aziz the lead on [Master of None] and we made the character based on me one of the leads, it didn’t exist. We need that Asian Denzel [Washington]. We need an Asian Halle Berry, and that doesn’t exist yet.
There has only ever been one Asian Oscar winner ever: Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields. If I were Asian, I’d be way more pissed than I am, and I’m already pissed. (Laughter.)
YANG But the demographics of America are changing, and it’s exploding. The interest in culture from the Asian and Latino and black population is increasing every day. And as America changes, the culture will need to keep up.
Why has television been able to correct itself, in terms of representation in front of and behind the camera, when film hasn’t?
YANG That’s very simple: There are so many TV shows on right now. It’s gone from 200 or so to 400 or so scripted shows. We are at a very unique point of inflection.
SIMIEN The TV business is a little more flexible. In the [movie] business, there’s one or two models that are constantly at play, and in TV, the models are all over the place. Making a show for a network is completely different than making a show for Netflix or Hulu or HBO. The economics are different, and they’re able to take more chances.
ALLAIN When you make even a $5 million film, to get that movie out into theaters, it’s going to cost you $20 million just to make a blip on the radar. You don’t have that problem with TV.
Every year, you see this crop of movies come out of Sundance — these daring, bold movies from diverse voices — that win awards. Then what happens?
ALLAIN When Ava DuVernay took Middle of Nowhere to Sundance and won best director, no agent called her.
YANG That’s crazy. It’s like, “Oh, we’ll see your next one.”
ALLAIN Yeah, “Hello?!”
SIMIEN “I just won best director!”
YANG “What do I have to do?” She’s doing OK now but …
That’s because she made Selma, the thing you couldn’t ignore.
ALLAIN And white guys get scooped out of Sundance like that (snaps) — and then all of a sudden …
SIMIEN … No shade, but like, “Here’s Jurassic World!”
YANG It’s not malicious, necessarily. It’s just [executives] connect to these stories. Because [the others are] not your experience.
SIMIEN They don’t think, “Oh, Ava won best director, let’s try her out.” They think, “Oh, she’s a black woman. Do we have the rights to Harriet Tubman?” (Laughter.) That’s how people think, and it’s messed up, man.
From left: Yang, THR’s Marc Bernardin, Allain and Simien.
When I heard Ryan Coogler was going to do Black Panther, part of me was super excited. And part of me was sad because I feel there’s a world in which he could have had Spike Lee’s career, made a dozen movies about his experience.
ALLAIN I wouldn’t worry about Ryan. (Laughter.)
SIMIEN I believe Ryan is going to forge a path that is different than other black filmmakers before him. ‘Cause he’s not Spike, he’s a different guy.
ALLAIN And he took Creed, which was [an extension of] a white franchise, and made it his own, right? So I think he’s going to do that with Black Panther, too.
Fingers crossed ’cause I’m a nerd and I want it to be both great and a movie that only he could make.
SIMIEN He’s going to do right by us.
When you guys were breaking in and got your first representatives, what advice did they give you?
SIMIEN Charles King was my first agent before he started Macro, his production company. He was a very powerful agent at WME. This black agent saw this baby black filmmaker. I don’t know if that would have happened if it were a white agent looking at me square in the face and looking at my YouTube video. I never felt at WME that I was being put into a box. God bless ’em, they were sending me scripts that even I knew I didn’t have a chance to make.
ALLAIN But Charles had an agenda to look out for other folks who looked like him.
YANG My agents were very, very supportive. But it was really more about, “Gotta get a job, gotta get a job,” right? So even a few years ago, I wrote a pilot about the relationship between a guy my age and his dad, and I wrote it to be white people. Because who am I going to cast in this? And how is it going to get made if it’s about me personally?
ALLAIN Aw, that makes it really sad.
YANG When we ended up doing Master of None, we did an episode about me and my dad and Aziz and his dad. And the scope of that episode ended up being so much greater than the scope of [that old] pilot. But it took time for me to be comfortable with it or believe it could be done.
What were your personal inflection points, when you realized the game was rigged and not in your favor?
SIMIEN I knew from jump.
ALLAIN I didn’t know, to tell you the truth. When I read Boyz n the Hood, I thought, “This is so great; everybody’s going to love it.” I approached it with that beginner’s mind and just barreled through. Sometimes it’s good to be dumb.
SIMIEN I had been to enough industry panels and had heard enough from people of color in positions above me telling me how hard it was. But making Dear White People, there were many points where that was reinforced, so I could never forget it. It starts with certain questions: “Do you think there’s an audience for this? And if there are these ‘supposed smart black people’ out there, are there enough of them?” And then you get into trying to finance the film and you get told, “Well, since these independent films are all based on foreign sales, 90 percent of the investors automatically won’t open up your proposal.” And then when the movie’s coming out, it’s the same cycle over and over again. That’s when I knew this was rigged because if I was telling a personal journey about white people — the same movie in that alternate universe — I don’t think the struggles would have been as real.
Given that China is the now the biggest market in the world, why is Hollywood not making Oscar bait starring Chinese people? Why not make Brooklyn with a Chinese cast — call it Hong Kong?
YANG Damn. I gotta write that China movie, man.
ALLAIN I wouldn’t put any black people in it. (Laughter.)
Simple question: Is Hollywood racist?
ALLAIN America is racist. I mean, we were founded on slavery. It’s never been really addressed, and the ramifications are everywhere.
SIMIEN “Racist” is a charged word, because when people hear “racist,” they think (pointing), “You’re a racist.” But Hollywood is racist by my definition: It’s a system of disadvantage based on color.
ALLAIN Then you have to say America is, right?
SIMIEN America is, too. Basically the system works to my disadvantage for no other reason than that I am a person of color, and I am telling stories about people of color. That doesn’t mean that executive over there is racist. And the same thing is true for women —
ALLAIN — black women —
SIMIEN — and people of other sexual orientations and gender identities. The system is set up for you not to succeed.
YANG It’s not necessarily people being willfully racist, but when you’re hiring people, you’re getting submissions, people are telling you about their friends, and a lot comes down to who is in your circle. That’s self-perpetuating. It’s not even motivated by discriminatory thoughts.
ALLAIN But it’s also about critics: the male gaze on things, the white gaze on things. It’s about, “I value that which I understand and which I relate to.” It’s really systemic. It’s throughout the culture.
SIMIEN And it’s different than bigotry. I don’t know a lot of out-and-out bigots in Hollywood. A lot of people get caught up in that conversation and start talking about reverse racism and racism against white people …
We’ve heard a couple of Oscar winners saying ill-advised things.
SIMIEN There can’t be reverse racism against a group that is not at a disadvantage.
There is no equivalent of the N-word for white people.
SIMIEN Tarantino is looking for it, but he hasn’t found it yet.
Every studio, every guild has some kind of diversity initiative. Where do those fail?
ALLAIN Those programs fail because they are not integrated into the mainstream. We’re trying to bring them in, but we keep them outside. There are systems in place that identify and develop talent, but no one wants to be pigeonholed. “I don’t want to be in the ghetto section because then all those people are stigmatized.”
SIMIEN Diversity programs at the corporate level can sometimes be confused for a token program. There’s one person of color right there, and that person is doomed because there’s so much expectation to deliver the black audience or the Asian audience or whatever.
ALLAIN A hypothetical black executive is going to want to find that white product.
SIMIEN Or find only the black project that looks like the one that made money last year. All these other stories, they’re not going to want to take a chance on because they’re the only one and they can’t fail.
ALLAIN I feel sad for the HR people.
YANG Yeah, it’s hard. (Laughter.)
But what’s the alternative? How do you get more African-American showrunners? How do you get more Hispanic VPs?
ALLAIN You have to have the intention, first. It has to start with that. You have to set goals. Diversity doesn’t just happen.
YANG I had a tremendous experience on Parks and Recreation, created by Mike Schur and Greg Daniels, who happen to be white. When they were hiring the writing staff and the cast, they were very good about, “We want the staff to be 50 percent women.” But we wouldn’t want Master of None to be just a minority show. We want this to be good, and one of the reasons it’s not horrible is we had a lot of training.
ALLAIN Can we erase the word “minority”?
SIMIEN It’s the worst word.
ALLAIN It’s so pejorative. And soon it’s not even going to be true.
There’ve been movements by organizations like GLAAD and anti-smoking groups to exert pressure on studios. Is there pressure that we can exert?
ALLAIN We saw it happen with the Academy, right? There was outrage, and they responded. It’s about money. If they want their product to be more diverse, they have to follow through.
SIMIEN And we can change things in the sphere where we do have certain controls. In the Academy, for Cheryl Boone Isaacs to spearhead that —
ALLAIN — and she’s the only one out of 51 governors, the only black person —
SIMIEN — that took a lot of guts, to make sure the things in her sphere of influence could be better. When it comes time for me to put my next team together, that’s foremost on my mind. A pioneer like Spike Lee, you know how many people of color are in this industry because he gave them a spot when nobody else would?
ALLAIN And everybody in all the disciplines can do that in their sphere.
SIMIEN A lot more of us need to commit to that. We have to carry over and make it happen. Because that will change the industry in generations.
YANG The other thing that we can do is make things that explode expectations. I want to see somebody make a black Sideways.
ALLAIN That’s very exciting because there’s only one black family vineyard in Napa. (Laughter.)
Is a boycott the most effective way to make a stand?
ALLAIN Everybody should feel free to do what they think they need to do to push the needle. But I’m not going to boycott [the Oscars]. I want to see what Chris Rock’s got to say.
SIMIEN I didn’t get the invite in the first place. I didn’t get my Academy invitation to rip up. So it’s not an option for me to go or not go.
You could not watch.
SIMIEN I’m going to watch. I’ve got to see.
ALLAIN But if you [the audience] don’t see yourself up there, are you going to watch [at all]? That’s a natural boycott.
SIMIEN They found a correlation between people of color as award nominees and ratings. And the ratings dipped when they aren’t [nominated].
How much can we interpret the lack of color in the acting nominations as racism versus “I just didn’t think that was good enough”?
ALLAIN Well, you have to pop the movies in [the DVD player], and there’s a lot of movies to watch. If a lot of the Academy had popped in Creed or Straight Outta Compton, perhaps they would have voted for them. You can’t vote for what you don’t see.
SIMIEN It’s interesting that the screenwriting gets nominated, so clearly somebody saw the movie and thought the movie had merit but didn’t think that the people of color involved had anything to do with it. [Both nominated screenwriters are white.]
ALLAIN [They have to] make more things and make more things through the system. That’s really, really important.
SIMIEN And have the room and the space and the environment to be able to fail.