Jackson pushes biz on diversity


As seemingly half of Hollywood converged on a fundraiser for Democratic presidential aspirant Sen. Barack Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was huddled elsewhere with Universal Studios president Ron Meyer over his own campaign -- to increase industry diversity.

"We must go to each of the companies and agencies and urge them to make the industry open up and expand the market and the opportunities," Jackson said Wednesday during an hour-plus interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "After all, we once did not know how big baseball could be until everyone could play. Right now, with the system (in) Hollywood, we don't know how big the entertainment market can be until everybody is able to participate."

Jackson's Tuesday meeting with Meyer and his planned sessions with various studio heads, talent agency execs and others are part of a continuing campaign by the civil rights leader's Rainbow Coalition to press for greater diversity in Hollywood's casting process and studio hiring. Citing data like a recent UCLA report showing low numbers of minority-oriented film roles, Jackson aims to convince industry elite that increased casting and hiring of minorities will broaden the creative scope of Hollywood entertainment and thus its revenue base.

"Our premise is that inclusion leads to growth," he said. "So for those who are locked out, they lose development, and those who are in power lose market and growth."

Still, Jackson acknowledges the stepped-up campaign might seem oddly timed, considering that black actors are considered favorites to take home Oscars in three of four acting categories.

"I'm afraid that these three or five excellent actors and actresses will send a wrong signal," Jackson said. "There's no doubt that some who watch Sunday night will say, 'We're over the mountain,' but they will not see the lack of a feeder system into the infrastructure.

"The issue here is the pipeline. We can focus on the three to five actors up on top, but the industry is comprised of the executives and the artists and the producers (throughout) Hollywood."

And don't get him started on the Academy, whose composition is a major sore point.

"They have like 40 people on their board of governors, and only one is a black person," Jackson said. "The Academy needs to reflect America itself, and this is an archaic arrangement."

An Academy spokeswoman said 43 governors sit on the board but added that data on its ethnic or racial composition was not available.

In 1996, the Rainbow Coalition posted pickets outside of the Academy Awards to protest what it said was a lack of diversity in film casting. Jackson said no such actions are planned for Sunday's Oscars, and for now he is focused on gathering information about diversity issues in Hollywood while meeting with as many industry leaders as possible.

His tete-a-tete with Meyer in a Beverly Hills restaurant went well, he said.

"Ron's a good man," Jackson said. "He enjoys a great reputation for decency and fairness and credibility in the industry."

But Jackson added that much of Hollywood presents a benign face on social issues -- and that's a potential problem.

"I'd rather have a bad guy who does things for the wrong reasons than good guys who don't do anything," he quipped while adding an aside over President Bush's appointment of Colin Powell to his cabinet.

Jackson said he hopes to discuss the Hollywood diversity issue with Dan Glickman, the MPAA chief and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, whom he has known for years.

In December, UCLA Law School professor Russell Robinson wrote a research report purporting to show that 69% of "available roles were reserved for white actors" in a survey of all film roles cast last June-August.

"Actors of color were limited to between 0.5% and 8.1% of roles, depending on their racial/ethnic background, and could compete with white actors for the 8.5% of roles that were open to white and nonwhite actors alike," the report added.

On Wednesday, Robinson suggested that even some of the highest-profile minority actors, such as those nominated for Oscars this year, face professional hurdles unknown to white male actors.

"I've spoken to people in the industry who are skeptical about career prospects for Jennifer Hudson, even if she wins (for best supporting actress) because she's an African-American woman of a certain size," Robinson said.

"Babel" actress Adriana Barraza, nominated in the same category as the "Dreamgirls" co-star, could face similar difficulties, he added.

"She's a Latino woman who is middle-aged, and you don't see many Latino people in major film roles, period," Robinson said. "And when it comes to gender, age makes a huge difference. So to simply take a snapshot of this one day of the Oscars can be a mistake."

Jackson said there is some irony that "you can now market your movie and mount your Oscar campaign on the basis of the (black and Latino) market, yet the lack of power-sharing is astonishing."

Meyer still managed to get to Tuesday night's Obama fundraiser, whose organizers included Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Jackson did not, even though he is staying at the Beverly Hilton, where the event was held.

Jackson said his schedule already had been set when he was advised of the fundraiser. Along with the Hollywood meet-and-greets on his itinerary, he has been making appearances at local public schools to press for greater dual-language proficiency among Latino and white students.

Meyer wasn't available Wednesday to comment on Jackson's diversity campaign.