NAACP Image Awards
EmptyWhen Lee Daniels accepted the Stanley Kramer Award at the Producers Guild of America Awards in January for his film "Precious," he stood before the audience of about 1,000 with mixed emotions -- pride, but also dismay.
"There were two African-American faces (in the audience)," he says. "I was grateful for having them accept me into their bubble, but what does this show the many people of color not in that room?"
Daniels' experience isn't uncommon. While great strides have been made for black actors and crew members, on the eve of the 41st annual NAACP Image Awards (for which "Precious" has nine nominations), Hollywood is hardly post-racial.
"There's a lack of representation behind the scenes, in the studios, the network suites, and in marketing and distribution," says Vicangelo Bulluck, executive director of the Hollywood bureau of the NAACP. "Is Hollywood changing? Not as quickly as it should."
Any explanations come in shades of gray. Tyler Perry (whose "Madea Goes to Jail" collected more than $90 million in 2009) and Oprah Winfrey are success story wizards who can make magic happen on virtually any project, "Precious" included. And in front of the camera, names like Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Eddie Murphy and Morgan Freeman are helping break the myth that black actors can't do overseas boxoffice.
Only four percent of DGA members are black, including "In Treatment" director-showrunner Paris Barclay.
Beneath that veneer, however, numbers are less inspiring: The DGA reports that just 4% of its director membership is black; the WGA says that 4.5% of members employed as TV writers and 3.2% of members employed as film writers are black (as of 2007, the last year for which data is available). And Paris Barclay, director-showrunner of "In Treatment" and co-chair of the DGA's Diversity Task Force, estimates that up to 82% of all episodes in television are "directed by Caucasian men."
The offices of agents, lawyers and studios provide increased numbers of diverse staff, but anecdotally they're far from heartening.
"There has been a lot of growth and opportunity, and there seem to be more black executives at the studios, but I don't know that the number is any greater than we had 10 years ago," says DeVon Franklin, vp production at Columbia Pictures, who nevertheless adds, "I don't look at the glass as half-empty, I look at it as half-full."
WME agent Charles King says that when he started in the mailroom 13 years ago there were just two black agents in the five major houses. Today, he says, "There's obviously been progress -- but there's room for many more."
Breaking the status quo is a major obstacle. In a largely white-run business, homogeneity provides a comfort zone for power players.
"If you're not diverse, maybe you walk into a room and the room looks perfectly fine to you," says attorney Nina Shaw, of Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano. "But if you are diverse, you might say, 'This room is lacking something.' Why doesn't everyone look at their representation and make it diverse, get a lot of viewpoints and perspectives? They just walk in that room and don't see anything wrong."
When it comes to diversity on the small screen, BET -- the heart of black programming -- remains largely full of movies and acquisitions, but is venturing forward with original programming, including "The Michael Vick Project," debuting this month. For programming operations vp Charlie Jordan Brookins, reality TV "has given African-Americans a chance to express themselves -- for better and for worse."
In the scripted, network arena, diversity springs largely from proactive showrunners known for diversifying staff, like Shonda Rhimes ("Grey's Anatomy"), John Wells, ("ER," "Southland") Shawn Ryan ("The Unit," "Lie to Me") and Shane Brennan (the "NCIS" franchise).
"When they have more shows, or fewer shows, they affect the (crew) numbers," Barclay says.
Don Reo, whose last shows have included "Everybody Hates Chris" and "My Wife and Kids," with Damon Wayans, is a particular example. A white showrunner, he says the problem is that "black shows get marginalized. It's like television has a ghetto; all the black shows were on UPN, which became the CW, and then they weren't on networks any more. That's how it evolved."
Even executives and agents have to fight to avoid their own ghettoization.
Notes Zola Mashariki, senior vp production at Fox Searchlight: "In Hollywood, people sometimes limit you, so they say if you make black films that's all you can do. There's also the perception that, if you're making black movies, your goal is to get out of them. African-American films are not a side hustle until I get my day job making blockbusters. I love black films. But there are a lot of things I can do."
"Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes is among the handful of showrunners known for diversifying staff.
Unless there's a diverse set of executives in greenlight and hiring seats, adds veteran TV writer-producer Ralph Farquhar, it's hard to get projects heard. "The biggest barrier of entrance is finding kindred spirits in these offices when you go to pitch. I don't get to present my stories a lot of the time because the filters are people who aren't interested."
What makes it through those "filters" and onto screens, and then achieves any level of success is a mixed bag. Based on 2009 numbers, success stories include Perry's "Madea," "The Princess and the Frog" ($86 million) and Michael Jackson's "This Is It" ($71 million). But the strongest boxoffice winners are usually found in comedy and action arenas; there are precious few serious dramas, independent or otherwise, like "Precious."
"I'd like to see the African-American take on different subject matter," says Rodney Barnes, co-executive producer on " 'Til Death" and executive producer on "The Boondocks." "Things that don't deal with race, poverty or familiar themes. We need to deal with the history of material we haven't already seen."
He may be in luck. Producers like Cynthia Stafford (who made waves by using lottery winnings to set up her production company) are getting genre pictures like thrillers and horror films, all featuring black casts, off the ground.
"A comedy could be more commercially viable for the African-American community, but there are many stories yet to be told that have no comedic twist," she says.
Another shift, Franklin says, has to come from perception on the outside of the business; he asserts that many blacks (as well as other film fans) simply don't know enough about what goes into making a film, beyond who's starring in it -- or perhaps who directed it.
"I travel around the country and I try to say, 'This is a whole world. Look at Will Smith, and behind him is an executive, an agent. One person is a whole world of opportunity and career.' If we could do more outreach and education so people know the business, more people would pursue those careers," he says.
Filmmakers like producer Stephanie Allain Bray ("Hustle & Flow") also have their eyes on the future, noting that new distribution models should make filmmaking more accessible to modest budgets, and by association, a more diverse selection of new filmmakers with fresh perspectives.
"There are more stories out there that need to be told," she says. "But whatever happens, it's not going to stop black filmmakers and actors from making films. It's what we know, and what we love to do. Come hell or high water, we're going to continue making movies."