White supremacy in Hollywood operates on the premise that Black movies, directors, and stars are “unbankable”—or not profitable.
“To Hollywood executives, race is an expression of economic potential and cultural appeal.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Maryann Erigha. Erigha is Assistant Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at the University of Georgia. Her book is The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Maryann Erigha: It’s probably unsurprising to most readers that racism is still alive and well in 2019 and that whites in the United States and globally have the most lucrative positions and opportunities in Hollywood film directing, while Blacks in the United States lag far behind in terms of sheer numbers and in opportunities to direct big budget movies. It might come as a surprise, though, that talking about race is not a taboo for Hollywood decision-makers. While it might sound wrong to suggest that white films are more profitable than Black films, this is exactly the type of logic that Hollywood decision-makers use to justify hiring fewer Black directors and relegating them to small-budget movies. Ironically, the political and social climate is one where outright racism should be condemned and should evoke outrage, but to Hollywood executives, race is an expression of economic potential and cultural appeal. Their logic suggests that racial discrimination is alright so long as it is used to make more money for business owners. Such a logic raises questions about how Black Americans will fare in the film industry, and under the current capitalist order, when outright statements about race that are discriminatory towards Black people are not only condoned but are also part of Hollywood’s everyday business practices.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
One instrumental point that activists and community organizers should take from the The Hollywood Jim Crow is the significance of institution-building in fostering social change. Part of the reason why racism is so painful and isolating is that when Black people experience racism in the U.S., they have few institutions to fall back on for support. In Hollywood, Black people face marginalization, ghettoization, segregation, and discrimination, but outside of Hollywood, there are few Black-owned and operated studios and outlets for the production of movies, the distribution of movies to wide audiences, and the exhibition of movies in theaters. These institutions would help facilitate bringing more Black images to the screen and making Black workers in culture industries feel their voices and experiences are valued. Many Black people want to learn the art and craft of filmmaking, but there are few places where these skills can be honed that are not white-owned and operated. Places that are white-owned and operated can prove to be great venues for learning but they can also be places where racial discrimination, microaggressions, and other traumatic experiences hinder progress and achievement. The chapter on “Remaking Cinema” outlines the concept of a Black cinema collective as an avenue that would explore the reestablishment and maintenance of institutions to serve the aims of fostering more opportunities for cultural production.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Ideology is an important tool of racial control. Racism has a particular language that justifies oppression, segregation, marginalization, inequality, and hierarchy. The overarching ideology of white supremacism, and the basis of Jim Crow hierarchy, marks Blackness as inferior and undesirable. In Hollywood, this marking operates through a dominant ideology that suggests Black movies, directors, and stars are “unbankable”—or not profitable. And rather, that white movies, directors, and stars are the best investments for film studios. Anyone interested in challenging racism should pay particular attention to the language and logics that are applied to justify exclusion or division.
It is important to challenge the dominant narrative and discourse. In the digital age, social media users have generated a lot of discussion and criticism about racial logics. Bloggers and writers provide a more lengthy treatment of the subject, while academic authors hope to place discussions in the broader context of what has been said before and in the scope of how widespread and pervasive a problem is today. Hollywood’s racial logic that Black is unbankable devalues Blackness and facilitates the mistreatment of Black actors, directors, and movies by justifying their smaller budgets and near exclusion from lucrative opportunities. The “Labeling Black Unbankable” chapter outlines some of the many ways Black directors have been successful, but still Hollywood decision-makers express uncertainty about their potential. Black directors often feel the need to justify their talent and why they are deserving of work and opportunity—but white movies, directors, and actors do not have to constantly prove that they are successful. There is a double standard that has to be addressed. In light of these racial logics, readers should un-learn ideologies and language that devalue Blackness and uncritically privilege whiteness in mainstream cinema.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow served as inspiration for the title and for thinking about how Jim Crow hierarchies of different rewards, disadvantages, opportunities, and outcomes for racial groups still take place today in all arenas of social life, such as in cultural production. In impressive fashion, her book brought readers into discussions about systemic inequality in the mass incarceration of African Americans while creating public dialogue and raising awareness. The success of her book demonstrates how writing can inspire activism to better our collective life conditions.
Luckily, there is so much important work that puts race, inequality, media, and Blackness into conversation that there a number of scholarly pioneers whose work inspired the The Hollywood Jim Crow. Darnell Hunt conducts annual studies on race and inequality in Hollywood. Because of his work, people have numbers to point to when they make arguments about the dearth of Black representation behind the camera and about how audiences actually prefer to patronize diverse movies. Herman Gray is one of the prominent sociological theorists studying race and Blackness in the media, particularly in television, so his work provokes deep thought on ideas about race, representation, and demography. Film scholars such as Donald Bogle, Ed Guerrero, and Mia Mask (and so many others) have written numerous books on Black representation, which have been instrumental to this study of Blackness and cinema.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
The Hollywood Jim Crow helps imagine new worlds with genuine racial inclusivity. In this world more Black people have decision-making power over movies, which means a variety of new characters, themes, voices, sensibilities, and perspectives—and more creativity in the overall output produced in the American film industry. In this world, Black directors in prominent roles would not be an anomaly that happens only after years of frustration and protest. In its concluding chapters, the book paints the picture of how movies could be conceived of, produced, distributed, and exhibited in a different fashion.
How would our cinematic spectatorship change if every year there were a mainstream science fiction movie featuring Black characters? How would movies be different if Black studio executives, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, and others executed megabudget movies outside of the influence of major Hollywood studios? The possibilities for greater inclusion within Hollywood or revolutions in film production outside of the studio system create new ways of seeing cinema. Ridding the film industry of the remnants of Jim Crow—segregation, discrimination, marginalization, and stigmatization—means envisioning Hollywood and Blackness in a world that is serious about combatting racism.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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