Can you talk about the importance of black actors receiving complex roles and creating a sense of empathy with audiences?
Well, I think you have to begin by recognizing the fact that many of the most damaging stereotypes that exist in our society begin with Hollywood. Hollywood’s not innocent in this regard. Images of African Americans as violent or stupid or lazy or cantankerous, these are images that came from Hollywood and circulated in society and over time came to influence how people not only saw Hollywood images but how people regarded actual human beings. So to talk about the humanizing capacity of, say, images in Hollywood you have to look at the flip side first and the dehumanizing elements that Hollywood has long been associating with. Those images didn’t come out of nowhere.
So, there’s that, and then there’s the fact that even if you look at the history of African Americans in Hollywood it has tended to work in cycles. You know, the blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s, hip hop movies of the ‘90s, in the present we’re in this period of historical images—images of historical figures, historical events, et cetera. But what we have not seen historically from Hollywood are images of, say, African Americans and others as sort of regular people, everyday people dealing with the sort of regular challenges of life, the kind of images we see from Hollywood in reference to white people all the time. We tend to see representations in recent times of people who are exceptional—42 and Jackie Robinson for example, Get On Up, the film about James Brown. But not every movie made about a white person is made about some exceptional, you know, historical change agent.
So I guess the point is, there needs to be a broader representation of African American humanity, humanity as it relates to people of color in general—not simply positive, or not exclusively negative, but something that gives you a broad representation of humanity so that you see that there are all sorts of people identified around a particular issue as opposed to one thing at any given time.
An idea you brought up in your recent article on racism in Hollywood is there’s an overcompensation by white Hollywood that attempts so much not to be called racist that they do things that are inadvertently racist, e.g. refusing to cast African American or minority actors in complex roles. Is PC culture having an adverse affect in Hollywood?
I’ve been saying for years that even though Hollywood has an image of being liberal, that image is perhaps not accurate. There are liberal people in Hollywood. Hollywood itself is not liberal. Hollywood is a business. And it’s a business interested in making profit—that’s what it’s motivated by. There may be individual people, certainly prominent actors, who are openly identified as liberal, but that doesn’t mean the industry is liberal. The other thing I would say is it’s one thing to call yourself liberal, it’s another to be liberal. Don’t talk about it, be about it.
Also, I think for a lot of people in Hollywood, what seems to consistently emerge is this sense that people feel like, "Look, I have not done anything to block black people or block people of color from being in this industry. I’ve not done anything to prohibit them from being involved in this industry." They’re ignoring that systemically what’s in place is a system where they don’t have to actively block anyone because the blocking has already been built into the system.
Systemic underrepresentation in Hollywood has so many critics, including white actors and directors who’ve spoken out about #OscarsSoWhite. As one example, Matt Damon has chimed in about systemic injustice in the industry. How does that work in terms of changing the system? Is it effective to have "white allies?"
The way I look at it is, nobody in this society wants to be called racist. So, when I think about people who talk about things like this, it’s like, well, socially you’re saying to the public: "I am a good person." And I have no reason to question Matt Damon. The thing is, it’s one thing to do a media interview and say, "This should change," but if you’re in a position to influence decisions, what are you actually doing to influence decisions in a way that promotes inclusion and diversity?
So, for instance you mentioned Matt Damon. When Matt Damon agrees to do a movie, perhaps he says to the people, "I’ll do this movie, but I want the co-star to be a person of color. I want the producer to be this person." You know, Matt Damon, it’s not his responsibility alone, but what I’m saying is, we’re talking about a guy who’s been in a lot of big budget movies, who demands a certain salary level to be in a movie. He has say-so. If stars like Matt Damon speak up, then yeah, it can have an impact. But what are you actually doing? Are you doing something or are you just talking about it?
Does #OscarsSoWhite as a cultural phenomenon have the power to change Hollywood?
Leading into the nominations this year there was already awareness around this issue from a year ago, and I think that awareness, that hashtag if you will, leads itself directly into this year’s nominations. A lot more people are paying attention and when you get a situation where there’s no nominees of color in the acting categories, it becomes a continuation of a story that started a year ago.
I would also suggest that this conversation about #OscarsSoWhite and Hollywood is also tied to the fact that we live in the era where you can’t simply ignore race like you could have in previous times because the president is African American and the discourse around him is informed by this fact. So, I think when you look at those things—internet, social media, the era of the first African American president and the fact that the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and awareness about Hollywood’s practices at the Oscars that began a year ago—you have in some ways a perfect storm, and that’s what the discourse has become leading up to the Oscars.
This interview is part of Complex's Racism in Hollywood series.