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Black Hollywood’s role in keeping the industry white

While research shows that pervasive issues of systemic racial inequality in Hollywood persist, part of Black Hollywood will need to reckon with how it is not blameless in keeping the industry predominantly White — even if it’s unintentional.
Last Updated 24 February 2024, 19:38 IST

By Corey Emanuel

Black Hollywood is having a moment. Some might even say that it has entered a new era of excellence.

Evidence that black talent is thriving is everywhere of late: Beyoncé became the first Black woman to top the Billboard Country Chart and released a haircare line in one week, Oscar-nominated actor Colman Domingo will direct and star in a Nat King Cole biopic, Niecy Nash-Betts just snagged an Emmy for her role in Netflix’s Dahmer and Usher's Super Bowl halftime show was stunning.

Yet, not every Black entertainer feels as though they have something to celebrate.

In recent viral interviews with former NFL star Shannon Sharpe, host of the Club Shay Shay podcast, comedians Katt Williams and Mo’Nique alleged that opportunities have been gatekept by certain members of the more established Black Hollywood community, highlighting an issue that doesn’t get enough attention.

While research shows that pervasive issues of systemic racial inequality in Hollywood persist, part of Black Hollywood will need to reckon with how it is not blameless in keeping the industry predominantly White — even if it’s unintentional.

Studio and network leadership consists of 92 per cent White CEOs and chairs, while 84 per cent of senior executives are White, according to UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report. So, whether it’s caused by bias, racism or the unwillingness of the few Black executives in the room to open doors, limited opportunities for more Black talent translate to a lesser chance of them gaining the work experience, accessing the networks and learning the business savvy required to earn a seat at the same table.

This isn't to imply that everyone Black in Hollywood has to get along or that harmful or unethical behavior should go unnoticed. Rather, it underscores the need for Black Hollywood to prioritize the preservation of relationships whenever feasible; and to empower and uplift one another to attain generational wealth, accolades and leave a lasting legacy.

Society could quibble about whether it’s fair for executives of color to bear that responsibility, but it won’t change the facts. The concept of solidarity among the Black community and its cause — the legacy of slavery and its lasting effects despite being generations removed — has been the subject of several studies. A 2021 McKinsey report found that the limited amount of Black creatives who hold esteemed off-screen roles, such as a producer or director, are mainly responsible for providing opportunities for other Black off-screen talent.

And the more the scenes behind the camera reflect America, which is steadily becoming less White, the more Hollywood will be able to make informed decisions about what stories to invest in. The McKinsey report found that the TV and film industry could bring in an additional $10 billion in annual revenues if it could meaningfully address its racial inequities.

That means not just being satisfied with one, two or three Black faces in the decision-making rooms. The risk of alienating perspectives that could lead to award-winning, needle-moving and money-generating magic is too great because Black people are not monolithic. The experiences of African Americans compared to African immigrants compared to West Indian immigrants compared to Afro Latinos alone are enough to prove that. And those stories are ripe with comedy, drama, action and suspense.

Not only does that make sense for the bottom lines of studios, but it also helps establish rapport with communities that have been historically marginalized — something Hollywood desperately needs to fix. Two out of three Black people didn’t feel like their stories were being depicted on-screen, according to a National Research Group report about media released in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, when different businesses were crunching their diversity numbers and realizing how abysmal they were. Three years later, UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report found that, after a few years of growth, the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of people involved with theatrical releases has returned to where it was in 2019.

The ongoing racial inequalities in Hollywood can leave many Black entertainers feeling isolated and without access to opportunities for future success, unless others are willing to boldly stand in the gap for them.

During a panel hosted by Porter magazine in 2019, actress Gabrielle Union told a story about doing just that and presenting a united front against studio executives who sought to underpay a fellow Black actress. After the studio heads declined to fairly pay her friend, they called Union to offer her the role instead. Knowing what happened, she set her price way above her friend’s asking price. Then the studio asked other Black actresses, who all followed Union’s lead until the studio had no choice but to go back to the initial actress and pay her what she was worth.

Simply put, Union was illustrating the significance of sharing insights, advice, or opportunities that can benefit fellow actors, making it a proactive rather than reactive consideration. She wasn’t always like that. In a 2013 interview, Union admitted to being a “mean, vindictive, hateful person” towards other Black actresses at one point in her career but that it all changed once she got called out by fellow Black actress and wellness coach AJ Johnson.

That’s the sort of self-assessment, accountability and course correction that is necessary to begin dismantling the entire crab-in-barrel mentality in the entertainment world so that we can stop wasting time fighting each other and work together to push back against inequity and inequality.

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(Published 24 February 2024, 19:38 IST)

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