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New book examines racial politics of the movie industry

Alan Flurry

Maryann Erigha, assistant professor of sociology, is author of the new book, The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry, published recently by NYU Press. her research and teaching interests include race and ethnicity, film and media, digital sociology, and African American society. A lifelong fan of cinema whose favorites range from the Bourne franchise to Jordan Peele's Get Out, Erigha talked with us about the new book.


Alan Flurry: When did you begin, as a film fan, to become aware of the unequal opportunities in Hollywood?

Maryann Erigha: I guess a lot of film fans start out loving movies and you start to notice the recurring stereotypes – how people are boxed in as actors, boxed into certain roles, and why some people don’t get roles and others do. You begin to notice black actors not playing a feature role, they’re supporting other actors, like predominately white actors in these feature roles. Looking at those stereotypes got me interested in who’s behind the scenes and creating those stereotypes.

AF: In one of your papers, you write about how disadvantaged groups occupy undesirable spaces, which seems related to what you just mentioned.

ME: Exactly. On the acting side, stereotypical roles are sometimes subordinate roles or supporting actor roles. And on the directing side, undesirable spaces also go with certain genres. Franchise movies, for example, are very lucrative for Hollywood, but fewer people of black descent, of African descent, of Latino descent, of Native descent are directing those kinds of movies since they are so lucrative and financially profitable for the film industry. We tend to see that kind of ghettoization where the more lucrative or profitable roles are going to white directors and black directors have fewer of those opportunities.

A reflection of the inherent bias of society?

It’s definitely a microcosm. The film industry also reflects the inequality in society.

And the situation in film mirrors society in that African American directors were long excluded from those types of jobs by the major studios. 

It wasn’t until in 1969, decades after the film industry was established, that the first black director of a Hollywood movie emerged in Gordon Parks, Sr. Since then there’s been more inclusivity in the industry but it took the civil rights era for that breakthrough to happen for black directors.

Not so long ago.

This year we’ll celebrate 50 years of inclusion so the question is, what does that mean in this time period? Hollywood has always been exclusive, especially in terms of lucrative projects and black directors. Recently we’ve seen Ryan Coogler directing Black Panther and Creed. Both of those movies were very successful, but this entry onto lucrative films is also a recent phenomenon that hadn’t really happened prior.

So it was really a de facto sense of ‘no, we’re going to put you in control of a big movie.’

That’s one of the key points of the ideology around the Hollywood Jim Crow: the idea that black directors are told that their movies aren’t going to make a lot of money, especially in foreign markets, and black directors are told a lot of reasons for why they’re given restricted budgets. They face certain limitations that white directors don’t face, and it’s one of the big reasons we see racial inequality in the film industry. Or at least how it is justified.

And it’s not as though black directors can’t make art audiences would like. But that was the assumption. It’s the prejudice of our society.

There’s an assumption among Hollywood decision-makers that movies with black characters won’t travel abroad, or aren’t interesting culturally to people in foreign markets. We don’t see those same assumptions being made for white movies or white characters. We don’t talk about race when we have a movie with white characters, but with black characters we’re concerned about what foreign audiences think and if they have a stigma towards black characters.

When really those biases begin at the decision-making level. As akin to perceptions of sympathetic audiences or people, and then non-sympathetic ones.

I guess you can say that Hollywood decision-makers constantly inject the idea that race matters very early in the production process, so they talk about race, and they talk about what they think audiences want and don’t. They have this idea that audiences want white characters, or white stars, or even white love interests, to the point that they won’t fund a big budget movie with two black love interests. We can’t have that kind of image, because Hollywood creates this idea that audiences don’t want or won’t patronize that image. That they only patronize black actors in stereotypical roles. 

And it’s totally fabricated.

I think so.

And the facts are beginning to bear that out. 

Darnell Hunt (UCLA) and colleagues’ research, in the Hollywood diversity report, actually demonstrates that audiences prefer diverse movies, and that movies with more diverse characters and even TV shows with more diverse characters tend to be more profitable. This evidence speaks against the conventional logic of Hollywood, but still the conventional logic prevails.

It’s a product of racism in general, in that they just assumed the evidence said X, when in actuality it didn’t say X at all.

People tend to say that the industry is an economic engine, so profit lords over everything. And the logic follows that whatever someone thinks in terms of their own private industry, it’s hard to argue about how they should invest their money. 

The whole idea that we only see ‘green’ or whatever is just not true?

Hollywood’s logic is to attach green to race, to black and white, when decision-makers say that certain races are making money, and others are not. Attaching those ideas about money to race is done in a way that is quite explicit – compared to how race was talked about in the past. The idea of a color-blind age is thrown out in the film industry when decisions are made by attaching race to ideas about profit and loss.

But that whole argument – we’re making an economic decision, it’s not about race or whatever, it’s just a cover.

That’s what the book is unpacking. Their ways of connecting ideas about economics and profit to race conveniently marginalize black directors and privilege white directors. But then again, race is not attached to whiteness. When white movies fail, it’s not due to their stigmatized race but something else. Usually in the case of black movies not doing well, race is explicitly mentioned as one of the reasons why they need to change strategies.

That movie didn’t work because it was a black movie.

Yes, exactly.

But this other movie didn’t work because it was bad?

Or because the genre wasn’t the best fit for audiences. Or maybe the marketing strategy failed. But in the case of a black movie, the black characters are usually invoked in the idea of a movie being a failure. Though on the other hand, if a movie is a success, there’s no longer a discussion about race. After Black Panther, a movie that had international success to the point where it made over a $1B globally, Hollywood executives are not saying ‘we should make more movies with black casts since this next one could be so successful.’ Ironically, the logic doesn’t work both ways.

The American public deserves a broader creative landscape, movies that have more perspectives and more diverse perspectives. Until then, it’s hard to fathom the scope of what American cultural productivity could actually encompass.



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