During this week's NAACP convention in Los Angeles, a report was released showing evidence that blacks are woefully underrepresented among Hollywood management. As a shocker, this one compares to Surgeon General reports showing that people who suck tobacco smoke into their lungs are apt to die sooner than those who don't.
All you have to do is look around--on the screen, behind the camera, in the executive suite, in studio commissaries--to know that Hollywood is predominantly a white man's game. Blacks are excluded, for sure, but so are Asians, Latinos and women of all hues.
'Twas always thus.
The real shocker of the convention was the conclusion drawn by one black leader during a panel discussion on "Blacks in the Entertainment Industry" that the blacks-need-not-apply sign was put up in Hollywood by the Jews in charge.
"If Jewish leaders can complain of black anti-Semitism, our leaders should certainly raise . . .the century-old problem of Jewish racism in Hollywood," said Legrand Clegg, the Compton city attorney who chairs the Coalition Against Black Exploitation.
Clegg's conclusion is the tail end of a false syllogism--many Hollywood leaders are Jewish/few blacks are employed in Hollywood/therefore Jews are racists--but his anger is understandable. For most of this century, Hollywood has been the Western World's primary source of popular entertainment, and blacks have had almost no access to it. If the leadership is not to blame, then who, or what?
Jewish leaders in the community reacted quickly to media coverage of the NAACP panel, issuing comments of their own that ranged from countercharges of anti-Semitism to a call for an open dialogue between leaders from both groups. But the most telling reaction of all was the non -reaction of leaders in Hollywood.
Not one member of Hollywood's white-male fraternity of studio bosses, Jew or Gentile, would respond to Clegg's charge this week, or discuss the issues of the industry's scandalously poor record of minority employment. To ring up executives with questions on almost any non-film issue is to watch them disappear like sea anemones poked with a stick.
The thing that has been consistent in Hollywood from the mogul days to the global days is its leaders' certainty that their business stands apart from the rest of society. Individually, the rich and powerful with political consciences may participate actively in the system, raise and donate funds for righteous causes, even protest injustices they see out there in the real world. But to lend the weight of their own studios to the causes, or to do the right thing about inequities in their own companies, is to take risks that might weaken their own grasp on power.
There are five "isms" to Hollywood, black actor-producer Jim Brown said at the convention Tuesday--"nepotism, sexism, racism, cronyism and good-ol'-boyism." In other words, it's a self-perpetuating club where the value of leadership is measured by the number of powerful relationships. If there are any blacks, Latinos, Asians or women reading this who can deliver an Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Eddie Murphy or Tom Cruise vehicle, please show up for work on Monday--any studio.
Hollywood is not inherently racist, it is inherently avaricious. It is a market-sensitive business that cannot exist without being on good terms with the lowest common denominators of society, and one look at this summer's release schedule will show how hard it is working to feed that need.
"The film industry is almost like a quasi-political industry," film historian Neal Gabler said in a phone interview Thursday. Gabler meticulously chronicled the Jewish involvement in Hollywood through the mogul era in his book "An Empire of Their Own." "Every film has to attract a large constituency, and that is the white middle class," Gabler said. "It doesn't make any difference who's deciding which movies to make. The only ones that become blockbusters are those that attract that constituency."
When he speaks to Jewish groups, Gabler said, he's often asked why Hollywood doesn't make more films on Jewish themes. "I tell them that when they're more than 4% of the population, there will be more movies.' It's the same for blacks (who represent 12% of the population)."
The situation for studio heads is pretty simple. With most of them operating on three-year contracts, their tenures become Visionquests, triumphs of survival rather than attempts at pure leadership. If they have a high ratio of hits to misses, they can weather any storm outside. So, they hide from issues that have become priorities for upper management in other industries, and they get away with it because very quickly they either become heroes to their shareholders or are sent packing to the lucrative humiliation of independent production.
Gabler believes the black community has to look to Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson and other blacks whose stardom gives them the power to affect employment. "That's where the clout is," said Gabler. At the NAACP panel, Jim Brown told the black audience, "You need to make our stars come to the table and reinvest with you."
But putting pressure on minorities who have succeeded seems neither fair nor realistic, and it diverts attention away from the real power. Only when the heads of the major studios commit to improving their employment records will there be any progress. And they will only do that when they have to.