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Knocking on Hollywood's Closed Door

June 14, 1997|JAMAA FANAKA, an award-winning African American film director, is suing more than 20 major motion picture and television companies for alleged discriminatory hiring practices. Fanaka, who graduated from UCLA summa cum laude and got his master's degree from UCLA film school, said he has applied for 2,820 writing, directing and production jobs in the last two years without receiving a single job offer. Fanaka has written, directed and produced six independent feature films. The class action suit seeks $1.5 billion in damages to compensate for alleged employment discrimination and civil rights violations. Fanaka spoke to MATEA GOLD about the continuing debate on race in Hollywood

This business is dictated by nepotism--it's dominated by family and personal ties. That's why our mission is so important--not just to minorities, but to America as a whole. The whole way films and television shows are made has been constipated for more than 20 years.

The industry still has the power that it had in the 1940s and 1950s to blackball somebody. I have chosen to put my career on the line, I have chosen to stand out front. But I have plenty of people behind me.

When I was at UCLA, I got every grant you could get. These were grants people would kill for--the Rockefeller grant, the Ford Foundation grant. With these and the help of my fellow students, I was able to make three feature films when I was still a student. "Peniteniary" was the most successful film in 1980, period. Not the most successful black film--it had the greatest reviews overall. The point is at that time I was the only fish in the sea in terms of minority filmmakers.

One of my proudest accomplishments was founding the Directors Guild of America's African American Steering Committee. I knew something was rotten in Denmark, because I smelled it, but I didn't know exactly what it was until I involved myself politically and socially. I knew personally things were bad, but I didn't realize they were pervasive throughout the industry.

I sued everybody in Hollywood because we define ourselves and we define each other through the media. So if we are going to understand each other, we need to include everybody.

Way back in 1983, the industry agreed that producers should make a good faith effort to increase the number of women and ethnic minority directors in the industry. At that time, the female directors were around 3%. Thank God they're up--to a minuscule 8%! At that time, all the minorities, all of us added up to 5.2%. Now, it's gone down to 4%.

The system is set up to keep out not only blacks, but everyone without connections. When the system changes and really opens up, it will not only benefit the minorities--it will open it up to a genuine democratic situation where everybody has a chance.

One of the things that needs to change is entree. You've got to have a way to apply for a job. They've got to specify some qualifications so you can prepare yourself.

This is an issue that should definitely concern whites as well, because there are a lot of talented white writers and directors who have not gotten a chance just because the nature of the beast.

The challenge is to get the ear of the people who have the ability to make the changes; to get them to listen and realize it will help revitalize the industry.

I really believe that a person with the purity of soul and singularity of vision of Steven Spielberg could not possibly know how horrible his company's record is on hiring minorities. He can't know it and not do anything. I can't believe that [Time Warner CEO] Gerald Levin could know that only 2% of directors are African American and not do something. That's one of the reasons I filed this suit--to say I know you've got an unwieldy bureaucracy, and maybe you've been preoccupied with other things so this hasn't gotten to your desk. But now that it's gotten to your desk, at least set up a meeting to listen. I am trying to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

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