A federal judge has ruled that Universal Pictures must go to trial in the first racial discrimination case brought by the government against a Hollywood studio.
The suit, filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2003, alleges that a first assistant director on the studio's hit "2 Fast 2 Furious" was fired because he was African American. The suit alleges that Universal violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The studio denies the charges and had sought to have the case dismissed. But late Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Gary Allen Feess ruled that the case should be tried.
The EEOC filed the suit on behalf of Frank Davis, now 47, who at the time of his firing had been directing for at least 12 years. The suit alleges that Davis was fired from "2 Fast 2 Furious," without cause, over the objections of director John Singleton, who is also black. Singleton had picked Davis to work as his assistant director, the suit said.
"Singleton adamantly asserts that Davis was performing satisfactorily and that Singleton would have terminated Davis had he not performed," Judge Feess wrote in his decision. "These facts, among many others, raise a genuine issue for trial regarding the true motive for Davis' termination, and could support an inference that he was terminated because of race."
Anna Park, lead attorney for the Los Angeles office of the EEOC, said the judge's ruling would give the government a chance to look into the hiring and firing practices of Hollywood -- an industry that has operated for too long, she said, with "flagrant disregard for the law."
"Since the mid-1980s, the EEOC has been trying to address the problems that we have heard in the entertainment industry," Park said in an interview Thursday.
"We would hear complaints all the time. But it has taken until now for someone to finally come forward. People were too afraid."
Davis, she said, "has paid the price." Despite his long list of credits, "he has not worked since he filed the charge."
Attorneys for Universal declined to comment, but a spokesperson for the studio said, "Mr. Davis was replaced on the film solely for inadequate performance and not for any other reason."
Davis, who became a member of the Directors Guild of America in 1988, had been working steadily as an assistant director since 1992, according to the suit. Davis was brought on to work on "2 Fast 2 Furious" by Singleton, who had also hired him for his 2001 film "Baby Boy."
Singleton, the only African American ever nominated for an Academy Award for best director, earned for 1991's "Boyz N the Hood," could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In the lawsuit, the director said he was upset about the firing and maintained that Davis was "discharged because of his race."
Universal asserted that Davis was not qualified to handle a production as complex and expensive as "2 Fast," which cost more than $85 million and included many action sequences and stunts.
But in 1991 Davis had worked as key second assistant director on "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," a production that was rife with stunts and cost more than $100 million.
According to the suit, Universal production executive Ron Lynch, who had fired Davis, had acknowledged that he was qualified.
The suit alleges that race was brought up by Universal production manager Terry Miller. According to the suit, Miller was interviewing a man over the telephone whom Davis had wanted to hire for the production team when he asked, "What color are you? Are you black?"
In his decision, the judge ruled that "such an inquiry ... is the kind of remark that the Circuit has found sufficient to give rise to an inference that the termination decision was motivated by illegal discrimination."
The EEOC, which is suing Universal Pictures, Universal City Studios and Vivendi Universal Entertainment, seeks damages of as much as $8 million, which includes back pay and punitive damages as well as court-enforced monitoring, oversight of the studio's hiring and firing practices and anti-discrimination sensitivity training.
In an interview Thursday, Davis said he was saddened by the episode but hoped that his suit might lead to change.
"I didn't do anything wrong," he said. "My parents were involved in the civil rights movement and I have a lot of respect for that. You can't just quit. I am not going to be run out. If I don't work again, that says a lot about the town."
In his experience, Davis said, Hollywood lags behind many other industries in diversifying its workforce.
Reuben Cannon, a veteran producer who hired Singleton as an intern early in his career, said African Americans, Asians and Latinos who work in the industry often share horror stories about the prejudice they encounter at work.
"If there is ever to be a change in Hollywood, the change will come when those of us with power demand that the crew reflect America," said Cannon, who is now making movies with writer-director Tyler Perry. "In spite of Hollywood's claim to be committed to diversity, the numbers just don't support it. Frank's situation is more the norm than the exception."