The government's first lawsuit against a Hollywood studio alleging racial discrimination is set to go to trial today, pitting Universal Pictures against a former first assistant director of its hit movie "2 Fast 2 Furious."
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Universal four years ago on behalf of Frank Davis, alleging that he was fired because he is African American. The suit alleges that Davis, who had been directing for 12 years, was fired without cause, over the objections of the director, the Oscar-nominated John Singleton, who also is an African American.
Universal denies the charges.
"There is absolutely no basis to these allegations," said a Universal spokeswoman, who asked not to be named. "We are confident many witnesses will testify that Mr. Davis' firing had nothing to do with race but was solely due to his poor performance as a first assistant director."
The case could provide a rare glimpse into the hiring and firing practices of Hollywood studios. Complaints such as this one rarely become public.
Employees in the insular film and television industry worry that taking legal actions against the major studios can mark them as undesirable for hiring. Studios are reluctant to have their personnel practices open to public scrutiny in court.
"Most of these issues never come to light, but it is something that the commission had heard about for many years," said Anna Park, head regional attorney for the EEOC's Los Angeles office. "It took the bravery of Mr. Davis to bring that to light. Unfortunately he has paid a price. We owe it to him to let a jury decide the issue."
The commission seeks 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.
Davis has joined the EEOC's suit, alleging that his civil rights were violated. Davis is seeking damages estimated at several million dollars.
"This will show that the film industry does in fact discriminate," said John E. Sweeney, Davis' attorney. "They need to change their ways and come along into the modern world."
At a hearing Friday, the studio tried to settle the lawsuit, according to people close to Davis, Universal and the commission who asked not to be named because the talks were confidential. However, the parties could not come to an agreement, in part because the studio asked that the agreement be confidential and the government refused.
The case has caught the attention of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who met with Universal Studios President Ron Meyer several weeks ago to try to reach a compromise, people close to the matter said.
Davis, 47, was hired by Universal in mid-2002 and was brought on board for the production of "2 Fast" by Singleton, who is scheduled to testify today.
In court documents, Singleton said he was upset about Davis' being fired. In addition, he told a member of the Directors Guild of America that race might have played a role, according to depositions. Singleton said he was under pressure to finish his film and therefore did not complain to Meyer or then-Chairwoman Stacey Snider. The judge has ruled that Singleton's speculation about the role of race in Davis' dismissal was not admissible in the case.
Universal asserts 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.
The studio also maintained that there were concerns about Davis' ability to communicate, his lack of organization and an inability to keep the set safe and keep the production on schedule.
But Park of the EEOC contends that many of those issues were not raised until after the commission filed its suit. "All these performance reasons were made up after the fact," Park said. "He was not treated the same as his white counterparts."
The government is using internal e-mails from top studio executives to show how plans to fire Davis were underway only a few weeks after he was hired. "At this point they do not have real specifics for getting rid of him and we might have to get into the film a bit," wrote Holly Barrio, senior vice president of production and development at Universal in a Sept. 9, 2002, e-mail to other studio executives.
At the time, Barrio was reacting to phone calls from producers and crew members complaining about Davis, according to people familiar with the matter.
Although Barrio's e-mail is devoid of any reference to race, that subject was broached by Universal production manager Terry Miller, according to the EEOC suit.
In a telephone interview, Miller asked Matthew Weiner, an industry veteran whom Davis had wanted to hire to help on the production, "What color are you? Are you black?" the suit said.
According to his deposition, Weiner said he told Miller, "Not that it should matter, but I'm Jewish and from New York, which the name Weiner should implicate.... I can't see where that would have any bearing on my qualifications."
Miller is expected to testify in court; he maintains in a deposition that he had never asked Weiner about his race.
Davis was let go Oct. 6, 2002, well before "2 Fast" opened in June of the following year. He filed a charge against Universal with the EEOC in December 2002. Davis, who has not worked in Hollywood since he filed suit, said he had been getting by on savings, investments and help from friends.
"I have been ostracized. I have not been able to get work since. But I am still here, taking it day by day," Davis said. "I am looking forward to telling my story because it has taken so long."