As a thirteen-year veteran and survivor of the NYC Film/TV Production world, I have watched the #OscarsSoWhite controversy with a mixture of relief and bemusement. I am glad that after years of experiencing racism, so blatant that it is should be legally actionable, the Hollywood rug is finally being pulled back. However, until we start talking about more than awards and state the real issues, there will be no solutions.
The problem is simple. Hollywood is a cesspool of racism, sexism and nepotism. In Hollywood, the only way to get a job in a film office or on a film set is to know someone. This is true from the lowest to the highest levels. For every single position on a film set, it is not your qualifications that count, it is who you know. And anytime an industry is allowed to hire primarily based on cronyism, while white women will make it through, there will definitely be almost no people of color in the equation.
My personal story:
My parents, despite living through the segregated 40’s and 50’s, raised their kids to believe we could be and do anything. We were never taught anything about racism in our home. I played violin and tennis. So most of my friends were eithe bougie black kids or white. Especially for me their youngest, a kid deemed talented and gifted at four with tons of varied interests, the world seemed limitless. I never took my race into account. I saw the world through color blind glasses, where working real hard would yield proper advancement in any field. The film industry beat that out of me with a real quickness. In my late twenties, the naive kumbayah little hippie chick hit a wall of racism so thick, it nearly destroyed me.
I transitioned to film after four years of working at a corporate level in the music business in London. I had been a Director of Communications for a jingle company then a PR partner in a firm geared at music. A lifelong film addict, I had always dreamed of a career in films, so I made the switch upon returning to the States. But despite all my previous experience, my first job on set was as a Parking PA. I thought everyone started at that level, so I joyously spent whole days sitting in cars and moving cones. I was very quickly deemed be good enough to be a Production Assistant (PA for short) which is supposed to be the career route to either directing or producing. This is when the years long nightmare began. It was like being Rip Van Winkle and waking up from a long, blissful, racist free sleep.
First, there was the realization that, while I was coming to the industry with years of executive experience, I was made to start at the bottom rung solely because I was a woman of color. No white person with my background and skills would ever have started out in film by being a parking PA.
Once I did advance to a production assistant level, it became very clear that I could sooner become a neurosurgeon, than acquire the required days it takes to become a Director’s Guild 2nd 2nd Assistant Director. Because there were all types of systems in place to keep people of color out of the unions. For example, most people of color were not hired as staff PAs. We were usually only called to be additional PAs when a production was shooting in what was deemed a “black neighborhood” where the white folks were too scared to ask someone to wait to cross the street. Despite being “Queen of the Lockup”, I was always only given those days. Or as in the case of NY Undercover, where I was a first team PA, I was relegated to the Second Unit, which only shot 2 to 3 days a week, if that. The first team PA on the First Unit was a blonde gal, who had never worked in films before and didn’t plan on making it a career. Despite having no experience and constantly complaining about her job, she made twice the salary of the black PAs with years of experience.
The other game that I witnessed was the cessation of hiring Black and Latino people if they were getting too close to achieving the film days needed to join a union. The phone would simply stop ringing for those Black and Latin PAs too close to union status. Or they would get into the DGA and then not get any more work, which meant they could not afford their hefty union dues.
Hiring people of color in positions far below their skill set is another way that we are discriminated against in Hollywood. Years later, I was referred for an Associate Producer position on a Lifetime show called “Our Home.” This office had a very distinct racist practice. The supervising producer forced all of the women of color to first do a season of serving her food before being considered for an Associate Producer position. I needed the job so I took it, which I think surprised her. I turned that craft service table into a Martha Stewart work of art and all the crews in the neighboring studios marveled at it. But my season on the show was like working in a plantation kitchen with a mean slaver. She tried her best to undermine me and was visually annoyed that I had thwarted her attempts to make me unhappy. When I refused to come back the following season, she had to hire a professional chef to keep the crew from revolting.
There are so many traps set to keep people of color out, that it is almost impossible to avoid them all. For example, with film crews and staff, generally one person is hired then hires or reccomends the friends and/or people, they worked with on their last film. Oh, but I should say, this is true for white crew and staff, not most black ones. On more than one occasion, a white colleague would recommend me and I would be hired over the phone only to arrive and be told I was “overqualified.” One incident was so blatant that my friend actually called in disgust. I was hired by phone with the producer even begging me to start immediately. But when I arrived the producer turned my first hour into an interview. After I left, my friend was told by the said producer, to find someone “who fit in better” or in other words, “find a white girl”. In this case, the racism was so bad, that my friend was forced to stay on and train someone with zero experience. In other words, they preferred to pay two salaries to hire a white person with no skills at all, rather than have a seasoned black professional.
After seven years of frustration and struggle, I left the industry to concentrate on working on cases of innocent people on death row. The advent of DV cameras and reality TV ushered in a whole new era for me. It was through my activist detour that I ended up hurdling over the nonsense and began producing and directing films and creating show ideas of my own.
But alas, the racist and nepotistic dragons of Hollywood reared their ugly heads again. Because even at the Executive Producer level, the agents and network development executives are all also in the same white’s only club. To get a show sold, producers have to partner with established companies. I partnered with one production company, who racistly tried to turn me into an underling, despite the fact that I was the series creator and executive producer. In the end, that show never went from pilot to series and the head producer ended up stealing another concept of mine and selling it to the TV Guide Network, as his own. On another project, an unscrupulous “lawyer/agent” helped another company he repped steal my show. Fortunately, that production company went under shortly after and never got anywhere with the show. There are not more black producers, because so many of us experience these sort of incidences. Locked out of agencies, we are forced to partner with companies that are racist, unscrupulous or both. If our ideas are any good, a theft is always attempted. In addition, we are pitching to networks and studios, who harbor racist and/or shortsighted views. It’s a Catch-22.
These are just a few of the dozens of incidences I experienced personally, heard about or witnessed. I call myself a “survivor” because racism in the workplace touches every fiber of an individual’s Life. It means financial strife, holidays missed, children not had and other things that people don’t think about. While I still have a few show ideas and will be doing a couple documentaries in this Lifetime, I left the full-time film industry in 2009 and started my online magazine. Yes, there is also tons of blatant racism in my current industry, especially in the PR agencies. But the difference is, for every one racist PR person, there are dozens of other people to work with. And better still, I do not need anyone else’s go ahead to create and distribute my content.
The racism in Hollywood is much deeper that whether an actor gets an award. It is disingenuous of the Academy to claim they are going to try to have “more diverse membership”. Because the Academy membership comes from the working unions and Hollywwod executive offices. And if we, as people of color, are not being hired and we are not in those unions or offices, how will we become Academy members? By the time we get to awards season, hundreds of films have been made. From the writing to the development to the casting to the making and promotion of any of the nominated films, almost no people of color have had anything to do with any aspect of the process. Even at press junkets and screenings, very few people of color are on the media lists. I have to constantly reach out to the studios to promote their films. And black films, such as the new Jesse Owens film, “Race” receive very little of the marketing dollars and push that they should.
What makes my story even worse is that there is no sisterhood. The majority of the racism I experienced was from other women. The same white women, who constantly lament that Hollywood is a “boys club” regularly discriminate against women of color. On any film or TV show you watch, there are almost always mulitple white women producers. Read the credits. Yet those same women often have zero women of color, in positions of power, in their production offices. This needs to change.
The solution to #OscarsSoWhite? Since the pathway for a career as a decision making producer or director is so often the film set or film, agency and network offices, the only way to stop the lack of diversity from being a continuing reality is to stamp out the illegal discrimination that is going on in all of these areas. The time sheets claim these studios are “equal opportunity employers”. It is well past time that that be true. In addition, tax credits need to reflect diversity in hiring. It is ridiculous that any studio can shoot a film in NYC, one of the most diverse cities in the world, systematically discriminate against hiring people of color and still be given tax credits.
The changes in Hollywood need to occur in the development offices, film and TV production offices sets of every major studio, network, and agency. Thus, Hollywood needs to either change or be forced to change. Because otherwise, we will be hashtagging #OscarsSoWhite for many decades to come.