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Hollywood says Black Lives Matter, but more diversity needed


NEW YORK — As protests erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd, every major entertainment company in Hollywood issued statements of support for the black community.

But as unanimous as that show of solidarity was, it was also clear that this wasn’t a fight Hollywood could watch from the sidelines. As the uproar over “Gone With the Wind” showed, the movie industry has a past — and present — to reckon with. At a recent protest in Los Angeles, actor Michael B. Jordan turned his focus to the studio headquarters around him.

“Where is the challenge to commit to black hiring? Black content led by black executives, black consultants,” said Jordan. “Are you policing our storytelling as well?”

Hollywood’s diversity and inclusion record has improved in recent years, but it still lags behind the population — particularly in its executive ranks. (It’s easier, Spike Lee has joked, to get a black president than a black studio head.) Statements and donations are good, many say, but Hollywood studios and production companies can speak far louder by green-lighting diverse movies — and reexamining those who do the green-lighting.

“This is a golden opportunity for Hollywood to look at itself in the mirror and decide what side of history it wants to be on,” says Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA.

UCLA’s annual Hollywood diversity report has found a notable increase in lead acting roles in the most popular films in recent years. People of colour, data shows, often buy more than half of tickets to the most successful films.

But Hunt has also found a lack of systemic change. Some 93% of senior executive positions at major and mid-major studios are held by white people and 80% by men.

“When you have an industry that’s structured around white men in control, it echoes the white supremacy that’s at the core of the critique of policing right now,” says Hunt.

Five years ago, after the Academy Awards fielded all-white acting nominees, #OscarsSoWhite became a rallying cry. The industry and the film academy have changed since then but it hasn’t happened overnight. At this year’s Oscars, the South Korean film “Parasite” made history for non-English language films but the awards still featured only one acting nominee of colour.

Now, at a defining moment for race in America, some in the industry leaders believe stronger steps are necessary. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last week said it will make new inclusion standards for Oscar eligibility.

The debate recently stirred by “Gone With the Wind” only highlighted what’s at stake.

After pressure from filmmakers, HBO Max temporarily removed the 1939 film. The highest grossing movie of all time despite its glamorized portrait of slavery in the Antebellum South, “Gone With the Wind” is part of an ignoble Hollywood legacy stretching back to “The Birth of a Nation.” When the film returns to the streaming service, Turner Classic Movie host Jacqueline Stewart will contextualize it.

“We can see with ‘Gone With the Wind’ how profoundly people’s understanding of American history has been shaped by these popular entertainments,” says Stewart. “It’s forcing us to confront the roots of racism in our country and to think about the role the media has played in shaping our understanding of race.”

Recent films like Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” and Lee’s just-released “Da 5 Bloods” have lent a corrective to history as seen in the movies. More are on the way. Since the protests began, several documentary projects have been announced on the Tulsa race massacre.

Lee’s frequent co-writer Kevin Willmott recently completed a drama, “The 24th,” about roughly 150 black soldiers who marched on Houston in 1917 after a police force evolved from plantation patrols and slave catchers brutalized them. Willmott, who’s currently in talks with a pair of distributors, considers the Houston Riots a precursor to today’s unrest.

“One of my fears is that it’s a pretty strong film. In the climate we have now, I worry that it will scare some people,” says Willmott. “I hope that America has the courage to show this film because this is what America is dealing with right now.”

Director George Tillman (“Soul Food,” “Men of Honor”) says television and streaming services have helped Hollywood evolve from his early days in the business, when his films only got modest budgets and were marketed solely to African American communities.

He still wishes his last film, the impassioned Angie Thomas adaptation “The Hate U Give,” had made a larger impact. As a story about a young woman led to the Black Lives Matter movement after tragedy, it’s a movie that speaks directly to the moment.

It features a father instructing his children how to act in self-preservation if they’re ever pulled over by the police. The talk is one Tillman’s father gave him and one he’s given his 17-year-old son.

“To bare your truth is so important as a filmmaker,” says Tillman, who’s currently prepping a drama about the formation of the Black Panthers for Paramount Pictures. “Don’t let executives try to change your perspective as an African American man, as a filmmaker. What’s your belief? What’s your history? No one can tell your story better than you.

“Keep pushing the truth on screen.”

Jake Coyle, The Associated Press