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Can ‘12 Years a Slave’ change Hollywood’s race problem?

Keli Goff
Can ‘12 Years a Slave’ change Hollywood’s race problem?

Admirers of “12 Years a Slave” are still basking in the Academy Awards’ afterglow. The fact that a film by a black screenwriter and black director — depicting a black man’s painful but ultimately triumphant true life story — won several Oscars, including the top prize for best picture, is a dream come true, particularly for moviegoers of color.

But the success of “12 Years a Slave” presents both a milestone and a challenge for those who care about diversity in Hollywood.

More often than not, winning Oscars hasn’t translated into increased earning power or clout for winners, particularly those of color. Recent awardees Mo’Nique and Octavia Spencer haven’t been catapulted to headliner status since their wins.

Louis Gossett Jr., the second black man to take home an Oscar, previously told The Root of his disappointment with how little the win did for his career and the challenges that continue to exist for African Americans in Hollywood. “It’s my prayer,” Gossett said, “that Spike Lee gets his money so he can do more relevant stuff, and Antoine Fuqua, too. There are so many stories that Halle Berry could do, Forest Whitaker. And we can’t measure it with our inclusion in the Oscars and the Emmys. We just have to do it.”

Gossett’s reflection raises an important question. What matters more: seeing minorities in the entertainment industry receive acclaim, or seeing more minorities ascend to positions of power behind the scenes so that they can get more of their stories told?

Warrington Hudlin, who produced the comedy classic “Boomerang,” said the answer is clear: “Diversity in the executive suite of decision-makers is absolutely more important.” And when asked why diversity among film executives is such a critical issue, he explained that the answer is not black and white, so to speak.

“There’s a presumption in your question and my answer,” Hudlin noted, “that there is going to be a sensitivity to stories that comes from your cultural and racial membership. Now, that’s a presumption. I’m not sure it’s true.” He paused before adding, “Quite frankly, we thought having an African-American president was going to make some changes, but some things didn’t change.”

He then recounted a friend’s oft-repeated analogy, that “there might one day be a black man named head of the Ku Klux Klan. That doesn’t mean they’ll stop lynching blacks.” His friend’s point, Hudlin explains, is that in movies, “the bottom line is the business is the business is the business.”

But he noted that when minorities who are “conscious” ascend within the industry and gain clout, it can have a profound impact on which projects get made and which stories get told. Hudlin, who co-founded the Black Filmmaker Foundation, recounted numerous instances throughout his career in which having a minority in a senior executive post made a difference.

For instance, Hudlin recalled that when Richard Parsons, who is African American, became chairman of Time Warner, he convened a meeting of Warner Bros. executives so that Hudlin and other minority filmmakers could personally meet with them about potential projects. “Clout means, do they have money at their discretion? That’s what clout means,” Hudlin said. “There’s a pool of money to get projects made, and someone says yes and no.” To Hudlin’s point, it was only when box office superstar Brad Pitt stepped in and agreed to produce and appear in “12 Years a Slave” that the film was able to get made.

“Whenever you have a person of color who is conscious, they can pull the trigger to make things happen,” Hudlin added. He also explained that if more people of color are in decision-making positions, awards for minority stories will come naturally and may not be a once-every-decade rarity. “I think having the people in positions who can make those calls and have that discretion can actually lead to more critical acclaim.”

He’s likely right. A recent analysis of Academy Award voters found that they are 93 percent white and 76 percent male. Nominees have to be invited to join, which means that ensuring that minorities have a foothold in the industry is crucial to diversifying the academy’s voting ranks. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the academy extended invitations to a new class of members that constitutes its most diverse group in history — underscoring the academy’s current lack of diversity.

According to the Times, John Ridley, who won a screenwriting Oscar for “12 Years a Slave,” said that the academy’s recent efforts to change that have “been a terrific time for people of color, but black people especially have a long way to go” in gaining better representation behind the scenes. He said that the academy data prove “it will take a long time to change.”

It’s worth noting that film executives of color also played a crucial role in bringing “12 Years a Slave” to American audiences. Zola Mashariki, who is black, is a senior vice president of production at Fox Searchlight Productions, and she helped shepherd not only the slavery-era epic to screens but also the recent romantic comedy “Baggage Claim” and the musical “Black Nativity,” both featuring predominantly black casts.

If we want to see more diversity among Hollywood decision-makers, Hudlin said, the commitment to diversifying the executive ranks has to come from those at the top within the industry. Nicole Bernard, a Jamaican American, has made such a commitment her focus in her role as senior vice president of audience development at Fox Entertainment, where her diversity efforts are hands-on. Hudlin mentioned others, but if we really want to see our stories told on the screen, he emphasized, we need many more.

But I would argue that there is something we can all do at the grassroots level. The next time a young boy or girl of color tells us that he or she wants to act, maybe we should ask if he or she has ever considered owning a studio as a career.

Former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele has said on occasion that the original civil rights movement was about integrating lunch counters but that today, African Americans need to strive to own the diners. The same philosophy could be applied to racial equality in Hollywood.

It’s great that “12 Years a Slave” won. Let’s celebrate that. But now that we’ve had the chance to celebrate how beautiful Lupita looked on Oscar night, let’s focus on figuring out what we can do to ensure that there’s someone in a position at a major studio, in years to come, who can make sure that she keeps working and doesn’t become yet another black Oscar winner whose promise fades away.

The Root