By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Illustration by Bill Smith
Diversity is more than a by-the-numbers proposition, but when it comes to black employment in the motion-picture industry, here are the latest statistics:
After enjoying a 77 percent increase between 1991 and 1997, minority writers in the Writers Guild of America still account for just under 5 percent of writers employed in the feature-film industry.
Roles for black actors dropped from 14.1 percent of all Screen Actors Guild jobs in 1997 to 13.4 percent in 1998. It’s the largest drop among the guild’s ethnic-minority groups, all of which, except for Asian/Pacific Islanders, experienced declines.
The Directors Guild of America’s annual employment report for 1998 found that African-American directors accounted for 4.2 percent of film directors, up from 3.4 percent in 1997; overall, the percentage of days worked by black members remained static at 4.4 percent.
With modest gains here and worrying declines there, the studies carried out by the three major Hollywood guilds present a mixed picture when it comes to black employment in the film industry. It’s a picture, however, that comes into even sharper relief when you look at the Motion Picture Association of America’s most recent study of the industry as a whole. While job growth at the production level has slowed in recent years, according to the MPAA the number of jobs in the service sector has increased a whopping 80 percent between 1990 and 1999. Clearly, however, this rising tide has not been lifting all boats proportionately.
The reasons are complex, and the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Indeed, the state of black employment in Hollywood looks worse than even these grim statistics. A recent request put in to the national office of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) in New York for information on its black below-the-line membership was redirected to individual locals in Los Angeles. Subsequent calls to the cinematographers, Local 600; the art directors, Local 876; the Motion Picture Studio Grips, Local 80; and the Motion Picture Editors Guild, Local 700, found that none of the guilds — whose combined membership is over 10,000 — has ever conducted a study to determine diversity in its rank and file.
For Sandra Evers-Manly, former president of the Hollywood NAACP and current director of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, the lack of data comes as no surprise. “They just don’t keep those numbers,” says Evers-Manly, whose organization is currently compiling a directory of black film personnel. “And you won’t find those numbers in the executive ranks, either. I’ve looked for them. When I first got involved in this industry as an activist 10 years ago, I was curious about hiring trends, but you can still only get that information by word of mouth.”
In acknowledging their inability to account for the number of blacks in their respective locals, at least two union executive directors, speaking off the record, agreed that black employment and diversity in general were important. Neither, however, could say why the locals had not conducted studies such as the DGA’s. Tracking member diversity is particularly crucial for IATSE unions, says Evers-Manly, given the perception and reality of the IATSE’s long history of cronyism and exclusionary eligibility rules, those Catch-22 requirements that pin entry into the union on the number of union days worked. “When you’re not keeping the data, and everybody should,” she says, “there’s no way to show that you’re providing equal opportunity or access.”
At the same time, says one union executive director, the current strike and the ongoing concern over runaway production have created an unstable environment not readily conducive to systemic reform. “It isn’t just a question of whether there’s affirmative action in the industry,” he says. “Right now, it’s a question of whether we’re even going to have an industry in the future.”
Over the last decade, some unions have attempted to open their ranks. Perhaps more as a response to the boom in independent film than for diversity’s sake, these unions have made changes to their bylaws — for instance, allowing nonunion days to count toward membership. Even so, for many blacks working on set and behind the camera, little has changed since Peoplemagazine brought national mainstream attention to the lack of African-Americans working below the line with its 1996 cover story “Hollywood Blackout.”
“I think those are great things,” says cinematographer Bill Dill — who is not a union member by choice — about Local 600’s more relaxed eligibility requirements. But asked if he thinks they’ve made a difference, he answers flatly, “No.
“When I work with a white crew,” says Dill, whose credits include B.A.P.S., The Five Heartbeats and the upcoming Dancing in September, “I know that I’m the only black cinematographer they’ve ever seen on a set. I’m still a rarity. We still work in the most segregated business in America.”
The problem extends beyond the unions to the perceptions and attitudes of those who make the initial hiring decisions. Dill insists that despite the lack of diversity in Hollywood, he enters every situation with expectations of good will, believing that talent will out. Still, he tells the recent story of the director — someone he knew and who admired his work — who nevertheless told Dill that he wouldn’t be right for an upcoming feature. “Somehow, it was a disqualifying factor for me that they had a fair-skinned white actress,” says Dill. “It’s a white business. I’ve shot more white people in my career than black. But the first thing you’ll see happen is people looking for a rationalization for why it’s okay to discriminate.”
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