Is the film industry racist and sexist? Or just afraid of risk?

by Anthony Kaufman
July 21, 2011 1:29 AM
9 Comments
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In my latest Industry Beat column for Filmmaker Magazine, I caught up with a number of filmmakers who broke out big 20 years ago at Sundance 1991. It was a damn fine year for indie film, with the premieres of Richard Linklater’s "Slacker," Gus Van Sant’s "My Own Private Idaho," and Todd Haynes’ "Poison," as well as Hal Hartley’s "Trust," Jennie Livingston's "Paris is Burning," Julie Dash's "Daughters of the Dust" and Matty Rich’s "Straight Out of Brooklyn."

It's those latter five I'm most concerned with, however, because, as I write in the piece, "while Linklater, Van Sant, and Haynes remain household names in the independent sphere, the rest have become far lesser known. Why does one filmmaker go on to fame, while others remain in their niches? Is it a coincidence that the three who found more mainstream acceptance were all white men? Is industry prejudice to blame, the filmmaker’s own particular ambitions, or just plain bad luck?"

While the article doesn't focus explicitly on issues of racial and queer bias, such concerns were certainly implicit in my conversations, particularly, with Julie Dash and Jennie Livingston, neither of whom have made feature films since 1991.

As Dash said, "I’m an African-American woman talking about events, issues, dreams, and desires that I guess don’t conform to the men and women who are making films. They tell me they don’t think there’s an audience. But I know that I have a large fan base."

“It’s hard to make a film on a queer subject,” echoed Livingston, who has completed three shorts since "Paris is Burning." “If the only way you can make a film about queer female sexuality is to make a short, then that’s successful.”

Matty Rich was a bit more resistant to suggesting discrimination had anything to do with his career path: "I don't make excuses about race and color," he told me. "I came from nothing, and I made something of myself. So it's like, you deal with the hand you're been dealt, and you live with it."

Still, the numbers of African American and female directors working in Hollywood -- and even in independent film -- remains woefully low. In a Variety article about this year's Spirit Awards, I noted the preponderance of female-helmed nominated pics, but they still represented just 40% of the honors' major accolades. "It's still not something to brag about, because it's not even half," former Film Independent exec director Dawn Hudson told me, "but it's still consistently higher than the mainstream awards."

As for African Americans, Barry Jenkins broke out in 2008 with "Medicine for Melancholy," and I'm happy to see that he's been actively making shorts since then, but what's the status of his follow-up feature (maybe someone can tell me)? It'll be interesting to watch the career trajectory of Dee Rees, whose "Pariah," a black lesbian drama, was picked up by Universal subsidiary Focus Features. Where is the announcement for the new feature from Tanya Hamilton ("Night Catches Us")?

Other than Spike Lee and Lee Daniels, what other African American auteurs are getting support from the industry to make their features? African American audiences have shown, time and again, that they're highly active moviegoers, and yet, artistic, director-driven projects continue to find a hard time getting made. Where's the support for Charles Burnett? Leslie Harris ("Just Another Girl on the I.R.T."). Did anyone see Cheryl Dunye's 2010 lesbian thriller "The Owls"?

And where is the next Rose Troche? Guinevere Turner? Mary Harron?

I suppose it's difficult to make artistic films in the industry no matter your race, gender or sexual preference, but perhaps it's even harder if you're an African American, woman of color or lesbian, trying to tell bold personal stories that don't fit the mold.

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9 Comments

  • Dave Hunt | March 21, 2012 12:54 AMReply

    Disney definitely leads the pack when it comes to Racism. You see movies can be anaylzed in two ways to find out what they are truly about. The first method is the direct method, taking what the characters say literally and the second one is to read between the lines to get the hidden meaning.

    When a Disney character says, "I hate black." And you actually get to find out that Disney movies hardly ever have any blacks then it does raise a lot of questions.

    But then racism is not limited to White on black racism. Blacks are racist too that's why there are also movies with an all black cast. But no on says anything about that. Funny thing is when people see an all white cast in a movie they holler, damn, ain't that racism? Come on people, production companies are in business. They target specific audiences because they want to make money. If they believe not casting blacks or Asians would be welcomed by their target audience then they'll do it. So maybe Hollywood isn't racist at all. They just have some business sense.

    Entertainment Critic

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  • Misty | April 11, 2013 1:05 AM

    Dave, An all black cast doesn't always make it racist, if it is taking place in fantasy Africa for example, anymore than an all white cast of the LOTR does or an all Asian cast, as it should have been for Avatar: the Last Airbender movie. It depends on the situation. Whitewashing and lack of equal representation is more concerning to me than just integration itself.

  • F.P. | October 11, 2011 6:57 AMReply

    When I think filmmakers like Linklater, Van Sant, and Haynes, I think of "Before Sunrise." Of "Good Will Hunting" or "To Die For." Of "Mildred Pierce." Cynics will say these directors & films have 1 thing in common - they're all from/for/about white people!

    This convenient, reductive answer ignores 2 other simple similarities: 1) these are 4 projects where MALE directors gave FEMALE characters a profound presence, 2) these projects were excellent FILMS, not excellent white male films, just excellent. The ability to tell anybody's story, to do it cinematically and be considerate of the audience is what unites these directors, not the color of their penises.

    If we're going to speak about the film business, then let's do it without racial accusations: filmmaking exists today less as an art and more as a business. Is it possible to make an art/niche film today? Of course, but this ignores the elephant in the room - if your expectation is that you should be paid a giant sum for your art/niche film just because, then you don't understand the business. This is where the problem begins and why accusations fly.

    The business is about drawing in audiences willing to pay to see a relatable and/or fantastic story. And yet when filmmakers who tell stories specific to/about a small community get up in arms that the industry won't help them, instead of pulling ranks within that community (a la Sujewa's Comment on how to leverage power locally), they become offended that their stories aren't white or straight enough, without ever considering that they need a better screenplay, business plan, or, I dunno, demonstrated talent & ability.

    In a time when there are more DIY tools than we can keep track of, when every creative entity needs to be their own best self-promoter, this lazy "Of course Hollywood is ___" attitude has got to go.

    Are we not aware of how the Asian or Latin or Bollywood markets work in the face of competition from Hollywood? Have Spike Lee, Lisa Cholodenko, and Innaritu not become renown internationally from making beautiful, honest films that account for their minority backgrounds? Are we not familiar with basic business 101 so we can make and then smartly promote our films?

    For the "OWLs" producer, did the project really suffer from a lack of industry support only because it was made by women (of color and otherwise), or does the experimental, almost anti-commercial nature of the film not factor at all? Did Cheryl have a more commercial project also on tap that could have leveraged more money into "OWLs," the way Alfonso Cuaron (not white) directed a Harry Potter film (off a small Mexican indie) in order to make "Children Of Men?" Did the producers do more than just rely on Cheryl having made a film 15 years ago to raise money?

    That speaks to my point. Are filmmakers who are quick to claim bigotry able and/or willing to make films that don't always explicitly deal with their race or sex or homosexuality? Are these same filmmakers demonstrating they know how to use the camera, edit a project well, write compelling stories that invite excellent collaborators into their process, who can leverage their contacts and expertise into making these projects happen? Or are they just complaining that few want to help them navel-gaze in their respective ghettos, and then wonder why no one finds it fascinating enough to pay them to do so?

    This is why there are no new Guinevere Turners, Rose Troches and Mary Harrons, especially in lesbian film - like the 3 white males above, they learned the business and branched out from the les/lady ghetto. Why has no one picked up on THAT fact? If there's a desire to promote new talent, why don't more people talk about Madeline Olnek's excellent Sundance feature?

    As part of multiple minority groups, it angers me when people accuse before looking inward. It speaks to the entitlement issues & ignorance that many indie filmmakers in the fringe possess in deference to so many examples of successful female (Kathryn Bigelow, Debra Granik), LGBTQ (Lee Daniels), and minority (Tyler Perry, Robert Rodriguez) filmmakers. And why do fringe filmmakers consider themselves as such - is "Pariah" for black lesbians only? "Weekend" for gay white males only? No, those films were made within meager parameters, and have since broken out and created careers for those filmmakers beyond their niche stories.

    The question isn't, is the industry bigoted, it's "why aren't the filmmakers who believe it is working daily to fix it?" If your response is that this is an endemic problem and it can't be changed, take a moment to LEARN about the many people who have proven it isn't the case and write the kind of story that speaks your truth, which the white girl and Asian man down the street wants to see, and join the chorus who aren't held down by such anachronistic thinking. Think you can't make that change? Guess you missed the memo from '08 - yes we can.

  • Orville | August 24, 2011 1:02 AMReply

    Hollywood is a racist and sexist film industry everyone knows this. Hollywood is controlled by white men and a real concern is the paucity of young black actors coming up in the film industry. It seems to me that Hollywood is so focused on profit they won't take a chance on non white actors and projects. However, there are black artists gay and straight trying to make a difference. There was a movie that came out earlier this year called I Will Follow that received strong reviews.

    I am concerned about the binary the writer of this blog discusses race and sexuality as though they are separate issues. What about people that are minorities in multiple communities? Black gay and lesbians artists experience homophobia, racism, and sexism. Patrik Ian Polk a gay black director has a new movie coming out called The Skinny on Labor day weekend. Patrik Ian Polk created the world's first black gay TV show Noah's Arc yet MTV LOGO cancelled the show despite having big ratings.

    I don't know if the writer of this blog knows that Babyface's ex wife Tracy Edmonds has become a successful producer. Ms. Edmonds produced the African American film Jumping The Broom that only cost $6.6 million to make according to Boxoffice Mojo yet grossed over $37 million dollars this spring! Ms. Edmonds says she will make a movie called Invisible Life. The late E Lynn Harris novel is about black gay men. There is also an African American gay director Patrik Ian Polk

  • MAM | July 23, 2011 4:57 AMReply

    Yes, Hollywood is risk-adverse and this is a very convenient excuse for the continued institutionalized racism and sexism in the industry. How do most studio execs or big production company execs go about finding a director? They make a list. They have lists and lists of directors who they've put into a bunch of different categories. For the most part, they like to stick with directors who have directed something similar to what they're making. This means that if a female director has made a film focussed on women or girls' issues, they probably won't be making it onto many lists. They're already out of the running at the first step of the hiring process.

    Yes, there are other issues that block women and minorities, but I believe this is a big stumbling block that people ignore (or accept as "the way business is done"). Change won't happen until a very serious effort is made by the people doing the hiring. Sure, it'll take more work, but it's the right thing to do. And, the funny thing is, more and more, it's good for business! (too bad they're still too ignorant to realize it)

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | July 22, 2011 7:43 AMReply

    Well, when you get very, very, very close to the subject, it is not very cut & dry as to why minority & female filmmakers do not get as much support from all possible sources to make movies, make money from movies, and to make careers making movies. Of course race/racism, sex/sexism has a lot to do with it, but in a liberal capitalist country such as ours, in 2011, that's about maybe 49% of the problem. Without naming group names, it is interesting how certain immigrant groups to US carve out a path in certain industries & then there are changes to that norm, & sometimes there aren't - or - perhaps the value of investing in movies, investing in directors/filmmakers is not yet fully understood by many minority groups. As I see minority investors & entrepenuers getting together in NYC all the time to start & support other kinds of businesses - cafes, furniture stores, restaurants, bodegas, etc - but the businesses of independent film is 1) not very well understood by most lay people (also may not actually be a business but more of a hobby for the priviledged & or the insanely driven), & 2) the businesses of Hollywood film is perhaps just as mysterious when it comes to new outsiders making money from it, so, it may be difficult to get fellow minorities & fellow female investors, friends, etc to put a lot of money into a film project as a business venture. So, naturally, new ways of getting financial support - by minority & female filmmakers - from their peers - will have to be invented (more Kickstarters! :). And maybe the turn for the better for all indie filmmakers is just around the corner - where it becomes a low risk business venture (to invest in indie films), thus attracting more money to it, including more money by all kinds of investors for projects headed by minority & female filmmakers. Then there is the whole DIY filmmaking revolution. It is now possible for people to make movies for very little money & market them - as art projects, if not business ventures/show biz projects like 90's indie films. So why aren't there a TON of minority & female talent breaking through to mainstream awareness? (or even indie scene/indie ghetto awareness) I am not sure about the exact reason, but a couple of minority & filmmakers I spoke w/ re: this issue think it is unsustainable to keep making indie features as art projects, & that they want industry recognition & support, etc. So maybe perhaps minority & female filmmaking first has to become just art, & then art/commerce like most other films - not sure. From doing a brief survey of the field after the Film Society of Lincoln Center Panel Problem (where NYC minority & female filmmakers were vastly under-represented) the situation does seem to be a lot better than it was in the early 90's - or there are at least a lot more minority & female filmmakers making great shorts & also making at least the first features. As ever, I expect things to get better, probably very soon, re: lack of minority & female filmmakers in well paid directing jobs.

    - Sujewa
    NYC based minority indie filmmaker w/ many day jobs
    diyfilmmaker.blogspot.com

  • Gilchristsays | July 21, 2011 8:51 AMReply

    The film industry is a reflection of the fiber of this country. The sad and ugly truth is the United States of America is a racist country. Remember-only 40 years ago, the civil rights movement was in full swing, which means the people who currently running "Hollywood" were raised by people who were raised by people who had very specific, deplorable ideas about race and sexual preference. It doesn't matter that we have a black president today, that black people can sit wherever on the bus, can be served at restaurants, can use public restrooms, etc. This country was built on the belief that black people are only 3/5 human (it's STILL in the U.S. Constitution) and can be reverted back to slavery if convicted of a crime (see 14th Amendment in it's entirety). So our film industry, and every other industry, reflects those core beliefs.

  • Alex J | July 21, 2011 6:26 AMReply

    Yes, the film industry is racist, sexist, homophobic, afraid of risk, and organized around money, of course! I am one of the producers of "The Owls" (2010) and Cheryl Dunye's 1995 "Watermelon Woman," and we made the first with the last NEA, and the second for $25K (no industry support, just a queer collective, and we've recouped costs btw through foreign sales and US distribution). Of course, Dunye has also directed two other features (one for HBO and one in the belly of the beast, from which she fled), but if you support movies on box office alone, niche films are not a good bet, and we all suffer from bland, predictable fare.

  • LRM | July 21, 2011 4:48 AMReply

    Why are you even asking that question, that's like asking do Rivers have water-Of course Hollywood is the HQ of pure Racism

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