How Hollywood is Racist

A number of recent events got me thinking lately about race and Hollywood: an article about the casting of a non-Black/non-white love interest in Hitch; the recent Oscar wins of Morgan Freeman and Jamie Foxx for best supporting actor and best actor, respectively; and a question-and-answer session with Kevin Smith at last week’s Wonder-Con.

Hollywood is racist. We have to be careful, though, in being precise as far as semantics are concerned. The word racist, like its partner in crime racism, is vague at best and misused at worst, often provoking all sorts of discussions about the various definitions of racism and the extent to which those reflect sociological realities. One distinction we have to make is between the racist intent and racist outcome (some people like to say “intent v. impact”). I’m also using racism here in a very limiting way—describing only racial discrimination as it comes out in practical choices, not emotions, subtle social interactions, etc.

As far as I’ve been able to tell—via media coverage; interviews with producers, actors, and the like; and observations of human nature in general—few in Hollywood either consider themselves racists or consciously make racist choices. The one exception to this is the Hitch story, in which money seems to be the main motivating factor. So, in one way, Hollywood is racist because it’s greedy. If casting non-Whites made more profit, they would cast non-Whites. If casting only gerbils made money, they’d cast gerbils. Hollywood movie studios, like most corporations, tend to be amoral, even if their actions sometimes seem to outsiders to be immoral. Now some movie-makers do operate from conscience and want to say, “No, I believe in making socially and morally responsible films, regardless of profit.” These filmmakers usually raise their own funds and/or max out their personal credit cards. Film studios, however, draw from a pool of upwards of $100,000,000 and have a responsibility to their investors to make a return on that; otherwise, they won’t be making any more movies. In this sense, though, not to absolve studios of immorality/amorality, some of Hollywood’s racist choices are primarily reflective of and not prescriptive for society.

Unfortunately, it’s kind of a vicious cycle, though. Let’s say, for example, that audiences don’t like seeing Asian-Americans (as opposed to Asian immigrants like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun-Fat) in lead roles. Well, the more movies Hollywood studios produce that lack Asian-American leads, the more audiences will get used to not seeing them in leads, and the more strange it will be for them to see those leads, adding to the original distaste. I was thrilled when Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle came out, because it was one of the first times I’d seen an otherwise “regular” movie come out… but with Asian-American leads. Even so, my wife and I both agreed (she’s Asian-American as well) that it was weird seeing their faces on screen so much. We didn’t disapprove; we were just disoriented by the novelty of it.

But how did that vicious cycle start, and why does it continue to perpetuate itself? Well, of course, in the early 20th century, Whites were more openly racist, but the Q & A with Kevin Smith brought out something else that has to do more with racist outcome than racist intent. Someone asked him why there isn’t more “brown sugar” in his movies. He replied at first, not fully understanding the question, “Chris Rock isn’t Black enough for you?” Later, he understood that she meant Black women, and his follow-up reply was, “Well, my movies are mainly a different version of what’s going on in my life, and the truth is I don’t have many Black friends.” [I’m paraphrasing here].

Fiction, as we’ve learned from the classics (Austen, Ellison, Fitzgerald, etc.), is often an excuse to rewrite autobiography. Thus, in our racially segmented society, if most filmmakers and producers are White, and, by extension, most of their social circles are White (with the occasional supporting Black character), why wouldn’t their movies feature White leads and mostly White casts? I’m not excusing the racism. Personally, I do support a little bit of a social conscience in filmmaking. Still, in most cases, I’ll give Hollywood producers, directors, writers, and actors the benefit of the doubt. Especially for the Kevin Smiths (as opposed to Jerry Bruckheimers) out there, filmmaking is a personal/autobiographical outlet.

So the real change, the real revolution, which is beginning (only beginning) to happen for Blacks in Hollywood, happens only when People of Color are given a voice—when more of us are filmmakers, directors, producers. It isn’t enough for a White person, based solely on conscience, to pick a token Person of Color to be a supporting actor in a mainly White film. We need more Asian-American, Latino, and Native American Spike Lees and John Singletons. When that happens, maybe we’ll get more Asian-American, Latino, and Native American Samuel L. Jacksons, Jamie Foxxes, Halle Berrys, etc. Blacks certainly still have a long way to go, but they are also the promise of what other People of Color only dream about right now.

Recently, I saw The Perfect Score, in the extra features of which Leonardo Nam talks about how grateful he is to be in the film and how they originally wanted a White person for the role, then a Latino; then, they changed the role specification to “open ethnicity.” I think a lot of White actors out there, even with all their own challenges, don’t realize that they get “open ethnicity” by default. In some ways, I can excuse the moneymaking machine of Southern California from social responsible practices, but I hope at least, they realize there is a problem and that there is a need for more filmmakers of color.

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  1. Good article. I’m an Asian American and I don’t really mind the lack of Asians in the American entertainment industry, however, I am concerned that there are films that have Asian characters but they are not portrayed by Asian actors. I always thought Hollywood was more liberal, but when I hear about movies like 21, Dragonball, Charlie’s Angels 2 (John Cleese as Lucy’s dad), upcoming Weapon with David Henrie, and Avatar the Last Airbender makes me feel like I’m a nobody. Why aren’t there any Asian actors in lead roles that have Asian characters and theme? In the movie 21 for example, it is a true story about an Asian American MIT student, but Hollywood went out of there way to cast a British actor. Not only did they get the wrong ethnicity, but they even had to get a dialect coach so the British actor would sound more American. I can picture John Cho in that role, he looks like a college student, and he played a college student in American pie films, why didn’t they pick him? By the way try not to feel disoriented by films that show Asian actors in other roles. Asian actors have to start somewhere and it’s something we Americans will need to appreciate more in the future with diversity in Hollywood which you mentioned.

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