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From Selma, Alabama to Hollywood, California:

A Thirty-One Year Struggle
for Fairness and Inclusion in the American Dream

An Open Letter to the Entertainment Community

by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson
Washington, D.C.
March 18, 1996

Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Rev. Jesse Jackson. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
The following analysis of the role of people of color and women in Hollywood and the media was issued by Rev. Jesse Jackson at the time of the 1996 Academy Awards presentation.

On Monday, March 25, the eyes of the nation and the world will focus on the 68 th annual presentation of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Awards. It will be a night of celebration for the winners of the coveted Oscar and an evening of rejoicing for the studios that reap millions from selling entertainment to the world.

This year's Academy Awards ceremony needs to be more than a showcase of talent and a three-hour advertisement for the movie industry. Behind the glamour and glitz, behind the fantasy of inclusion and opportunity so carefully nurtured by the film industry, there is the reality that there is only one African American nominee this year and zero Latino, Asian Pacific, or Native Americans. What does this fact say about the marginal role people of color play in films? Why is it that out of 150 people nominated in the top categories (producing, directing, acting, writing) in the past six years, only eight have been African Americans? Why have their been no nominations for Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans or Native Americans in these top categories?

The paucity of nominations for people of color is directly related to the lack of films featuring the talents of people of color. Secondly, when 95% of the members of the Academy are white, one wonders if their judgment is skewed by their cultural framework. Perhaps the members of the Academy couldn't fully appreciate the rich depiction of a slice of 1940s Black urban life that was evoked in Devil in a Blue Dress, written and directed by Carl Franklin. I would like members of the Academy to examine why Don Cheadle, who won the National Society of Film Critics' award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress, wasn't nominated by the Academy. Could it be that cultural myopia clouded their appreciation of his work?

I write this letter not to condemn the Academy or to label its members racist. The issue is far more complex than such a charge. The Bible says in the New Testament, the Gospel According to John 8:32, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free." Let us look at the facts and determine what must be done. If we are to have reconciliation and healing, we must first confront honestly the inequities that persist in the entertainment industry.

Thirty-one years ago this week, the covers of news magazines featured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the coalition of conscience marching on the highway from Selma to Montgomery to secure the right to vote for millions of African Americans who were disenfranchised in the land of their birth.

Thirty-one years ago the wall was symbolized by Gov. George Wallace who vowed "integration never; segregation forever." Today, the adversary is not a group of racist individuals but institutions that continue to lock out people of color from significant levels of participation and decision making. The same coalition of conscience that tore down the cotton curtain of American apartheid must pull down the celluloid walls in Hollywood. Just as segregation -- legal forms of apartheid -- defined the rules of behavior for both whites and Blacks in the South, Hollywood's film and television industry defines how we see ourselves and each other. Our present and future generations should be seen as part of a multicultural society. a Rainbow Coalition.

The Oscar's weekend will be a tale of two parties -- a tailgate party for African Americans on Sunday night as the Black Academy Awards honor Dianne Houston, director of the Oscar nominated live action short, who is the sole African American nominee this year, and the Superbowl party on Monday night. There will be no other Blacks sitting in the audience at the Music Center on Monday night waiting with bated breath for recognition of their artistry. There will be no Latino, Native American or Asian nominees. We will only be guests at someone else's party, even though African Americans alone constitute 25% of the movie-going public and finance, in part, the dream-making machinery that is Hollywood.

We will protest institutional racism that manifests itself in several ways: racial exclusion, cultural distortion, lack of employment opportunities and lack of positions of authority.

Racial exclusion refers to the documented under representation of people of color in the film and television industry. Let us examine the facts. Although African Americans are 12% of the U.S. population, Latinos are 10%, Asian Pacific Americans are 5% and Native Americans are 2%, our participation in front of the camera, behind the camera, and in the executive suites is minuscule.

Racial exclusion on the screen has been documented. According to Prof. George Gerbner from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, people of color were only 13% of the characters in prime-time television shows broadcast between 1981 and 1991. Yet we comprise nearly 30% of the U.S. population. Similarly in theatrical films produced in 1992, 22% of the roles were portrayed by people of color.

For Latinos, the fastest growing minority in the U.S., the picture is dismal. UCLA professor Chon Noriega calculated that Latinos were 0.7% of continuing roles on primetime from 1969 to 1977. Today, there are only a handful of Latinos in leading roles in television and films.

The low employment figures for people of color in the film and television industries are disgraceful.

  • Of the 10,097 members of the Directors Guild of America, 2.3% are African Americans, 1.8% are Latinos, .9% are Asian Pacific Americans and .2% are American Indians. Minority directors only received 4% of all directing jobs in the period between 1992 and 1993.
  • Of the 8,500 active members of the Writers Guild of America, West, 2.6% are African American, 1% are Latino and less than 1% are Asian Pacific or American Indian. Minority participation in the craft unions is similarly low.

The dominance of white males in the creative side of the industry also produces discrimination against women. A study commissioned by the WGA, West that was released in 1993 revealed that 70% of television script writers were white males and 80% of feature film writers were white males. The study found that women receive 86 cents for every dollar earned by white male feature film writers.

In the excessive suites where projects are green-lighted for production, writers, directors, casts and crews are determined for employment, there are only a handful of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans and Native Americans.

At the ownership level, there are only 300 minority-controlled broadcast radio and television stations out of 10,000 stations in the United States. Only one-half of one percent of the 98,000 firms in the telecommunications industry are minority-owned. With the concentration of ownership in the media industries through mergers and acquisitions, there is growing concern about diminishing opportunities for minority firms to attain a share of the market.

Cultural distortion is a form of violence. The media projects African Americans and other people of color in five deadly ways: we are portrayed as less intelligent, less hard working, less universal, less patriotic and more violent than we are. We bear this burden everyday as images are translated to action and reaction. Because we continue to live in a racially stratified society, our art, film, and television reflect and shape this reality. Social inequities continue to be expressed through our cultural forms -- for all the world to see.

Let me give you some specific examples. Although only a small number of African Americans commit crimes, the image of African Americans projected on television and in films is dominated by gangbangers and thugs. This leads to the impression that all Black males are involved in crime. Several blocks from the Music Center, the L.A. County's Twin Towers Jail, an unoccupied $378 million, 4,000 bed hard-lock facility for violent criminals, sits empty. There is a connection between the disproportionate number of Black and Brown youth who are locked up and our creative artists who are locked out.

It is no accident that African Americans appear on the news as criminals twice as often as other groups. The fear that is generated spills over in many ways. Because of the particular nature of caste discrimination, well-dressed African American business people have a difficult time hailing a cab late at night in urban America and African Americans regardless of class are often stopped by the police for being in the "wrong neighborhood."

For Native Americans the legacy of portrayals as indigent savages has adverse consequences. In 1996, Native Americans who live on the reservations are still denied credit cards and bank loans.

Cultural distortion is, ofcourse, related to lack of representation at the decision-making levels at the film and television studios. African Americans make up 19% of Home Box Office's viewers, but there no Black executives in charge of production. Because of this, an adaptation of Richard Wright's Long Black Song (America's Dream starring Danny Glover and Tina Lifford), went from being a story about a white man's rape of a Black woman, to a story about a Black whore who seduces an innocent white man.

If people of color are not portrayed in multifaceted ways or remain invisible and the main images of us as undesirables, then the public perception is that we are parasites and strangers in our own land. How painful it must be for Native Americans who are the only minority who was the majority in the U.S. to be portrayed mainly in regalia on period films and not as productive members of our society.

We have seen the horrible implications of this phenomenon before. When Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, Jews were forbidden to work in the film industry. Motion pictures were produced to fulfill a propagandistic need to create "the other." Thus films such as The Eternal Jew (1940 by Franz Hippler) portrayed Polish Jews living in squalor in the Warsaw ghetto as the "normal condition" of Jews and films such as Triumph of the Will (1935 Leni Riefenstahl) exalted the myth of Aryan superiority.

This is why African Americans, Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans, and Native Americans are united in this protest. Unless we raise our voices and stand up and be visible we will continue to go backwards. According to the National Council of La Raza, the number of Latinos in prime-time television has dropped from 3% in 1955 to 1% in the 1992-1993 season. We cannot allow ourselves to be marginalized and excluded and remain silent.

Our last concern is reciprocity and access to the means of production. As movie-goers and television viewers, we have a reasonable expectation that our needs will be met in the marketplace. If they are not, we should not continue to patronize those companies that continue to deny us opportunities. We must raise concerns about access to financing and capital that will allow people of color to produce their own works, set up our own distribution networks, and build upon the multi-racial, multiethnic audience that seeks alternatives.

In order to have an insult level beyond which we cannot tolerate continued violation, one is required to have a sense of dignity and self respect. When we protest at the Academy Awards, we do so with a sense of purpose and resolve to keep alive the dream of American democracy and justice. We seek not to embarrass the entertainment industry, but to educate the public that standards of fairness should also be applied to the film and television industries. Public and private sector companies have been strengthened through diversity, which has enabled them to be more competitive in the global marketplace. Why can't the same process of inclusion that will benefit the industry and the public occur in the field of entertainment?

Our coalition of civil rights activists, media advocates, members of the entertainment community and people of good will seek to meet with industry leaders to open up this dialog and seek solutions. I recognize that progress has been made and I congratulate the Academy for once again selecting Whoopi Goldberg as emcee and setting a precedent by choosing Quincy Jones as producer for the awards ceremony. Their achievements have earned them the highest recognition and honors, but their presence on Oscar night on stage and behind the scenes is the exception as opposed to the rule. Whoopi and Quincy deserve their roles on Oscar night, but this does not exempt the industry from looking at the larger issue of inclusion.

People of color still have a long way to go towards meaningful participation everyday on the set, in the studio, and on the screen. The industry is moving much too slowly to meet the challenge of our nation that increasingly is becoming a multicultural society where no single group will be the majority. Let us embrace this future and find ways to work together for the sake of all of us and the generations to follow.

For more facts and figures on the entertainment industry compiled by the National Rainbow Coalition: Fairness in the Media Facts

Published in In Motion Magazine April 10, 1996.