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HIS 200: Applied History

Southern New Hampshire University

May 16, 2016

Draft Submission: Integrating the Movie Industry

In 1988 Eddie Murphy, the African-American comedian and actor, presented the Oscar for Best Picture at the 60th Academy Awards—but not before chiding the assembled Hollywood movers and shakers about the lack of diversity in Oscar’s past. As this video of Murphy’s speech shows (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNAePAAYPrc ), when he was first approached about presenting the award his initial reaction was “I’m not going, because they haven’t recognized black people in the motion picture industry” (Murphy, 1988). Fast forward 28 years, and the same complaints were heard about the lack of African-American representation among 2016’s Oscar nominees. But the continuing argument about the underrepresentation of African-Americans in Hollywood misses a crucial point. Despite years of often-fiery debate over the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations and alleged racism on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, history shows that when it comes to dealing with racial themes and issues, the movie industry is motivated primarily by economic concerns. As the African-American Oscar winner Morgan Freeman once noted, “I don’t think Hollywood is racist; I think Hollywood lives and dies on greed” (Miller, 2016).

There can be little doubt that the movie industry, as an economic institution, has long lacked diversity. While the proportion of African-American actors cast in movie and television roles has in recent years roughly mirrored the African-American share of the nation’s population (12.2 percent)—this figure has in fact fluctuated in a narrow range from 13 percent to 15 percent over the last 15 years (SAG/Aftra, 2009)— the proportion of blacks in influential non-acting roles has been much lower. Recent statistics show that only 5 percent of the writers in the film sector of the Writers Guild of America (West) were African-Americans. And for movie directors in the Directors Guild of American, the comparable figure was just 3.6 percent (Historical data show that the proportion of African-American writers and directors was even lower in past years.) (WGAW, 2014; DGA, 2015). The number of African-American producers (aside from actors and directors who establish their own production companies) is difficult to determine, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is quite small. (Lee, 2014). Taken together, these statistics clearly show that, among the people who directly influence the content of the movies and the types of roles that will be available to black actors, African-Americans have been significantly underrepresented.

It is unclear what impact, if any, this underrepresentation has had on Hollywood’s artistic choices. But the historical record is very clear when it comes to another point: from its earliest days, the content that Hollywood created—”the movies” themselves—has typically reflected only what its audiences have been willing to pay for. At the beginning of the 20th century, before the Great Migration that drew millions of African-Americans out of the rural South, the potential African-American audience for Hollywood movies was extremely small (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011; American FactFinder, 2015), and the fledgling movie industry accordingly produced virtually no content for that audience. At the same time, overtly racist attitudes were common among many American whites, particularly in the South, and the movie industry catered to that potential audience with overtly racist films such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. As the potential audience for films about African-Americans began to grow, small independent producers began to make “race films” aimed specifically at African-American audiences; these films did not receive wide distribution because the major Hollywood studios, which owned thousands of movie theaters across the country, declined to show them. It was only after the Supreme Court ruled that the studios would have to give up their ownership of theaters—forcing them to compete for the theaters’ business and for a share of the growing African-American market—that Hollywood began to incorporate more African-American characters into mainstream films. (Leab, 1975). This major change in movie content came about in direct response to changing market forces.

Other forces also influenced changes in Hollywood’s approach to African-American characters and themes, but most were rooted in economics, not ethics. One major factor: the outlawing of segregated public facilities during the civil rights era meant the end of “blacks only” theaters, which in turn helped put an end to “race films” and forced the studios to find ways to appeal to African-American audiences. (Caddoo, 2014). At the same time, the Civil Rights Movement itself generated increased public sympathy for the cause of African-American rights; this in turn boosted the marketability of films with African-American actors such as Sidney Poitier, or those that dealt with themes of racial tolerance, such as Lilies of the Field or To Kill a Mockingbird (Bristor et al., 1995). Again, what America saw on the silver screen was a reflection of Hollywood’s bottom line.

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