Amy Pascal and the Unbearable Whiteness of Hollywood

By Binta Niambi Brown

Binta Niambi Brown
Dec 31, 2014 · 6 min read

I’ve admired Amy Pascal from a distance for a long time. During her 10 plus years as head of Sony Pictures, she has intentionally and effectively expanded the role of women in Hollywood by green-lighting projects written and directed by women filmmakers and supporting an improvement in the quality of roles available to women, while delivering blockbuster after blockbuster, satisfying the business goals of her employer, and the appetites of the movie-going public. Her persistence, intelligence and remarkable success in an exceptionally tough industry are commendable.

Despite my admiration — and though she’s apologized — I am genuinely disappointed by the casual chain of emails between Pascal and Scott Rudin about the President’s presumed movie tastes. Here’s the gist:

In what has become the latest embarrassing email uncovered in a trove of messages leaked by hackers who attacked Sony, Pascal wrote Rudin: “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?” She was referring to a breakfast hosted by DreamWorks Animation head and major Democratic donor Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Rudin, a top film producer responsible for films like No Country for Old Men andMoneyball, responded, “Would he like to finance some movies.” Pascal replied, “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” Rudin responded: “12 YEARS.” Pascal quickly continued down the path of guessing Obama preferred movies by or starring African Americans. “Or the butler. Or think like a man? [sic]”

Rudin’s response: “Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.”

Disappointed — but not surprised. There are very few (no) blacks in powerful, visible positions in Hollywood. Each year at the Golden Globes, the Oscars or the Emmys — take your pick of seasonal award shows — the audience typically reveals a vast and deep ocean of smiling white faces, with only a few sprinkles of other ethnicity mixed in.

Actual data supports this observation. According to writer Nicole Pasulka, of the 600 major Hollywood films released since 2007, black directors helmed fewer than seven per cent of those films. Only 10 per cent of speaking roles went to non-white actors. Finally, there are no non-white heads of any major Hollywood studio.

2014 Oscar Nominees (image via Daily Mail). Top photo: The infamous Oscar Selfie of 2014, featuring a star-studded cast of famous people (and Lupita N’yongo’s brother, Peter).

The chain of emails between Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin about the President’s movie tastes suggests the reason: if black people are seen as jokes, as being incapable of having expansive tastes or appreciated on the merits, why would the power holders advance blacks on the business side in the industry? When even the democratic president of the United States is relegated to asinine jokes by liberal Hollywood execs, why would we expect to see blacks advanced here?

This is problematic, not for reasons of morality or equity, but because of the causes and effects of implicit bias itself. The implicit bias that inhabits our collective subconscious is by and large a function of the images we are exposed to by media; it informs our stereotyping (or simplifying mechanisms) and colors our perspective on people we haven’t met. It colors the way black people see themselves and how non-black people see black people. Of course there have been, from time to time, positive images of black people in non-race specific roles…but those are by far the minority. Again, as stated, fewer than 10 per cent of the roles in Hollywood films have featured black actors. And when black actors are featured, it is typically in race-specific or racialized roles that regularly cast blacks in a demeaning light. It is no wonder that a Japanese friend, who had previously only been exposed to blacks via film, confessed to another friend of mine that she was absolutely terrified of black people in the United States.

The cast of “American Hustle” (a Sony picture). Pretty standard lineup. (Image via.)

If we think this doesn’t matter, then we aren’t paying any attention. There is a reason beyond intentional malicious racism that so many black men in particular are harassed and even harmed by police officers (of every racial background). When a population has been conditioned for generations to see someone (or some group of people) as bad, dangerous, violent, ignorant, unintelligent or at worst subhuman, particularly in an incredibly stressful job environment, it is no wonder police officers automatically assume and presume that the black suspect is bad. This implicit bias is fundamental to our human nature. And it cannot be corrected so long as there remain a preponderance of negative black images in media and entertainment.

Unless and until the film, television, music, advertising, media and other industries project images of black people that reflect blacks in all of our beauty and complexity, we are likely to continue to be defined by negative stereotypes, mocked by executives and subjugated to disparaging jokes about our cultural tastes. Because you know, the President of the United States and Harvard graduate obviously only likes and has been exposed to black films. (Not that anything is wrong with that, “12 Years A Slave” was an amazing film).

In the weeks since Pascal’s emails were shared publicly, many have called for her head, a position with which I vehemently disagree. Personally, I’ve found the emails to be incredibly helpful. Their revelation confirms what many have long known, suspected, or quietly discussed: that Hollywood has a significant race problem, which affects not only the opportunities for black artists, but the global perception of black people.

The cast and producers of “12 Years A Slave” at the 2014 Golden Globes award, where the film took Best Drama. It also won the 2014 Oscar for Best Picture (image via the FT.)

So in some respects, we should be thanking Pascal for helping the world to understand the way Hollywood executives actually think. And now that we have some sense as to the biases that may be influencing her, we have a tremendous opportunity to do something about it. Replace her with someone else, and the problem gets pushed under the rug. Why? Because we won’t have any proof as to what any potential successor actually thinks about black people.

Firing her, a Hollywood executive who has otherwise delivered tremendous economic value to her company, not to mention who has routinely green lit path-breaking films that have opened many more doors for women directors and artists would also be a reaction, not an action (just as calling Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson is a reaction, not an action). We cannot solve the problem of racial perception and inequality by reacting, we only solve it by acting — acting to advance more people of color in executive capacities, telling stories that cast non-white actors in non-racial roles (Idris Elba as James Bond comes to mind!) and financing more projects helmed by the many talented non-white directors such as Ava Duvernay (Selma). Each of these are palpable, and easy actions Hollywood can take to remedy the pernicious absence of non-white faces in Hollywood. 2015, bring it.

Binta Niambi Brown is Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Fermata Entertainment Advisors LLC and Grand Fermata Holdings LLC, a startup adviser, human rights advocate, and bass player based in New York City. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, and Executive in Residence for the New Orleans Startup Fund/PowerMoves NOLA, in addition to advising a dozen early stage technology companies. Binta was an informal advisor to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign and served on each of Governor Eliot Spitzer’s and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s transition teams. A Truman National Security Fellow and former Pipeline Fellow, Binta has been recognized as one of the Root’s 100 Most Influential African-Americans, Fortune Magazine’s 40 under 40 business leaders, JET Magazine’s 40 under 40, Crain’s New York 40 under 40, by the National Organization for Women as a Woman of Power and Influence, by Super Lawyers as a New York Area Super Lawyer Rising Star, and by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader. She is a winner of the 2013 CUP Catalyst Change Agent award, and has been featured in Real Simple magazine on mentorship, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Cosmo and on CNN. Binta sits on several boards including Barnard College, Human Rights First, the New York City Parks Foundation, and the American Theatre Wing.

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Binta Niambi Brown

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CEO/Founder: Big Mouth Records/Fermata Entertainment | Lawyer | Advocate | Bass Player | mgmt: @gracewebermusic & @john_forte

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