Artisans So White: Minority Workers and the Fight Against Below-the-Line Bias

Americans are reminded in daily headlines that the nation’s original sin of racism is far from expunged. In Hollywood’s own backyard, that reminder came earlier this year in the form of the #OscarsSoWhite backlash, which turned a spotlight on the glaring lack of recognition and opportunities for minority performers.

What #OscarsSoWhite did not address, though, is the racial divide that exists for people of color working in entertainment crafts such as art direction, costume design, editing, sound, and cinematography.

For a business that often prides itself on progressive values, it’s a telling point that discrimination and racism are facts of life for minorities in so-called below-the-line jobs, according to a number of artisans who were interviewed by Variety.

Kyle Bean for Variety

“It’s really a hidden segregation that happens in the industry, that’s not talked about,” says “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, who notes that in her previous line of work as a publicist she was often the only African-American on a crew. Yet some below-the-line reps Variety spoke with seemed oblivious to the experiences of their own clients, saying they didn’t think race was a pressing issue.

If on-set segregation is hidden, it’s hiding in plain sight. At some guilds, leaders and members alike have brought attention to the preponderance of white males in the membership, and have started diversity programs in response. Intl. Cinematographers Guild president Steven Poster says he’s spent his career working to integrate camera crews. “This has traditionally been a very white, male industry from the very beginning,” Poster says, “and it’s taken a number of years to change that demographic.” Poster maintains that the progress over the years among DPs and camera assistants is obvious. “You just look at crews and you see that there’s more diversity,” he says. “Is it enough? No.”

At the American Cinema Editors, Troy Tataki, who is half-Japanese, started a diversity program after African-American editor Lillian Benson did an informal count and found there were fewer than 25 people of color among the active guild membership of more than 400. Out of 30-40 new members who have joined the organization over the past year, six are minorities, says Tataki, who has been recruiting minority editors to join. As small as that number may be, it’s a significant step forward for the ACE, as it represents a roughly 20% increase in minority membership in one year. Most guilds are heavily white and male, but they can’t say for sure how diverse their membership is, because they haven’t tracked it by race or ethnicity. The Cinematographers Guild is moving to survey members about race, but if the experience of the Costume Designers Guild is any indication, it may not succeed. The designers organization, which sometimes get calls from producers looking for designers of a particular race, found its members did not want the guild to collect such data, because they don’t want to be typecast.

And clearly, such typecasting does exist in the workplace.

One African-American artist, who requested anonymity for fear of a career backlash, recounted overhearing some producers talking several years ago on the other side of a high-backed restaurant booth. Their conversation turned to hiring African-Americans. “One of the producers said, ‘Oh, they’re so difficult to work with,’ ” the artist remembers.

“The message I was given growing up [was] people are going to be watching you, and aware of who you are. You are African-American in a very white-dominated society … so you have to be 10 times better at what you do. ”
J. Kathleen Gibson

Clint Ramos, the Filipino-American designer who won a 2016 Tony for the costumes of “Eclipsed,” recalls a disturbing incident that occurred right after an interview he had with a director and artistic director for a design job on an 18th-century farce at a regional theater.

“I left the meeting really feeling great,” says Ramos. “But [as] I was waiting for my ride … I overheard them say, ‘Well, he would be good if this was, like, set in Hawaii or something, or in Polynesia.’ And that made me think, ‘Wow, the way I appear really affects how people perceive the work that I am capable of.’ ”

Most artists interviewed for this article say that the prejudice they encounter tends to be more subtle. Ruth Carter, the first African-American nominated for a costume design Oscar (for 1992’s “Malcolm X”), says, “We’re not living in the ’50s, where they stamp your application ‘Denied’ just because you spelled a word wrong. Now it’s a more intricate and multi-layered issue of discrimination.”

Some incidents reveal unconscious bias. Sharen Davis, a two-time Oscar nominee for costume design (for “Dreamgirls” and “Ray”), recounts that when she reports to the set, security usually assumes she’s an extra. She’s not alone in that experience.

Once at work, artists of color sometimes encounter resistance on the set as well. Visual effects supervisor Edward L. Williams won a VFX Emmy for “Star Trek: Voyager,” but says some DPs have openly challenged his skills before they’ve even worked with him. “They’ve been quite blunt with it,” Williams says. “[They’ll say,] ‘The only reason you got this position is because they wanted to hire somebody black.’ And I’ll go, ‘Well, you know, good for them,’” says Williams with a laugh. “I guess I’m that black person they hired.”

Kyle Bean for Variety

Williams says that that puts him in the position of proving, little by little, that he belongs — sometimes even tactfully calling out those DPs when necessary. “Then they realize you can do the job. There’s still a little resentment, but they say, ‘Hey this guy’s pretty good,’ and then, before the end of the shoot, they’re asking you to go have beers, and they apologize for what they said, and say they were under stress because they wanted to bring their buddy on.”

The artists Variety spoke with come from varied backgrounds. Some rose out of abject poverty, some come from working-class roots, others had comfortable upbringings in families that were from the middle-class or upper crust within their communities. But almost none had any connection with show business —so when they were young, the industry seemed out of reach.

Production designer Arv Greywal, a Sikh whose family migrated from Mumbai to Canada, attended inner-city schools in Toronto with big minority populations. Even in a production center like Toronto, he says, “People don’t think that opportunity exists for them. They just don’t know that they can do this, because it’s always been something that’s so removed from them.” Greywal all but camped out at production designers’ offices, though many refused to see him. Eventually, he clawed his way into the industry, mostly through relentless determination and hard work.

No minority artists spoke of having received much encouragement from secondary schools they attended. Many of Greywal’s classmates were “channeled” toward trade schools. On the other side of the continent, Daryn Okada, who wanted to be a cinematographer, got similarly unhelpful advice in high school in South San Gabriel. When standardized tests showed he had an aptitude for technology, guidance counselors suggested he become an engineer or a pharmacist. “They said, ‘Well, if you want to get into the arts, maybe you should talk to the person who teaches band.’ That’s the best advice they could give me.”

But Okada, who is Japanese-American, was fortunate to have the support of one instructor who helped make a difference — a photography teacher who liked his
pictures and submitted them to competitions. Then Okada graduated early and, like Greywal, climbed up through the industry ranks, thanks to almost obsessive hard work.

Supportive parents can also be a springboard. While Okada was still in high school, his mother helped him enroll in a summer cinematography class at USC that made his dream seem attainable.

Kyle Bean for Variety

Sometimes parents help by sharing their experiences of living in a white-dominated world. “The message I was given growing up, says J. Kathleen Gibson, a film editor of mixed-race ancestry, “[was] people are going to be watching you and aware of who you are.” Gibson’s parents, she recalls, told her, “‘You are African-American in a very white-dominated society … so you have to be 10 times better at what you do.’”

The lack of minority artists in entertainment often leaves young artists of color with few role models. But among the artists Variety interviewed, where such role models did exist, they had an outsized impact. African-American DP Daniel Patterson got encouragement from cinematographer Bradford Young, who’s also black. Okada was aware of the work of James Wong Howe, a great Chinese-American DP during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Benson, as a young editor, met Madeline Anderson, a pioneering African-American editor and producer who worked on public TV documentaries in the 1960s. “I knew that there was one, and so I could do it,” Benson says. Years later, after Benson became a member of the ACE, she attended Anderson’s induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. “I walked up to her and said, ‘Ms. Anderson, you don’t remember me. My name is Lillian Benson, and I want you to know that I’m the first African-American female director of the ACE. I thought you would be proud.’ She was astonished.”

Many artists say they feel like they’re being pigeonholed by race. Benson recalls reconnecting with a high school friend who looked up her credits online and observed she that had worked on a lot of films about African-Americans. “What popped out of my mouth was, ‘That’s the only thing they think I can do.’”

Ruth Carter has carved out a niche doing African-American period stories, and says she enjoys it. But many minority artists recount frustration at being stuck in the black niche. Sometimes they get hired first by a black director, get a “black” film or TV show on their resume, and then are asked to do only “black” stories thereafter. It’s common for designers, regardless of race, to complain about being pigeonholed by genre, in action movies or comedies or period pieces. In the case of African-American designers, however, the genre seems to be “black,” and that tends to rankle.

Sometimes “black” seems to override everything else. DP Daniel Patterson recalls getting hired to shoot documentaries for a German company, only to find that regardless of the nominal subject matter of the film, he was asked to lead the production into some aspect of black life.

“I’m always grateful to work,” he adds, “but it’s something that you just kind of take note of and keep going.”

What stings about such pigeonholing, says Ramos, is the assumption that artists can’t do a certain job because of what they look like or where they’re from. That goes to the very heart of why people become designers for the performing arts in the first place, he says. “We want to be immersed in different worlds. We can participate in cultures that we don’t know, or in a world that we don’t know, through the particular project that we’re doing.”

“It’s my turn, I guess you can say, to fight some of these battles, and not to let anyone get away with racial remarks or putting down people. Within the last three or four years, I’ve just kind of taken it upon myself to start speaking up.”
Edward Williams

Artists often cite a lack of interracial networking as a factor that keeps them from getting opportunities outside their racial niche. Since the industry tends to be socially segregated, it tends to be segregated on the set as well.

“Any kind of artist segregation comes out of a fear of trusting that someone who is not like you can perform at the level that you can perform,” says DuVernay. “You don’t know a lot of women who run things, you don’t know a lot of black people in your personal life, you’ve never been around Latinos who are leading a department. So that’s a question mark. And most would rather not take the risk, because there’s a lot of money at stake, there are reputations at stake, and you’d rather go with what you know.”

Another common experience of subtle racism identified by multiple artists is extra scrutiny on the job. Choices are questioned. Advice is dispensed that’s meant to be helpful, but in a way that implies a person hasn’t done research or can’t be trusted. Sharen Davis sardonically remembers being summoned by a producer to answer questions about the bright colors she chose in designing costumes for one film. “This isn’t a comedy, you know,” she remembers the producer telling her. “Yes, I know,” she replied.

Davis was uncomfortable because it’s unusual for a producer to so insert himself between director and designer. Worse, she says, “I’ve never done a comedy.”

Ramos feels that he’s scrutinized more when he’s doing work where he’s cast against type — say, on a French farce or a period American play. “You get ‘educated,’” he says. “You get ‘informed’ about the nuances. It happens sort of blithely, and it’s presented to you as a piece of trivia, but then you realize, ‘Wait. Why did he just tell me this?’ I don’t think they know that they’re doing it.”

The artists who experience such scrutiny are left with the gnawing suspicion that they’re being treated differently because of their race. It can’t be proven, but the feeling can’t be denied, either, which can create a simmering stress. Benson alludes to the classic film “Gaslight,” where the protagonist’s husband tries to convince her she’s going insane. “People make you think you’re crazy, and you’re not,” she says. “Sometimes you’re too sensitive. But many times, you’re not crazy.”

Primetime Player: Daryn Okada lenses the “Rasputin” episode in the fifth season of “Scandal.” Courtesy of Kevin Estrada/ABC

Patterson says that in the indie world, where he does most of his work, filmmakers share stories all the time, including their suspicions about bias. “We hear of friends of ours who have had nervous breakdowns. Mental health is a serious thing,” he says. “We constantly check in with one another.” Some artists call it their “Am I crazy? calls.”

That kind of second-guessing can prevent victims of racism from speaking out when they encounter something objectionable.

“I’ve had to bite my tongue a few times to keep the peace,” says Williams, explaining that he has to find the line between being too aggressive and too passive. But he says he’s come to accept that he needs to raise his voice. “It’s my turn, I guess you can say, to fight some of these battles, and not to let anyone get away with racial remarks or putting down people,” he says. “Within the last three or four years, I’ve just kind of taken it upon myself to start speaking up.’”

Though one cinematographer interviewed for this story voiced frustration with #OscarsSoWhite precisely because it ignored his craft and others, Greywal credits the campaign with raising awareness of racial disparities inside the industry. “If you play nice, if you just go away at their behest, then you’re never gonna get there,” he says. “Until you get in somebody’s face, it’s never going to change.”

One of the key ways to effect significant change and attain parity across all facets of the entertainment industry, both for those who work behind and in front of the camera, is for the decision-makers to improve hiring practices.

DuVernay insists that directors have to say, “ ‘I’m going to make sure that no department head brings me a whole list of white guys.’ When you’ve chosen someone as a token, then that creates an environment of division, and you might as well just have all white guys.”

She says that integration has to start with department heads and the director’s own unit, including the ADs. “It can’t just be the PAs,” she adds.

Meanwhile, some artists and directors of color are taking matters into their own hands, making a point of mentoring those who will follow in their footsteps — becoming the role models they may have lacked when they were breaking into the business.

“Any kind of artist segregation comes out of a fear of trusting that someone who is not like you can perform at the level that you can perform.”
Ava DuVernay

Costume Designers Guild president Salvador Perez, a California native of Mexican-American heritage, has a multicultural crew on “The Mindy Project,” including Latina costumers and a Cambodian cutter-fitter working alongside African-Americans. However, he acknowledges that his set is more the exception than the rule.

The guilds have been more focused on gender than on race in recent years, and few have diversity programs like the one the American Cinema Editors has instituted. The Art Directors Guild has started a diversity committee. The Costume Designers Guild has no formal diversity program, but has done outreach at Los Angeles area schools. Rachel Stanley, the CDG’s executive director, says she sees many more minority artists entering the guild.

There are also calls for more minority “gatekeepers” in the executive ranks, so that some people at the top will be sensitive to the sight of a set that has all-white department heads.

Ultimately, minority artists are asking to be considered for different kinds of projects. They don’t want to be defined by race, but by their craft and their artistry.

“Regardless of if it’s race-specific or just a personal issue, putting yourself into your work is key to connecting with a bunch of people,” says Frank Abney, a young African-American animator whose credits include “Kung Fu Panda 3.” “Because as different as we are, we’re a lot alike. No matter what race we are.”

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