MEMO TO: The Rev. Jesse Jackson
FROM: Peter Bart
APPARENTLY YOU ARE WAFFLING on your threats to picket the Academy Awards because you don’t wish to “embarrass” Quincy Jones, the producer of the show, and Whoopi Goldberg, the host. By backing off, however, you will also avoid embarrassing yourself.
From the get-go, the problem with your Hollywood crusade was that your timing was as bad as your information. To rely on People magazine as your basic source is, at best, dicey.
A couple of weeks ago that publication, having run out of Princess Di banners to plaster across page one, unfurled a supposed expose of the “Hollywood Blackout,” charging: “The film industry says all the right things but its continued exclusion of African-Americans is a national disgrace.”
Now, some of us had anticipated Johnnie Cochran’s “race card,” but People magazine! I can well understand, Reverend, why you took the bait.
In responding to the “Hollywood Blackout” charge, I have no intention of donning the robes of Hollywood’s defender. Nor would I deny that Hollywood’s craft unions have been notoriously exclusionary.
On the other hand, Reverend, here are a few facts of which I think you should be aware as you continue to meet with Hollywood leaders in an effort to pump some life into the so-called “Rainbow Covenant”:
At this moment in time it is far easier for a black (or anyone else) to gain admission to a craft union than at any time in decades.
If 1995 proved not to be a good year for black Oscar nominees, it wasn’t a good year for black movies, or for any movies, for that matter. But certainly the positioning of Quincy Jones and Whoopi, not to mention Sidney Poitier as a presenter, should give some clue that the Academy is hardly a bastion of racist sentiment.
Although Hollywood’s executive corps is clearly too vanilla, why launch your assault at this particular time, when significant inroads are being made? Witness the fact that Richard Parsons is now president of Time Warner, Dennis Hightower is chief of TV and telecommunications at Disney and Johnathan Rodgers now heads Discovery Communications.
If you ever watch TV, Reverend, you would notice not only that African-Americans are depicted in a wide range of roles but also that two new shows, ABC’s “Buddies” and Fox Broadcasting’s “The Show,” specifically deal with racism and racial humor. In “The Show,” a white guy who admits to having no black friends becomes head writer on a black variety show.
DOES ANY OF THIS MEAN that the Hollywood power structure reflects a perfect rainbow of races and nationalities? Hardly. But gains are being made, and it is important to weigh realities and ponder new tactics to accelerate these gains, not nullify them.
Reality one: Protests and picketing are passe, Reverend. There is growing resentment in this country against anything that smells of affirmative action — witness the initiative on this fall’s California ballot that gleaned the required signatures in record time.
Reality two: Johnnie Cochran and his client, O.J. Simpson, have sharply reduced the number of good souls around who will go out on a limb to extend a helping hand. To argue to the contrary is sophistry.
None of this is meant to suggest that blacks or other minorities should expect to be stonewalled by showbiz. Rather, the times call for strategy, not picketing.
Take the craft unions, for example. There are more non-union independent pictures shooting around the country than ever before, and the IATSE is aggressively stepping in and organizing them. This means that artisans of every color stand a better chance of becoming union workers at a time when tiered rosters that formerly excluded women and blacks are being shunted aside.
WHY AREN’T MORE BLACKS going out for these jobs? Why aren’t there more black applicants at the studios or the networks?
As Larry Elder, the brilliant and iconoclastic young radio talkshow host in Los Angeles argues, much of it stems from an expectation of rejection. A black man, Elder chastises fellow blacks that “we have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. Show business is tough. Most actors won’t make it. Same for writers and directors. If you can’t handle rejection, sell insurance.”
There’s no point whining about rejection, Elder insists, because show business has always been about rejection.
So where does that leave you, Reverend? I think it leaves you with a new role: Jesse the cage-rattler must become Jesse the motivator. There are many bright and creative black kids around, and Hollywood needs them. Tell them to make their moves, Reverend. I don’t care whether they want to be grips or gaffers or writers or arrangers, tell them to hone their skills, build their resumes and then storm the barricades. No matter what anyone tells you, Hollywood hires on merit, and the opportunities are there.
And by the way, Reverend, next time you see a copy of People magazine, unless there’s another probing tell-all about Princess Di, just give it a toss.