Benjamin Todd Jealous has focused his three years as president of the NAACP on increasing diversity in America. In a recent interview with Christy Grosz, Jealous sees signs of incremental progress in the entertainment industry, but maintains that institutional problems remain. Hollywood in particular, he says, should embrace diversity as a budget line for every production — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s a good way to grow the biz.
CG: Do you think there has been progress in developing diversity at the decision-making level in Hollywood?
BJ: We need more black agents. The agencies have been the hardest thing to crack historically. A lot of it goes into the economics of becoming an agent. It continues to constrain profit-making opportunities for the industry. You look at Kerry Washington — this is one of the few black women cast as a lead in a TV series (ABC’s “Scandal”) since Diahann Carroll (in “Julia”) 40 years ago. She’s No. 1 in her timeslot (among women 18-34). It’s similar to what we saw with product merchandising with Princess Tiana (from “The Princess and the Frog”). You couldn’t keep those dolls on the shelves. There’s a huge demand, and it’s just not being satisfied, because the imaginations of the most powerful decision-makers are culturally constrained. The agents are in the world of “Mad Men,” and the country is in the 21st century.
CG: Is that a shift in message for the NAACP? In the past, it seems like the diversity push had been about simply doing the right thing, rather than the right thing being good for expanding the business.
BJ: Well, that’s always what we’ve said behind closed doors. In a recession, we’ve just got to point out the obvious.
CG: Will upstart African-American-targeted cable networks like Aspire and Bounce help achieve the kind of diversity the NAACP initiative is calling for?
BJ: Do we need greater integration on the broadcast networks or do we need more people-of-color-focused channels? The reality is that you need both. What upstart channels that focus on these markets prove is that these are (viewers who) are underserved, and respond powerfully to seeing themselves reflected on the big- and smallscreen. The problem is that (Hollywood doesn’t) seem to have figured out how to connect with the whole country. Shonda Rimes is a perfect example of somebody who is really committed to embracing the complexity of the entire country and reflecting it back to the viewership. The only thing that’s blocking more of that is Hollywood’s addiction to being self-referential. Most of the country looks at the Oscars in a year (2011) when there are no women of color nominated and says, “Really?” When you’re frequently nominating women in their 20s, and you look at the demographics of women in their 20s in this country, it just doesn’t look like Hollywood.
CG: Did the recent revelation about the makeup of the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences being mostly male and 90% white surprise you at all?
BJ: It explained a lot. We’ve been doing the (NAACP) Image Awards for more than four decades, and the Oscars still haven’t figured out how to meritocratically reward all the talent in Hollywood. At the end of the day, the Academy is still way too closed, way too white and way too self-referential.
CG: Do you think Hollywood perpetuates stereotypes that lead to something like the Trayvon Martin case?
BJ: There’s enough blame to be spread across the range of media in this country. Truly, the biggest culprit is probably the nightly news. In a country where violence is now down to early-1960s levels, where most drug addicts are white but most people convicted of being drug addicts are black or Latino, the nightly news should be reporting the good news about crime and questioning why bias still exists in law enforcement. But what we get instead is reaffirmation of old stereotypes and unquestioning praise of police who are failing to treat all communities equally, failing to protect all communities in the same way. Nightly news is our main focus for diversity, for images. There’s much more progress to be made in the movies, much more progress to be made in primetime TV, but the place in most need of change is what we see day in and day out on news shows.
It is heartening that the news media became outraged about the case and investigated the case, but the question we should be asking is, “Why aren’t they outraged about all the other cases?” Because there are way too many.