MIAMI — Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons had harsh words about the business environment he has encountered in Hollywood now that he’s turned his focus to producing movies, TV shows and digital content.
“The reality is the lack of integration is deafening,” he said Wednesday during a Q&A at the NATPE confab. “The segregation in Hollywood is incredible.”
In a candid 45-minute conversation with Variety co-editor in chief Andrew Wallenstein, the Def Jam founder was critical of Hollywood “progressives” who have no understanding of African-American culture, even if they are well-meaning and liberal in their political views. He said he’s seen ample evidence of bias in the development process that tends to keep black creatives from working in an organically integrated way with white talent.
“I speak English,” he said. “Not only can I make Eddie Murphy cool again, I can make Jim Carrey cool again.”
Simmons also called on African-Americans to be more proactive in demanding more opportunities.
“I kind of blame black people for not forcing their way in doors,” he said. “You have to take the initiative and push your way in the door too….Everybody has to take responsibility for the new incarnation of Hollywood.”
Simmons was critical of the lack of diversity in most Hollywood talent agencies, noting that he recently moved from CAA to WME. “I didn’t realize they’re all the same,” he said, adding that both agencies seem to have “the one black agent.” He later added that despite his criticism, he was happy to be at WME.
Simmons said he had 11 movie projects in various stages of development and he is emphasizing stories that present an integrated world. He described a comedy project that he billed as akin to “Legally Blonde,” with a white man in love with a black woman who gets an introduction to African-American life when he follows her to school at Howard University, the historically black college.
Another project stars J.B. Smoove as a man who goes to Sweden, solves a crime and becomes the monarch.
“There’s a lack of integration from a cultural standpoint,” he said. “There’s a white space” where creative talent of different races and ethnic backgrounds should be working more together. “America wants to see Hollywood more integrated than ‘Jerry Springer.’ “
Simmons lamented the fact that a group of comedians who broke out in part through his Def Comedy Jam series — including Smoove, Mike Epps, Bernie Mac, Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle — saw their careers stall about 15 years ago through lack of opportunities in film and TV.
He cited the problem of executive “gatekeepers” who chose to pick “more accessible” African-American talent rather than those comedians whose material is more rooted in the specific black experience. He cited the duo of Key and Peele, stars of the Comedy Central sketch series, as an example.
Moroever, Simmons noted that TV has shied away from difficult questions of race and class for years.
“No one has even discussed race and politics as good as Norman Lear in 30 years,” he said.
Simmons said he just delivered a pilot to HBO as part of a first-look deal he has there that he produced with director Steve McQueen and writer Matthew Carnahan. The untitled project revolves around a black man with a mysterious past who enters New York high society. He said he was “pretty sure” it will get picked up.
While Simmons is forging ahead with projects through his Def Pictures Film and Television, he’s also energized by the lower-budget work underway at his All Def Digital banner. He’s working with a number of YouTube, Vine and Instagram stars on a range of short- and long-form content, which is attractive because he is able to own that content and the talent is raw and ripe for breakout stardom.
“Maybe I’ll make all my movies and TV for myself,” he said.
With racial issues in the headlines again, following a string of police-related deaths of unarmed black men, Simmons said the entertainment biz should help move the country forward.
“Hollywood should lead the way in healing,” he said, generating a round of applause. “Hollywood should not be afraid of the subject matter Norman Lear dealt with 35 years ago.”
Watch the full interview below (begins at the 26:20 mark).