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A Telling Look Back at the Century-Old Quest for Diversity in Entertainment

When Variety began, the entertainment industry was mostly live theater, circuses and vaudeville — and minstrel shows. Later, blacks were at the forefront in demanding equality in the entertainment industry and were followed by groups representing Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and women.

For better or worse, showbiz has always been a microcosm of the world. While black stars like Louis Armstrong were celebrated for their art, they were still denied access to hotels, drinking fountains and restaurants.

Many minorities were (and are) victimized by institutionalized prejudice. If anyone doubts that, it only requires a quick look at Variety’s 111 years of publication to find the proof.

The history of show business is a history of bias, which can be broken down into three general eras: Humiliation (1905-42) when grossly demeaning terms like “coon” and vile treatment were “normal”; protest (1942-49), when voices were raised in simple requests that demeaning stereotypes and racist images be removed from entertainment; and the struggle for equality (1949-2016), when groups began confronting the absence of people of color in key above- and below-the-line fields. For those who still don’t quite understand the fury behind the current demands for change, it should be noted that this third phase is now approaching its 70th year.

Dec. 31, 1915
“Still Fighting ‘Birth’”
D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was a money-making bonanza, but inspired protests in many cities. Variety reported on a hearing in Detroit over the “Barnett Ordinance,” which proposed a ban on movies and plays that were “immoral or race-prejudice.” At a public hearing, more than 100 theater owners weighed in, and “leading Negroes took a prominent part opposing the film.” The latter group was ignored and the ordinance was withdrawn.

June 17, 1942
“Want Negroes Treated Normally in Films”
Walter White (above left, with Hattie McDaniel and Arthur Spingarn) of the NAACP scheduled a series of meetings with film studios seeking “an end to Hollywood’s traditional portrayal of Negroes as superstitiously fearful of spooks.” The organization ”hopes to persuade studios to represent Negroes according to their normal place in the world.”

April 10, 1962
“Crasher, Pickets Enliven Acad Show”
The Oscar ceremonies at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium were picketed by Hollywood Race Relations Group, led by Caleb Peterson. One protester carried a sign reading “All Negroes Want a Break.” The Santa Monica Police Dept. arrested 10 people for trespassing.

July 22, 1963
“Demand Negro in Tech Crews”
“The foundation has been laid for what could be the turning point in the negro’s stepped-up campaign for greater opportunity in Hollywood.” NAACP and IATSE reps agreed on a request to Hollywood producers that “one Negro be added to each crew in the picture industry.” In a closed door meeting, attorney Thomas Neusom said, “All we want is for the existing employment to be spread out a little more. We would like to see some employment created where none exists now.” The movement began by targeting NBC series “Hazel.”

Dec. 17, 1971
Justicia Intensifies Drive Against Film, TV on Grounds They Demean Chicanos
The organization Justicia protested the depiction of Mexicans in film and TV shows as lazy, sleazy, buffoons or banditos. The organization’s toppers, Ray Andrade and Paul Macias, said they’ve seen “this caricature of our people for 47 years and we’re sick and fed up.” It cited such recent films as “Hunting Party” and Woody Allen’s “Bananas” (left) as examples.

FREDERICK M. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

March 22, 1996
Jackson Making Waves; Leader Calls for Protest of Low Minority Hiring
In advance of the March 25 Oscarcast, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for pickets across the country, “to protest the dearth of minorities in Hollywood as well as the failure of some movies and TV shows to reflect diversity.” The protest was spurred by the fact that only one Oscar nominee that year was black.

May 20, 1994
Work Still Scarce for Most Women, Minority Helmers
The industry hadn’t progressed much since the days when Ida Lupino was the sole woman director. A study by the DGA shows women as 10% of the work force. This follows the first report, issued in 1991. “The goal of a level playing field for women and minorities was nowhere in sight from 1983 through 1991,” said Warren Adler, DGA western exec secretary and affirmative action officer. In 1993, 4% of all days worked by DGA members were handled by minorities.

Oct. 27, 1976
GSA Report Alleges Serious Underutilitization of Femmes, Minorities in Film Industry
General Services Administration alleges serious underutilization of minorities and women in the film industry. GSA is an independent agency of the U.S. government and Variety said the report is “in large part, a recitation of frustrations.” The report said “minorities are generally confined to laboring and service type jobs, while women are found primarily in clerical jobs.”

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