A Union Makeup Artist Reflects on Hollywood’s Systemic Racism, Past and Present

Malika James Hollywood Makeup Artist
Courtesy of Malika James

Malika James is a bicoastal makeup artist and a member of both Makeup and Hair stylist guild local 706 and local 798. She’s worked with stars like Gabrielle Union, Danai Gurira, Keke Palmer, and T.I. Her credits include “Grownish,” “America’s Got Talent,” “LA’s Finest,” “The Voice: Australia” and “The Walking Dead.”

“Hell, no.”

That was my reaction when a friend asked me to write about my experience in the film and television industry as a Black makeup artist over the past 15 years. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to properly get out all that I had been feeling.

So I went on about my life, or at least I tried. But everywhere I looked, I saw something else that stopped me in my tracks and brought me to tears. I realized wasn’t alone. I found myself listening to or taking part in conversations about race that were happening all around the country. And the more I thought about my journey with racism in this business, the more I realized I needed to get out my truth, in hopes of joining another much-needed conversation.

Before I could pursue makeup as a profession, I promised my family that I would go to college.  In 2005 I graduated from The University of Alabama. What most people know about the University of Alabama is their football team. What people don’t know is UA has a history of being one of the most racist and segregated universities in the American south. I left with a degree, and also a crash course in systemic racism.

Shortly after college I joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 798, with a dream to join local 706, which serves as the West Coast Make-up Artist & Hair Stylist Guild. These affiliations are crucial to land top jobs. In my career I’ve worked across all content mediums. I’ve been listed as every title on the call sheet: additional makeup artist, third, key, department head and personal (which means you’re requested by star talent).

On one of my first jobs, I was the only person of color on the set. I was having a ball working with over 300 background artists. An actor I had worked with previously spotted me on set. He walked up to me and asked for my help correcting his makeup, because it was far off from his skin tone. I immediately told him that the conversation alone could get me fired. I explained I was there for the background actors only. He understood and walked off. Hours later, I was fired and told “just because you’re black doesn’t mean you get to work with the black star.” I couldn’t tell if my supervisor was trying to convince herself or me. Regardless, I said “okay”, and didn’t attempt to explain. However, before I left, the department head asked me to fix the actor’s makeup. I fixed it, pack my bags and moved on.

A day later, the cinematographer noticed the visual inconsistency in the star’s skin tone from watching the dailies, so I was rehired by production and brought on as a personal to the star. Try to imagine the tension on that trailer when the person who fired me had to see me daily. It was this incident that let me know in order to stay in this business, I would have to dance to a beat that was constantly changing. The micro aggressions, the toxic work environments, and the unspoken “you’re not supposed to be here” attitude.

In 2017, another actor was starring in a movie and requested me. I was told by union leadership that before being allowed on set, I had to provide 3 years worth of call sheets proving I worked with this star. I was also told that my name on every call sheet had to be specific, that my title had to read “personal makeup,” or I would not be eligible for membership. Some of the requirements were emailed to the producer, who would send them to me. And some were told to me during phone calls. Needless to say, it was a lot of back and forth.

After I finally collected the mandatory call sheets, I was told it was to prove history with the star and to avoid the issues that come with “on the job training.” And that made perfect sense to me. Five months after the movie wrapped, I was told to come in for an interview to discuss my possible membership. I say all this because, two years after joining the union, I came across a white artist who was in my exact same position. Only she didn’t have to jump through any of the hoops I did… she was just let in the union. I know this, because she told me. And even then, I still couldn’t believe it. I know so many other talented artists that have been denied for years and this woman just walked right in. Do you know I even called the union to confirm her membership? I had to know I wasn’t crazy. But it was true. She was Local 706. And as I began to navigate Hollywood, it was starting to feel more like the Jim Crow South, only west of Glendale.

On the first day of joining local 706, a black colleague and I were loading into the trailer, when a white department head introduced herself and started what we thought was small talk. She asked about our marital status and how many children we had. Under the guise of giving us advice, she suggested we both apply for food stamps. She also suggested my colleague get her kids checked for learning disabilities, because “minorities get all the money.” As if that wasn’t enough, she asked what side of Ventura Blvd. we lived on, because one side was for the affluent and the other was for minorities. I thought she was making a series of awful jokes but when I realized she wasn’t, I went to my car to cry. Why? I had to release in a safe space. And I knew I was being tested. Had I failed, I would have embarrassed the talent that requested me, and blew my shot at joining the union. But this is the dance. You have to put your creative mind to the side and deal. This was my welcome to Local 706.

Racism in the workplace is a form of mental trauma. It causes you to question yourself when you were just so sure. You get quiet when you should be loud, and you tighten up creatively when you should be free-flowing. This is definitely a lonely place that few people can understand. It’s forced me to accept that no matter how hard you work, or how much you achieve, there is still a structure in place that can deny you opportunities. I could go on and on with racist encounters, but the real issue isn’t the “people,” it’s the system. A system that sadly has a historical pattern of racism. For years many talented people of color have been denied access.

In 1926, producers and unions signed the first basic studio agreement, from which Black people were excluded. Through a very informative conversation with a pioneering black hair stylist, Robert Stevenson, I learned minorities were never invited in.

“Malika, the first black makeup artist was a man named Ray Brooks — the guys did makeup then. Ray was extremely talented, but he couldn’t deal with racism. So, he quit. It’s a given you will experience white privilege but it’s how you handle it. You have to make it work for you. If you can’t take it quit or you will have a nervous breakdown,” he told me. This really resonated with me because I thought of quitting many times. Stevenson went on to tell me =, “Hollywood doesn’t care if your green or blue it only respects talent”. He was correct. Hollywood respects talent. However, the union allows you to be a part of the small group that can legally work.

I also learned about the hair legends that never got their due — two black hairstylists in the 50’s, Elizabeth Sercy and Noleah Brown. Though they were well-known at the studios, and had impressive clients like Elizabeth Taylor, Ruby Dee and Susan St. James, both women were denied access to the union. In fact, they had to pay the union for working on the studio lot. Sercy took legal action against the union because she knew she was qualified, but she was being denied based on the color of her skin. Both women never officially joined local 706. I struggled to imagine what their journey was like. I find myself feeling guilty at times for complaining, but this is how racism works. It forces you to question yourself, while you’re questioning this injustice.

After Sercy and Brown came Bernadine Anderson, a Black makeup artist, who was also denied union membership in the ‘60s. She filed a class action lawsuit and was awarded an apprenticeship at Warner Brother Studio’s, but not granted the union membership until years later. She worked as a personal artist for Jane Fonda for almost a decade. Fonda told me, “I insisted on an African American makeup artist, and I got Bernadine through a lot of persistence. There were racial barriers then and it’s very disturbing to know things haven’t changed much almost 50 years later. We must hold unions accountable when they block diversity within their ranks and demand they do better.”

Ms. Fonda is absolutely right. We need to do better. Lena Horne used to have her hair and makeup done before in the LA’s Crenshaw neighborhood before going to set, because she didn’t feel comfortable with the options at work. I’ve heard tons of stories, a lot of them first hand, about some of today’s stars, who are still doing the same thing. That’s not okay

“I’m very aware that I’m a part of an institution that was not designed for me, or others that look like me. The beautiful thing is my experiences have motivated me to create diverse makeup trailers. Trailers where artists can show off their talent and not worry about egos. I try my best to accommodate the actors so they feel their best on camera. Please understand I’m not advocating for an all-Black trailer; nor do I believe that only Black talent can be done by Black artist. I’m advocating for a diverse trailer. Hollywood is no longer dominated by white stories like it was when the unions were created. Talent is openly speaking out about the lack of diversity within the union. The talent that we are tasked to serve. It makes me wonder, who exactly are we servicing?

A change can happen. I wouldn’t stay in this union if I didn’t believe it was possible. But it starts at the top. Starting with both locals being proactive in recruiting qualified people of color, and accommodating the diverse talent that continues to come pursue their dreams. Producers would benefit if they prioritize diverse department heads and teams. As a union we look better when our roster reflects the beautiful changes that diversity has brought Hollywood. If you are a makeup or hair department head and you hire a diverse team to accommodate your actors needs, thank you. You make the difference. One by one, we can make the changes. It’s imperative that we keep our eyes open to systemic racism because it’s so embedded that we’ve become blind to it.

Randy Sayer, a representative for Local 706, says there are multiple ways to earn union membership and, particularly in terms of employment, inclusion on a roster of approved artists shared by top producers.

“We want people with skills to join our guild, [but] the producers are the sole arbitrator of what they need to get the job done,” Sayer says. The guild has never done an accounting of its racial composition, he says, but “our membership looks identical to the communities in which we film.” He adds, “We can still do better.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Danai Gurira’s name. Variety regrets the error.