Variety is celebrating its 115th birthday and, amid all the upheaval of 2020, it’s good to remember that the entertainment industry has survived constant change and adaptation. That’s reassuring. However, many past articles are upsetting because they’re a reminder that the fight for equality and fairness are also constant.
The Variety headline on Feb. 14, 1979, was clear: “NAACP Claims Industry Backsliding.”
Bill Lane, chairman of the labor and industry committee of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP, said his organization was considering a lawsuit because Hollywood had not honored its promise to the Dept. of Justice that 20% of all jobs would be filled by minorities.
Nearly a decade earlier, on Feb. 25, 1970, the banner story said that Hollywood toppers had come up with a “comprehensive, precedential film-TV industry blueprint to respond to the problem of equal employment for minorities.” The detailed plan was in the hands of the Justice Dept., “which has been negotiating with the industry on this critical question.”
Among the decisions: Studios and networks agreed to hire a quota of minority workers; in addition, there were safeguards to ensure that the plans were carried out. Hollywood execs agreed to meet regularly with such groups as the NAACP, the Urban League, the East L.A. Service Center and others for a year and said that Hollywood would publicize job openings in minority-targeted newspapers.
There would be training programs for below-the-line work, with 40% of trainees to be Black, and “the same percentage would be Spanish-surnamed.”
Nine years later, in 1979, Lane told Variety reporter Dave Kaufman that the industry hadn’t met its promises. He added that the Supreme Court’s Bakke ruling was a setback. That 1978 decision said affirmative-action programs were constitutional, but quotas were “reverse discrimination.” The Bakke ruling, said Lane, allowed employers to claim that if minorities were hired on a quota system, Caucasians would be put out of work. Lane added, “Their interpretation of the decision is creating havoc.”
He continued, “We’re back to 1962, to the position we had then when we declared war against the industry.” He admitted some gains had been made but that promises from studios and networks had not been met. Despite the industry vows, he said: “They have never honored it. Since Bakke, the consent decree has not been observed. We have lost ground.”
Sadly, this was not earthshaking news. Even in 1979, the entertainment industry had a long history of unfulfilled promises. Variety covered NAACP protests as far back as 1916, and in the decades since then, there were multiple stories about groups working for equality in hiring and better representation, including Latin/Hispanic groups, Asians, LGBT people, people with disabilities and others.
It’s a long history of slow progress — and, as the NAACP concluded, backsliding.