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Racist Representation in Hollywood: What would it take to achieve equal representation for all?

Introduction:

Throughout the majority of U.S. history, there have been many methods implemented in everyday life which were made with the intent to oppress minorities. One of these methods was through the use of film and Hollywood, which has been one of the largest entertainment industries in the U.S. for most of its existence. For example, during the period of time following the Civil War, there were films targeted against African Americans, which either painted them as unintelligent or in support of slavery. Similarly, during World War II while the U.S. was at war with Japan, many films targeted Japanese people and poked fun at negative stereotypes. While all of these events occurred almost a century ago, we still witness the damage in today’s Hollywood; diversity is low within the industry and the colored people who are successful are often misrepresented. The question is, with an industry that supplies copious amounts of entertainment to people around the world, how could one go about resolving such a problem?

My Interest:

Since I was in early elementary school, I have always loved filmmaking. The concept of telling deep and complex stories in worlds that can only be dreamed of has always been incredibly interesting to me. As I became older, and also because I would like to work professionally in the film industry one day, I have decided to study the history of the American film industry and the issues that plague it. Last year, in a project called the I-Search, I decided to study the decline of originality in Hollywood screenplays, which I found incredibly interesting. This past year, having learned much about the history of the U.S. and the discrimination against African Americans and Asian Americans, I thought it would be very interesting to look into the discrimination and misrepresentation of colored people in Hollywood. 

What You Need to Know:

In the early 1900’s, a new epoch began for one of the U.S.’s greatest entertainment industries: The Golden Age of Hollywood. Premiering on February 8, 1915 in Los Angeles, California, The Birth of a Nation directed by D.W. Griffith led Hollywood into this new era through a revolutionary new approach to the cinematic experience (Barrett). Although many claimed the film was “the greatest film ever made”, many others also criticized it for it’s incredibly racist portrayal of the Civil War and the following period of Reconstruction (Barrett). Originally titled The Clansman, this film portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as the protagonists and African Americans as irrational drunks who support and defend plantation/slave owners (Barret). In these films, “the white Americans are always the heroes and African Americans are portrayed as villains, cheerleaders, or bystanders to white history-making” (Feagin). Somewhat unsurprisingly, the film was met with protest. There were many instances of public disapproval from rotten eggs being hurled at the film’s orchestra to the NAACP petitioning to have the film banned (Barret). Although it became immediately evident after the backlash from The Birth of a Nation that film studios cannot say whatever they want through cinema, racist films targeting African Americans were still produced. Films such as The Littlest Rebel (1935) – portraying African Americans unhappy with freedom from slavery, and Gone With The Wind (1939) – defending slavery from the Confederate’s point of view during the Civil War, were both very successful among American audiences. Even the lighthearted Disney movie Dumbo (1941) includes racist elements in a scene that includes crows meant to represent the Jim Crow characters. The main crow is even named “Jim” making the intent blatantly obvious.

As Hollywood continued to fuel racism toward African Americans through their films, they also began to consider another target: Asian Americans. In context, as soon as Asian people began to mass immigrate to the United States of America, there was a lot of distress among the majority of the population. For example, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were taking many of the lower paying jobs which left many people unemployed, the fear of which was known as the “Yellow Peril” (Schneider). Exclusion acts were put into place in an attempt to remove the Asian Americans from the U.S., but while many Chinese left, the Japanese immigrants stayed in America (Schneider). As World War II appeared over the horizon, tensions between the United States and Japan began to rise, and after the U.S. entered World War II, Hollywood turned toward the Japanese to discriminate against. For propagandistic purposes, films began to vilify Japanese soldiers, showing them torture prisoners of war, murder civilians, and rape women of occupied countries (Xiaofei). Racist statements about Japanese culture and physical appearance were overwhelmingly present in these films of propaganda along with derogatory terms and countless negative stereotypes. Because there was a lack of travel between the U.S. and Japan preceding the war and also because many Japanese Americans were sent away to internment camps during the war, these film interpretations were the only insights the general public had into Japanese life and culture (Xiaofei). Although these films were targeted directly toward Japan and not Japanese Americans, the racism used toward the Japanese was also associated with Japanese Americans, leading to more overall racism.

(“Yellowface is a bad look, Hollywood.”)

The situation of present-day Hollywood is a peculiar one, for one could argue that Hollywood is becoming more diverse, while another could argue that Hollywood is seemingly becoming more diverse. Over the past few decades, there has been a steady rise in the representation of colored people in the cinema. From the years 2011 to 2018, the percentage of colored lead actors who won an Oscar jumped from 0 percent to 45 percent and the percentage of colored directors who won an Oscar jumped from 0 percent to 36.4 percent (Hunt, Darnell, et al.).

Oscar Winners by Director Race

(Hunt, Darnell, et al.)

Also, over the past two decades, there has been a steady growth of films featuring colored people in an important role. Along with the growth of the proper representation of colored people in film, the contents of these films have taken a more serious note, critiquing the racism and inequality that plagues our society. 

With all of these advances mentioned and addressed, it is still incredibly necessary to consider that the film industry is still overwhelmingly controlled by white people and there is still a long and rigorous path to walk. For example, while the increase from 0 percent to 36.4 percent in colored Oscar-winning directors is very uplifting, one must take into account that the amount of colored directors as a whole has only increased 2.9 percent in the same period of time (Hunt, Darnell, et al.).

Director Race

(Hunt, Darnell, et al.)

The percentage of colored writers has also only increased a noticeable amount, from 7.6 percent of the industry to 13.9 percent, which means only about 1.4 out of 10 writers are people of color (Hunt, Darnell, et al.). As for lead actors, the percentage of colored actors has risen from 10.5 percent in 2011 to 27.6 percent in 2019, which is only 3 out of every 10 actors (Hunt, Darnell, et al.). 

While all the data illustrating the diversity of Hollywood is vastly important in portraying an accurate picture of Hollywood’s problem, so is considering the actual subject matter of the films colored people appear in. 

In African American cinema, there has been an abundance of black-oriented films covering the topics of racism which have not fared well at the box office. While the failure of many of these films could be traced back to Hollywood marketing or just the films themselves, it is widely believed that younger generations, to whom these films are targeted toward, “see racism as an anachronism” (Sheridan). It is believed that the youth think racism is a problem of the past and that some of these films do not help the current situation (Sheridan). In other words, some think that you should not dwell on the past and look toward the future. For Asian Americans, on the other hand, the issue seems to be that their representation in Hollywood films is incredibly misleading and negative (Pollard). While a film might have an Asian actor, the contents of the film could poke fun at Asian stereotypes, which is almost as bad as no Asian representation at all. 

In conclusion, while the U.S. film industry has come a far way from the days of incredibly racist films targeted toward colored people, there is still a far way to go, for Hollywood has not yet realized that diversity is a priority.

For Now:

Although many have hoped for a more diverse Hollywood with equal representation of all races, it has become evident that the industry is mainly just controlling the damage instead of making effective change. As more people begin to complain about the lack of diversity in the industry, Hollywood makes plans to better themselves and make a more diverse community. Hollywood goes through with these plans, somewhat successfully, and just returns to their normal way of doing things because it has proven to work and make money. This brings me to my main solution:

Hollywood is often criticized for making many films suggesting the insignificance of people of color, but Hollywood is a business and repeats what has worked in the past to promise profit. As the U.S. was incredibly racist in the past, portraying white people as the “superior race”, many films were made predominantly by white people, for white people, and with eurocentric ideas. Because this “white” content was the only content around for a while, and also because people had naturally racist mindsets due to the society they lived in, this content was proven successful and viable for production. If more support for films by colored people occurred, film executives could begin to notice the importance that lies in diversity. This process has already steadily begun in the film industry, with a large amount of films about African American life and history has arisen, but support this strong for Asian American cinema has yet to develop. All this being said, I am not saying that Hollywood is innocent in any way for the discrimination and racism they have inflicted upon people of color. Hollywood needs to realize that they must diversify and properly represent the cast and crew of their films in order to appeal to a larger and broader audience. In turn, Hollywood could produce a larger profit and most likely gain a much better reputation for diversity.

Unequal representation and the lack of diversity in Hollywood is an incredibly challenging problem to solve because Hollywood is one of the biggest entertainment industries in America, even the entire world. Many people watch movies solely for entertainment purposes rather than to study them, so it is a lot to ask half the human race to stop viewing certain content. Many people just do not care and want to be entertained. So, therefore, I feel that the easiest solution to this problem would probably be to wait. You see, films almost always reflect the current society they are produced in, and our society is presently still racist.

Films reflect society, and sometimes society reflects films.

In the past, films were much more racist, and so was society. Over time, the racism our society was accustomed to slowly reduced to where we are right now, leading to less racism in the film industry. Based on this pattern, it is safe to assume that eventually, racist stereotypes programmed in our heads will diminish. We might not witness it, but within a few generations, hopefully, we can represent everyone equally on the big screen.

Full Essays:

Works Cited:

Comments:

After reading through my research project, do you think Hollywood still deserves the reputation it has? Why or why not?

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COMMENTS: 11
  1. April 23, 2020 by Charlotte

    Hi Ethan! I absolutely loved your presentation and believe that the content of it is really important for people to understand. Whether we know it or not, film media is curated exactly for us and its lack of diverse representation reflects a lot of the work our society needs to do. Its interesting that a lot of the early racist films you mentioned have actually been talked about in my US History class, just goes to show how connected our society is to what is being produced. To the question you asked, I don’t believe that Hollywood really deserves a lot of credit that is given to it, but I don’t see a lot of that credit being taken away. If anything, I believe it is Hollywood’s responsibility to shift narratives of society and begin to change representation – film has a lot of power, and Hollywood should use it for positive change. Thanks for such a great presentation!!
    – Charlotte

  2. April 24, 2020 by Nicholas Chang

    Ethan, I found your presentation very interesting as I myself love to watch movies. I definitely agree when it comes to Hollywood needing to be more diverse. While nowadays Hollywood is starting to produce award-winning blockbusters led by people of color like Black Panther or Parasite, I believe there is still a lot more room for improvement. I do have one question though after reading. As you said earlier, films reflect society and our society today has definitely become more progressive and pushing for equality and diversity. My question is: do you really think that Hollywood has racial diversity as a priority in its films that it produces, or is Hollywood only becoming more racially diverse because they know that a diverse movie will yield more money and better results than a movie with an all white cast and production crew?

  3. April 24, 2020 by Claire

    As someone who watches a lot of movies, this presentation made me realize that I should be a lot more conscious about what movies I support and what messages they send. I agree that we need to support films that have positive portrayals and proper representation of people of color because Hollywood is a business after all. Consciously choosing which movies to watch and which to protest is important because it will affect their business and how much many they make. Do you think that the solution is to combat racism in general or racism in the film industry? How should we go about doing that?
    To your question, I think that Hollywood’s reputation has always been bolstered by the good blockbuster movies it produces, and many people forget about the poor representation of people of color and the treatment of women in the industry. I think that has started to change over the past couple of years, but I think that overall, Hollywood’s reputation is idealized, and it is praised when it sometimes shouldn’t be.

    • April 27, 2020 by Ethan

      Thank you and I’m glad you took something away from this presentation! To answer your question about if it’s best to address racism in general or racism in just the film industry, I think a mix of both would be ideal. Because films and society often reflect one another, fighting racism in just one of the two would lead to only a momentary change, for there must be a balance between the two. Take this for example: in the year 2015 when the Oscar nominations were revealed, there was an immense amount of backlash because of the overwhelming amount of white nominees. Activist April Reign even created #OscarsSoWhite in light of the lack of diversity. In response to the criticism, the Academy was forced into an apology and soon after revealed a plan to double the number of women and people of color among the more than 6,000 members by 2020. By the year 2018, there was already visible progress made. The following year in 2019, however, the progress was forgotten, for only 1 out of 20 nominees were people of color. In short, because major strides to eliminate racism were only made in the area of the film industry over the past 4 years, Hollywood went back to their old ways, for there were no major strides against racism in general. Getting back to your main question, we must attempt to decrease both general racism and racism in the film industry simultaneously for maximum efficiency and to see permanent change.

  4. April 24, 2020 by Noah

    This presentation allowed me to understand the lack of diversity in Hollywood. This lack of racial diversity in Hollywood is gradually improving and I like how you mentioned even if a person of color is in the film, it may not properly represent them as it could highlight the stereotypes and prejudice towards them. Also, I agree with how you said the youth view racism as a problem of the past. This is not true and needs to be highlighted more in the media. To answer your question, Hollywood has a large reputation and I believe they don’t deserve it yet they still have lots of recognition. With the ability to influence many people, they should highlight the lack of diversity present. Overall, I enjoyed this fascinating presentation and agree with your view of Hollywood regarding diversity.

    • April 27, 2020 by Ethan

      Thank you and I’m glad you learned something!

  5. April 24, 2020 by Peter

    I really enjoyed the presentation. You do a good job of telling us about the previous forms of the problem, as well as why it existed and still exists today. Your infographics and statistics are really informative, and I love how you show the disconnect between the Oscar-winners and the number of minority directors. It goes to show how Hollywood just puts on an act of diversity to pacify the public. I like your observation about how people think racism is an artifact of the past. Your micro and macro solutions are well-thought-out, and you displayed some very good research. Well done

    • April 26, 2020 by Ethan

      Thank you!

  6. April 25, 2020 by Theo Kokonas

    Hey Ethan,
    Thank you so much for your presentation. Unequal representation in Hollywood has been a hot-button topic for the past decade, and despite major pushes for equality, still we see these disparities. The data you had on directors was especially enlightening–because we usually don’t see them onscreen, it becomes easy to forget that there’s a lot of racism there, too. I was also interested by how actual representation within the films themselves was changing–you talked about how even when roles for characters of color increased, they could easily be playing comic relief or used as a stereotype, rather than being “allowed” more serious roles. Another part of that that I would’ve liked to hear your take on was whether or not films that almost capitalize on racism are part of the problem or part of the solution, in something like “Crash” (written and directed by a white man), which won an Oscar and was critically well received despite being panned by large parts of the black community for using an exaggerated portrayal of racism–is “Crash” still noteworthy for daring to take on the topic of racism, or do the problems it holds negate any goodwill it might have generated?

  7. April 25, 2020 by Riley Reichel

    Hey Ethan, really good work on this website! After reading through, I think that Hollywood does not deserve the attention it gets. I think that if more executives looked for smaller directors and relied less on “name” and “fame” that the film industry would be better overall. I think the internet is also a really interesting place where film makers can express themselves. Your website was really informative, thanks so much for sharing!

    • April 26, 2020 by Ethan

      Thank you!

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