When the New York Times Magazine rolled out Maureen Dowd’s first cover story two weeks ago, “The Women of Hollywood Speak Out,” the headline copy declared “Female executives and filmmakers are ready to run studios and direct blockbuster pictures. What will it take to dismantle the pervasive sexism that keeps them from doing it?” But thousands of words, dozens of portraits of female filmmakers and many striking and upsetting stories later, the piece ended with little more than individual solutions to a systemic problem: Women in Hollywood, Dowd’s sources suggested, have to keep pushing forward no matter the obstacles, avoid crying on set so they don’t play into stereotypes and advocate a project at a time for other women.
This is largely where the conversation about diversity in Hollywood has stalled out. The same miserable statistics come out year after year from places like the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California, Martha Lautzen’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, GLAAD, or the guilds who represent writers and directors. We bemoan those numbers. We celebrate great, breakout depictions of women or people of color on television and hope that shows like “Empire” will make the business case for diversity so obvious that it can’t be ignored. And we don’t talk about what reforms to Hollywood’s hiring and greenlighting processes would actually dismantle the pervasive sexism and racism that stunts the careers of filmmakers, writers and actors who are female, people of color, or both.
That’s not necessarily because advocates are lazy. As I’ve reported before, Hollywood is a uniquely difficult place to change. Many different organizations, from talent agencies, to studios, to network and distributors are involved in bringing a movie or television show to the screen, so it can be hard to know which parts of the process to target for reform. And Hollywood projects are short term, so any victory is followed by a new fight when a movie shoot ends or a television series ends its run. But despite these challenges, if the diversity debate never moves from dismal numbers to concrete demands, it’s unlikely to achieve much in the way of reform.
“Hollywood is not one organization,” the filmmaker Spike Lee said when my colleagues Wesley Lowery and Soraya McDonald talked to him before Thanksgiving. Lee was promoting his new movie, “Chi-Raq,” about gun violence in Chicago and he was fresh off accepting an honorary Academy Award and using the opportunity to blast his industry for its failure to diversify. “The NFL is one organization. The NFL, with the Rooney Rule, you cannot hire anybody before you make sure the candidates are diverse. I don’t know how you enforce that at any of the studios.”
But he did have one possible target for diversity advocates to focus on.
“Even more than having a person of color be a head of a studio or network, we have to get greenlight votes. Greenlight votes. These are the people who decide what gets made and what doesn’t. Quarterly or so they have these meetings, they sit down, they look at the budgets, they read the scripts, who’s attached, and they say, we’re making this, we’re not making it. There’s an African American woman, I always forget her last name, Vanessa [Morrison]….She’s the president of animation at Fox. An African American woman, first name is Vanessa. Okay. She has power. But let’s leave animation out of it. There’s not one person of color who has a greenlight vote [in live action television or film making].”
“If you’re not in the room, they can do anything and you don’t find out about it until it’s out. And we are not in these rooms, these conference rooms, when they decide what we’re going to make, what we’re not going to make,” Lee continued. “It’s not just movies, it’s TV, newspapers, magazines, news. We’re not in the room, then we’re out of it.”
Lee cautioned against using the success of individual actors, or a single year with a number of successful black films as a barometer for true change in Hollywood.
“So, people say well, there’s Denzel [Washington], there’s Sam [Jackson], there’s Oprah Winfrey, going on and on,” Lee warned. “But that’s not rooted in the structure of how stuff gets made. We’re not in the decision-making process, and that’s where — it’s funny, every 10 years, a bunch of black films get nominated, and I get the call, they call me first to get comment about it. I say, ‘I’m not doing any flips, any somersaults.’ Because it’s going to be another nine-year drought. So it’s a 10-year cycle. The way to avert a 10-year cycle is if we’re in the decision-making process of what gets made.”
While he was skeptical about the prospect of enforcing something like the Rooney Rule, which since 2003 has required National Football League teams to interview minority applicants for head coaching jobs and other senior positions with teams, Lee was enthusiastic about how such a practice might change the industry.
“Now, I’m not a lawyer, but is there some legislation that you could have networks have their own version of the Rooney Rule? I don’t know. I would love, if that could happen, it would be great,” Lee said. “The world would be better off for it.”
And whether a Rooney Rule is an achievable goal, the debate about diversity and Hollywood will be better for more specific questions about how the industry can change its practices and not just its products.