Lingering racism in Hollywood receives a full airing in this well-argued study.
Erigha (Sociology, African-American Studies/Univ. of Georgia) draws on box office data, academic research, press interviews, and internal communications by insiders at Sony Pictures to provide a convincing analysis of structural barriers and attitudes that obstruct black filmmakers in today’s culture. Although explicit race-based prejudices were officially outlawed after reforms in the 1960s, racism gained a second life in “colorblind” corporate culture through loose talk about profits and demographics. According to the numbers, studios show disproportional restraint in developing and marketing black stories, setting them up for failure while perpetuating the myth that films with black casts are “unbankable.” Erigha points to several key areas in which racial hierarchies take shape within the Hollywood system and where progress can still be made. Not only does the author stress the importance of hiring more black directors and studio executives; she also outlines the sometimes-harsh consequences of racism in the culture. “Lacking the capabilities to contribute to cinematic expression in an ideal fashion,” she writes, “African Americans achieve only an incomplete cultural citizenship and belonging in the United States.” In her brief yet well-informed history of trailblazers from the silent era onward, Erigha shows how directors like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams—and later Melvin Van Peebles and others—survived outside the mainstream cinema system. The author acknowledges recent strides at the Oscars and with the 2018 Marvel Studios release of Black Panther, which was an overwhelming success both critically and commercially. Erigha concludes with creative solutions for how black cinema can continue to evolve in ways that go beyond mainstream plaudits and comic-book blockbusters, and she calls for solidarity among minority filmmakers and for more government involvement to ensure equal opportunities.
A meaningful tribute to the achievements of pioneer directors and a sharp call for studios to keep trying harder to acknowledge structural racism.