*Weekly box office totals, endless sequels and superhero movies may still generate fodder for entertainment news outlets, but the real newsmaker in Hollywood nowadays is a much needed little something called diversity.
From the confines of television and movies to the universal language of music, the point of views of people of color, women and the LGBTQ community are harmonizing lovely for those looking for someone who resembles them in fictionalized accounts told from the same lens.
A lens Robert Townsend cracked open more than 30 years ago with his classic film debut “Hollywood Shuffle.” Released on March 27, 1987, “Hollywood Shuffle” took a satirical look at Tinseltown’s portrayal of black people while centering on Bobby Taylor (Townsend), an aspiring actor who is limited to taking stereotypical roles in his quest to find respect and success in the entertainment capital of the world. In addition to Townsend, “Hollywood Shuffle” featured Keenen Ivory Wayans (who co-wrote the film), John Witherspoon, Anne-Marie Johnson, David McKnight, Helen Martin, Paul Mooney, Roy Fegan and Damon Wayans.
“Hollywood Shuffle’s” look at the degradation of blacks was an eye-opener back in the day. Although things have noticeably improved with better roles and opportunities in front of and behind the camera, Johnson notes there is still work to be done for other minorities.
“Incredible improvements that cannot be denied or belittled. It’s a completely different time for African- American actors. But the same cannot be said for other actors of color,” Johnson pointed out to EURweb. “It’s still shameful. We all have to remain ever more determined to make sure all areas of this business provide fair opportunities. But I doubt we’ll ever see that. We all have to remain vigilant. But things have improved.”
Taking account of Hollywood’s current and longstanding landscape, Johnson is real enough to know that real change in Hollywood’s diversity must start at the top, a level populated with few people who look like her.
“It’s still a wasteland in decision-making positions. And the myth that African American films can’t be sold overseas is a real problem. It’s truly a myth that continues to be promulgated,” she continued, when asked about fair representation of people of color. “We need more women and people of color in roles of creative authority. Especially as directors and show runners. That stats are embarrassingly pathetic.”
With an established career on the big and small screen, Johnson has seen more than her share of the lack of diversity. The point hits especially hard for the “In the Heat of the Night” star as a woman still navigating the complicated waters of show business.
“It’s the price you pay working in a predominately white male business,” she shared. “I battle every day. It’s not as painful because I’ve been at it since 1983, but it’s always a battle. Especially as a woman no longer 25-years-old. Horrible ageism and sexism in this business. Just horrible. Shameful.”
Fair representation in Hollywood is nothing new. For every image that moves forward in reflecting the make up of the world’s population, there are numerous ones that show the opposite. Images that have become accepted and less reflective of how things and people really are. Despite the bleak outlook of the past, McKnight knows progress has been made and better times are ahead.
“I have seen tremendous growth, tremendous change. Things are much, much better now than they were 30, 35, 40, 45, 50 years ago. Much more opportunity, better images, of course,” McKnight stated while crediting the NAACP Image Awards for its part in helping in the fight to “get more positive images for African Americans.” “So things have been changing and they’re getting much, much better now and I’m very happy about that. And I see even much better opportunity coming in the future because we’re in a growth pattern. We are in a growth pattern.”
Townsend agrees, citing shows offering different slices of black life from lead characters not commonly seen on TV.
“To be really honest, I think times have gotten better,” the filmmaker added “…I gotta applaud Hollywood on a level because there’s more shows on the air where you have people of color in prominent leading roles and they’re doing non stereotypical things. So when I think about Morris Chestnut on ‘Rosewood,’ we would not have seen a character like that or, you know, Kerry Washington in ‘Scandal.’ So there’s a beautiful kind of balance. And then ‘Atlanta’ with Donald Glover. I think what he’s doing is amazing. So I mean there has been a new wave of filmmakers that have come. And so it’s kind of balancing it out. We’re not totally there. We still need more images, but it’s getting better, though. I feel like it’s getting better.”
Echoing Townsend’s view, McKnight knows solid diversity is on the horizon, even if he may not be around to see it. The actor’s optimistic tone comes as people of color are shown in various lights, years after magnified negative stereotypes with black people seen as uneducated criminals, servants and sidekicks sadly became normal to cement those images in the minds of the public. While not a box office success, “Hollywood Shuffle” and issues addressed in the film remain as relevant as ever in today’s racially charged political atmosphere. In short, Bobby’s struggle is real, with only glimpses today to show of what can be.
“I just want it to be faster, but certainly it’s gonna happen. I truly believe that Dr. martin Luther king’s dream will come true,” McKnight expressed. “He said, you know, ‘free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last. Black men, brown men, Jews and gentiles will come together and say free at last.’ That’s gonna happen. It might be another 25, 50, 75 years from now, but it’s going to happen because that’s the pattern, that’s the growth pattern that humanity is involved in. we have to grow as a people, as humanity and so forth and its gonna happen.”
Despite the perception of Hollywood being blind to properly presenting blacks and other minorities, McKnight believes a financial motivator exists for why a fair representation is not as prevalent.
“I don’t think they’re in the dark. I think that what’s happening is that they’re operating on the economic machinery that takes place in a free enterprise system. Things must be done to make money, so they most of the time they’re focusing on money. So whatever is generating and orchestrating the money, that’s where the focus is,” he said. “You gotta keep in mind that sense of power is also a part of that, while in the process of making movies and all of that, that individuals want to sustain and maintain power. So their very cautious, people are very cautious about doing things that’s going to, perhaps, diminish their power. So certainly women need more jobs and more representation in various ways. More blacks and African Americans need representation, but how, if those things happen, whose power, whose money is going to be diminished. That’s what the concern is.
“You have a lot of men in power who want to maintain and sustain their power, their masculine power,” continued McKnight. “So if they, women, get in charge, what are women are gonna do? Maybe women are gonna have more women. So what does that mean to me as a man or to my male sons? All of these things are taking place mentally, concerns about money and power, But these opportunities are going to get better for blacks, for women, and everybody else, Asians, Latinos. It’s gonna get better.
With shows such as “Empire,” “Black Lightning,” “Insecure” and “Scandal” residing on the small screen, “Wonder Woman,” “Girls Trip,” and “Atomic Blonde” making 2017 at the movies the summer of the woman and the success of the animated film “Coco” and Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” McKnight is on to something.
Need further proof? Look no further than Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which emerged as a certified breakout last year with its unique commentary on race under the guise of a horror film. Peele’s debut not only woke folks up but scored critical acclaim in the form of being in several top 10 films of the year lists and recognition with Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, NAACP Image Awards and Critics Choice Awards nominations.
Most recently, diversity came strong during President’s Day weekend with Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther. The highly-anticipated action film, which boasts an all-star predominately black cast, made its presence known before its release in theaters with great reviews and heavy buzz that fueled a record-setting $242 million take for its opening weekend,an estimated $108 million in its second weekend. Couple that with having the highest three-day debut ever for a film released in February, destroying the record set by “Deadpool” in 2016 ($152 million) for the largest President’s Day weekend and a current global haul of $704 million and no further proof is required.”
Take a deeper look at “Get Out” and comparisons between Townsend and Peele can be made in both men making a significant impact with their first features. Speaking on “Get Out,” Townsend admitted that while “it’s hard to say when you think in terms of the influence of ‘Hollywood Shuffle,’” the 2017 satirical thriller, which Peele wrote, directed and co-produced, is a prime example of great film-making.
“I just know when I look at a film like ‘Get Out,’ I think that as a filmmaker and as a writer and as a director you want to be able to paint on a canvas sometimes with a suddle touch, and a unique touch and smart writer. And I think that when I look at a movie like Get Out, I think its so well written, so well-directed, so well-acted. And it’s got its comedy so it wink winks at you, but then it takes you in another direction,” Townsend noted. “I think with ‘Hollywood Shuffle,’ it was about breaking down stereotypes. So when you look at Black Acting School, it’s a very satirical piece because it plays up what Hollywood thought at the time of people of color. And when I see a movie like ‘Get Out,’ they’ve taken race and they’ve twisted it upside down and it’s kind of like, ‘wow.’ They made a comment, but they made it in a very theatrical, well-directed classy way. So stuff like that gives me, it really gives me a lot of hope.”