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The cable television era has given rise to channels geared toward every possible audience. But did it also make broadcast shows less diverse? And the movie business is an increasingly global industry, but some say that shift limits roles for minorities. From ‘The Cosby Show’ to ‘Community’ and ‘Shaft’ to ‘Precious’, we explore the roles available for minority actors and whether screens big and small reflect reality.
- Eric Deggans TV and Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times
- David White Executive Director, Screen Actors Guild
- Jennice Fuentes Film Critic, Pop-Culture Commentator, Global Grind, Latino Scoop
Sidney Poitier’s 1964 Oscar Acceptance Speech:
Halle Berry’s 2002 Oscar Acceptance Speech:
Halle Berry’s 2002 Oscar Acceptance Speech<br/>Get More: Halle Berry’s 2002 Oscar Acceptance Speech
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MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Whether we want to escape from reality or get a glimpse into a world we're not a part of, most Americans watch TV and movies on a regular basis. But not all Americans see people who look like them or have lives like theirs when they tune in. And when they do see people who look like them, they're often expected to celebrate it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIComedian Aziz Ansari, who plays Tom Haverford on "Parks and Rec," had this to say.
MR. AZIZ ANSARII was doing an interview once and this guy goes, so you must be pretty psyched by all this "Slumdog Millionaire" stuff. And I was like, um, yeah, I am. I have no idea why, though. I had nothing to do with that movie. It's just some people that kinda looked like me are in this movie that everyone loves and winning Oscars and stuff. And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Are white people just psyched all the time?
MR. AZIZ ANSARIIt's like, "Back to the Future," that's us. "Godfather," that's us, "Godfather Part II," that's us, "Departed," that's us, " Sunset Boulevard," that's us, "Citizen Game," that's us, "Jaws," that's us. Every movie but "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Boys in the Hood" is us.
NNAMDISo in a time when our world has become more and more diverse, why haven't the roles for actors and actresses kept up? Women are underrepresented especially once they hit 40 so are minorities of all backgrounds. And instead of getting better, over the last five years or so things seem to have gotten worse. So what should we make of our lack of diversity in an industry where talent counts but so do appearances?
NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss this is David White. He is the executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, a labor union representing working actors. David White, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. DAVID WHITEThank you very much. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIAnd also gracing our studio again is Jennice Fuentes, film critic and pop-culture commentator. Her work appears in the Global Grind and Latino Scoop. She's also an actress who has appeared on HBO's K Street and numerous other films and stage productions, in addition to frequent appearances here on this broadcast. Jennice Fuentes, good to see you.
MS. JENNICE FUENTESIt's great to be back.
NNAMDIJennice, as I just mentioned, in addition to being a film critic, you're an actress, you're a Latina. So I'm curious to know how big a factor you think that is when it comes to the roles you get offered, the fact that you're a Latina?
FUENTESOr the roles that I don't get offered?
FUENTESWell, you know, acting in general, and Mr. White can obviously expand on this as well, is a very, very treacherous and difficult career. And it helps a lot more if you start early. It helps a lot if you went to Yale or Julliard and you had those showcases and the agents came to see you when you were young. 'Cause then your shelf life is expanded by billions of years. I think you age in dog years in this profession when you're a woman. And by the time you get 40, yes, a lot is said about what you can or cannot do.
FUENTESSo especially an actress in D.C., which is what I am, and the parts that come in are very far and few between. I think that it's hard for women in general and I think, yes, it is harder for Latinos because there's a certain stereotype that gets in the mindset of the casting people. And for example, in my case, since you asked -- you were kind enough to ask...
NNAMDIWhen you show up to play a Latina...
FUENTESI'm just not dark enough. I'm very light-skinned Latina and I seem to them as white. So...
NNAMDISo you should get a lot of roles pegged for white women.
FUENTESNo, because I'm not white.
NNAMDIAh, I see.
FUENTESMy name is Jennice Fuentes and I have this tiny accent that people can't place, but it bothers them. I went to my fifth Law and Order audition in New York once and I thought I was about to get it because, you know, they kept calling me back. And the director, which was French actually, said to me, okay, now speak in your -- I want to hear your real voice. I want to hear your accent, so stop faking it.
FUENTESI said, well this is how I speak. I'm sorry. I could talk like this and then you'd think this is the person you want to hire, and that's good with me, eh? But he says, no, no. Just talk -- none of that. I don't want anything phony. I want to talk -- I want to hear your voice. I said, you're hearing my voice. So, you know, he didn't believe my accent. So for me it's peculiar because I kind of come across as something that the casting people don't know what to make of.
NNAMDIWell, the fact that you are a part of a growing Latino population in the United States that is increasingly diverse suggests that casting directors still have a fairly myopic vision of what a Latino or Latina should look and talk like.
FUENTESNo, I don't want to blame casting people because I think they're limited in their ability to cast me if I wanted to go for a big part, or if they thought I was perfect for like the "Homeland" series in the -- you know...
FUENTES...in the Showtime. I think the problem is that the casting person who may think I'm ideal may come across the...
FUENTES...yes, may come across the L.A. casting person who may think, yeah, she's perfect, but, you know, she's not a name and I think I'd rather have a name. And it is that uphill battle. And the reason why someone like me cannot win that battle is because the suit in the back in the production side of the studio system, there's just not -- I can't think of anyone -- I can tell you that in the marketing side of Warner Brothers is Rick Ramirez. I can tell you that in the business side of Universal, there's Alfredo Barkette (sp?). Those are Latino men.
FUENTESAnd in television, you know, Nina Tassler's half Puerto Rican and she's the president of entertainment and television. So they are high, but in the production side of the studio system, which is the film making industry there's just no one that I can think of. And that's the problem. The people green lighting, the people making the decisions, are just not the people who reflect this demography or reflect me for that matter.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio, as I mentioned earlier, David White, executive director of the Screen Actors Guild. David, you are not an actor and people might wonder what a former Rhodes Scholar who studied philosophy and thought about becoming a doctor is doing heading up the Screen Actors Guild. It's my understanding that your other better half had something to do with this.
WHITEShe did and I get that question quite often, in fact. I did not have any connection to the entertainment industry when I first went to Los Angeles. I started my career doing non-profit work working with gangs, doing youth development and gang prevention. And I met my wife who is from Chicago but was living in Brooklyn. And she was also doing economic development and social work and I decided to go to law school. So she said, well if you're going to try a second career than I'm going to try it as well. I want to write.
WHITEAnd she got in a writing group and they started focusing on her dialogue and they said, you know, you might like television. So we thought we would absolutely despise Los Angeles. We went down there on the same day. One of the clients that I got assigned to was a Screen Actors Guild and she got a call from CAA -- from an agent at CAA who said that he wanted to...
WHITE...represent her. It's an agency. It's one of the -- it's the world's largest talent agency. So it was a lucky day for both of us. And I went in-house at Screen Actors Guild with not a lot of experience in the industry. And she started to go out for roles. And ironically she wrote her spec scripts -- those are scripts that you write to pass along to decision makers in the industry so that they get a sense of how you write. And they tend to write for shows that are known so that they can get a sense of your ability to capture a character.
WHITESo she wrote a script for "Will and Grace" and for "Sex in the City." And the agent at CAA really liked her style for writing and put her out. And the only folks who really wanted to take a look at her were folks who were decision makers for African American shows. It was very interesting. She immediately got typecast, even though the stories that she wrote her characters about were for mainstream shows. And so this issue of diversity and how decisions are made and how people are selected both in front of the camera and behind the camera, it's a very persistent challenge.
NNAMDIAnd exists in your own household. Nominees for this year's Screen Actors Guild awards were announced yesterday and many listeners may most closely link the group to award season, but SAG does more than hand out statues.
WHITEYes, we do. Just generally at Screen Actors Guild we have 125,000 members. And as Jennice stated, acting is hard. It's really a difficult profession. And we have in our minds the stars, the people with recognizable faces and recognizable names, but the industry is filled with journeymen and journeywomen actors. People who are just trying to scratch their way into the middle class and be able to have healthcare for their families and get some retirement funds and make a living day in and day out. And so we help them do that.
WHITEAnd essentially we create and monitor and enforce wages and working conditions so that it's a fair process, a fair employment environment for actors who take jobs in television and film and in other media.
NNAMDIJennice, this is particularly important to you that we're -- when we talk about actors we're not talking about celebrities' names and faces that we recognize instantly. How different is the life of a so called working actor from that of the big celebrities that we have...
FUENTESOh, do we -- how much time do we have?
NNAMDITen seconds actually.
FUENTESWell, it's very different. I think you -- David might have the figures, but I think maybe it's one or two percent, the people who are like Tom Cruise, of the membership of SAG. I think the other 98 are, as you called them, journeymen and women and actors who are working actors, but who are not famous actors who try to basically do anything possible to get somebody's attention.
FUENTESAnd, you know, there's not a right way and a wrong way to try to get someone's attention. Like a movie I did, for instance, was the line producer who thought of me, who I happened to know her because she was dating a friend of mine. And she was able to put me in front of the suits. And then somehow I got lucky enough -- 'cause luck has a lot to do -- you could be prepared, you could be right for the part, but you have to land the part and they have to give it to you. And a lot of the elements that go into that sometimes are just -- there's not an equation that could add to it.
FUENTESBut you do your part as an actor. Your actor's prepared. An actor tries to look the best way they can for the part. And at the end of the day it may be just because, you know, the other one just seemed to remind them of someone they met in the past that maybe would've been better but they couldn't find that person. It's just -- you know, I think the secret is not to let that bother you and haunt you, which is one of the abilities an actor has to be Teflon-like. You need to let those things not haunt you, otherwise you're just impaired and you just have to keep going to the next audition after you get defeated for the last one. So...
NNAMDIGot to be able to understand how to handle rejection without it getting to you. We're talking about diversity onscreen with Jennice Fuentes. She's a film critic and pop-culture commentator whose work appears in the Global Grind and Latino Scoop. David White is the executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, the labor union that represents working actors. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you been to see a movie recently and noticed that no one on the screen looked like you or, on the other hand, that just about everybody on the screen looked like you? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIDavid, promoting realistic portrayals of minorities on film has been one of the Screen Actors Guild's goals since the 1930s. How far has Hollywood come in that regard in your view?
WHITEWe've come some distance, I think. And we have a long way to go. So when you think about film in the '50s and the '60s it was a big deal to have people of color in any role. Once you get into the '70s and '80s you start to see incremental gains in supporting roles and background roles, not really in lead roles, unless you have a period like the Blaxploitation period where you have a set of film...
NNAMDIIn the '70s.
WHITE...that have those roles. But we've hit a little bit of a wall. When you look at the statistics, it's still largely an employment environment, which is how I think of it, where it's dominated by men and it's dominated by Caucasians. And the numbers, they go up and down and they went up in the late '90s. They went up -- as you said in your opening remarks, they hit a high point in 2007. But really, those numbers range around 75 percent to 25 percent when you're looking at white people of, white versus people of color.
WHITEBut when you take diversity's statistics in a larger sense, when you're looking at performers with disabilities, when you're at the LGBT population, when you're looking at women, particularly over the age 40, there have been some gains but for story lines, when you're looking at what the television show or what the film is actually about, the story that they're telling, when you look at lead roles, we have a long way to go.
WHITEJennice, you say fewer people are going to the movies, but the people who do go are going more often and the people who go most often tend to be minorities, why do you think that is?
FUENTESI think that minorities have that appreciation. I mean, I'm talking about Hispanics actually when I say minorities. If you look at the trends and if you look at the trend movie-going by ethnicity, according to Neilson anyway, and it's apparent that the Latino movie-goer is much higher. While a lot has been said that it has done down, I mean, it was 86 percent last year, now it's 85 percent. While that compares to Caucasians of the '60s and they have, they tend to have larger families and they tend to make this more of an entertainment center, so they will go in with the whole family. So there will be less Caucasians and even less Latinos, the Latinos that go, go in grand numbers.
FUENTESSo I think that that is baffling, that if you have the trend and the heavy movie-goer and the light movie-goer representing the Latino community, vis a vis the population, much higher than the Caucasian movie-goer. You would think that you would, like, Tyler Perry, feed that population the product that you think may sell because you're dealing with a diversified population and use a fan base like Tyler Perry has done. He has reached out to them.
FUENTESYou would think the studio would want to do that business plan and say, okay this has worked for one population. Why don't we try with Latinos because the numbers do show that they go to movies and they go to movies in grand numbers? It's somehow not trickling up or down, whichever direction of the one who's making the decision, but the numbers are there to show that they're an audience that is a loyal fan base and do show up and spend money.
WHITEKojo, can just add to that real quickly?
WHITEThat it's an odd phenomenon. When you look at the global population, when you look at the census data for the United States, the consumer base is definitely diversifying. There's no question about that. The workforce, the employees are diversifying, so there is an air of inevitability to the idea that who we see on the screen, whether it's a television screen or an Ipad or a theatrical screen, is going to change. But the decision making in this industry is surprisingly conservative and one of the reasons for that is because you've got a diverse set of decision makers.
WHITESo, Jennice spoke earlier about casting directors. You've got casting directors, you've got talent agents, you have managers, these all folks who help to package programs, they help to put people in front of decision makers. But then you have studio heads and network heads. You have the people who are going to finance the film, people who are going to distribute the film and they all at some point, they get lumped into the term the suits or the studios making the decision.
WHITEBut in fact, it's a disaggregated decision making process with a lot of individual decision makers, all of whom feel like each project that they're on is a big bet, so they got to make the safest bet possible and the net result of that is really conservative decision making and a pipeline that just looks to what was successful yesterday and what was successful yesterday looked like what was the day before. So you have a lot of creativity within a very narrow band but when it comes to the issue of diversity it's hard to break into that pipeline and produce a different result. It's a really odd phenomenon.
NNAMDII am really glad that you explained how the process that's leads to what you characterized as a surprising conservatism develops, because outside of Los Angeles the perception tends to be that Hollywood is a bastion of liberalism, hence many of the questions for the lack of diversity in movies come up, but the process that you explained says that in the final analysis, if people want to make the safest decisions possible in order to maximize their profits, then they're going to go conservative.
WHITEI think that's right. I think it's fair to say that the industry and all that is loosely lumped in with the term Hollywood, is politically, a liberal place. It's not that there's not political diversity, but it's liberal. But financially, it's a conservative place and this is a business and it's a risky business because most product out there, most television shows that begin, don't turn into series and most films that are made don't actually make money and they certainly don't make significant money. So people are very conservative about each project that they take on.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on diversity on screen. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. If you haven't yet, the number's 800-433-8850. Do you think that the minorities you do see on screen break or conform to stereotypes? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conservation about diversity in the movies and television. We're talking with David White, executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, which is a labor union representing working actors and Jennice Fuentes, film critic and pop culture commentator. Her work appears in "The Global Grind," "Latinos Scoop," and ourtiempo.com. Jennice is also an actress and as appeared on HBO's "K Street" and numerous other films and stage productions. Jennice, you wanted to give us a peek at the diversity, or lack thereof, that we can find in the top echelons of Hollywood studios.
FUENTESAbsolutely, and as a women, I basically have to stand up for my gender and it is still possible in this day and age in 2011 to count the women in the top executive positions with one hand. I mean, that we're still such a paltry number, it's amazing. You got Amy Pascal at Sony, you got Stacy Snider, who was with Universal, now is with DreamWorks. Then you got Donna Langley, co-chair at Universal and then Sherry Lansing, the original Paramount president, who's now semi-retired. And I think maybe at least half of them at some point have to report to a man. So I think that there is still that issue that there is not enough women either in those positions.
NNAMDIWell, David White, if the conventional wisdom in Hollywood right now is that films and television shows featuring casts that all or mostly minority won't succeed, how do executives explain the success of Tyler Perry?
WHITEWell, I think when you talk with individual decision makers, there is a sense that there's an audience out there for a particular fare and so I don't know anyone, haven't talked with anyone who has said that it won't succeed. What they say instead is, it's a limited market, there's no downstream income coming for, if you focus on, for example, Tyler Perry, African-American storylines outside of America. We can't sell that in Europe, you can't sell that in Asia. I would argue with that, but in almost every era since the '70s, particularly in television, there has been a niche for African-American television and I think there will soon grow a real niche for Hispanic television.
WHITEIt just doesn't expand beyond that. So, again, in the '70s, we think about "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times" and things like that. The storyline worked. Tyler Perry is the modern-day version of that and he's really tapped into market. And there's been controversy around the type of television show that is put out by Tyler Perry's production, but...
NNAMDIBut nobody argues with its success.
WHITENobody argues with its success and, in fact, it speaks to the truth of the daily lives of lots of folks. It's not the full spectrum of the black experience and that becomes a problem when that narrow band is the only thing being distributed out there. Then people really focus on it, but there is room for that, just like there's room for a certain type of mainstream fare that everybody doesn't identify with. But you want the full spectrum and so that's the goal. It's not that people don't -- people are surprised by the success of Tyler Perry or whatever version of that we have in the '80s and the '70s, et cetera.
NNAMDILet's talk the '80s and "The Cosby Show," which was number one for such a long time on network television, so obviously it appealed to a broader audience. Nobody's been able to, apparently, or not able to -- desirous of apparently replicating that sense.
WHITESure. But the -- if you think about what makes for a successful television show, it is very difficult to do. It's difficult to put all of these freelance folks together into a room and have them get it together so that the show works, they capture their audience, it's distributed and marketed in the right way and then day in, day out, week in, week out, year in, year out, you've got to keep producing that. And it's helpful -- Jennice talked about decision makers who say to her, we need a big name.
WHITEIt's helpful to have a big name like a Bill Cosby and they got the storyline right. And there was a lot of controversy around that, but some folks thought, this is too mainstream. This doesn't actually speak about black Americans. Other folks felt like they did a good job synthesizing in different storylines. But the point is, they captured an audience and they rode that for as long as they could, but that's hard to do. It's hard for anyone to do it, white, black, male, female. It's a hard business.
FUENTESIt's a grind.
NNAMDIJennice, race isn't the only factor actors have to contend with. Age is another big issue when it comes to who gets cast in what role, especially for women. One actress recently sued the website, IMDB, for posting her age, 40. What happens to an actress's career when she turns 40?
FUENTESIt dies or it can die or it just stays stagnant.
NNAMDIOr they can get sick if they find out your age.
FUENTESWell, but I don't think it would be the one person to lie about that age in Hollywood. My god, everything, everybody -- we don't know anybody's age and, you know what, quite frankly, it shouldn't matter. I met Robert White when I went for my first "Sundance," long time ago and Maria Conchita Alonso was actually opening a movie named, "Caught" and she looked so young to me. I was, like, 20 or 21.
FUENTESShe looked so young to me that I said, wow, I thought she was much older than me. And so I asked the director, how old is she, if you don't mind me asking? And he said, I don't know. And I said, okay. So what do you think? And he said, I don't want to know. I said, really, Mr. White? Why? He's like, well, because then I'm going to think of her in a certain slot and I don't want to do that. She looks good, that's good enough for me. I never forgot that. So I am as old as I look and that's where it stays.
NNAMDIHere's an email we got from Wendy. "As a 47 year-old woman, I feel I like rarely see any woman onscreen who are my age or older. Thank goodness for Meryl Streep, but the majority of women onscreen are under 35 and the issues of that age group are not the issues of older women. I want some more representation," says Wendy. On now to Bill, in Greenbelt, Md. Bill, you're on the air, go ahead please.
BILLHi, Kojo. Great show. One thing that struck me is the economic question and the issue of, have any of these executives in Hollywood read "Moneyball," by Billy Beane. I mean, I think, you know, because the financial outlet is so great for the top actors -- you're talking millions and millions of dollars per movie or, you know, hundreds of thousands for a TV series. I would think that the "Moneyball" concept of finding (word?) of actors at a lower wage and taking a chance upon them with the high failure rate (word?) movies..
NNAMDIWell, Bill, before we get an answer from David White, I am intrigued. Why did you say, "Why haven't more Hollywood people read the book, "Moneyball" when there's a movie with a prominent actor by the same name?"
BILLWell, there you go.
WHITEAt least one person read it.
NNAMDIDavid White, the "Moneyball" concept?
WHITEHe brings up a good point and, again, I think this speaks to the conservatism in the industry. Having a brand name that you can then sell and resell, in various markets around the world, is important, so people make, you know, films make a certain amount of money when they're in the theater. But they make most of their money when they're selling DVDs, when it's distributed worldwide. So if everybody knows a Brad Pitt, you will pay a premium for Brad Pitt. That said, that rate when up to $20 million for an expanding group of folks in the early to mid '90s and then there was some rebellion with the thought that people were being too highly paid.
WHITESo as a representative of working actors, I want folks to be paid as much as possible but if you go to a movie where your favorite actor or actress is in a role and they're surrounded by crap actors, you're not going to like the film. So you've got to, you do have to take some of the "Moneyball" concept of making sure that you have the right mix or it won't be a successful project.
FUENTESAlso I think there's a lot to be said in terms of a good story. I think that a movie with a good story can go a long way. and I think that what -- and I want to go back Tyler Perry because he was not an overnight sensation and I think that his genius was in taking, not necessarily in his product, because everybody has their opinions, especially people like Spike Lee, about what his product stands for.
FUENTESBut it is his ability that makes him -- that good business plan is that he has that diverse fan base, which he grew through decades and he found a way to connect it and that fan base is loyal. That fan base, according to "Forbes" gave him $100 million in tickets. That fan base gave him $30 million in video sales, that fan base brought $20 million in merchandise. So that is not a bad business model and I think that, sure, he's with Lion's Gate, which is not one of the major studios, but they're the same people who did not want to green light that $5 million movie called "The Diary of Mad Woman."
FUENTESAnd when that movie opened, it became the biggest opening weekend when it was against "Hitch," which is a name, Will Smith, and it was against "Constantine," which is $100 million movie. So at the end of the day, there's an entertainment business and he's made -- he made it clear that with no name actors and a story that got panned by the critics, I think "Rotten Tomatoes," gave it 16 out of 100, he made millions. So, you know what, who's laughing all the way to the bank? Tyler Perry.
WHITEThat is so right. And can I just -- real quickly?
WHITEI was -- when I visit family members in Detroit I would see video of Tyler Perry and they were videos of his play and of -- a series of his plays and that's how I got introduced. And they were, like, you don't know who Tyler Perry is? You've never seen this? This is hilarious. You ought to -- see the fan base is huge. It's a fantastic business model. By the way, one of the reasons why I would find in the homes of relatives and friends in Detroit is because of theft, digital theft. I do hope we get to the issue of, known to most of the people in the world as piracy, so I want to talk about that.
FUENTESI thought you were going to say church people because he has a big church fan base.
WHITENo, but he did something that studios would love to bottle, which is to, in a very grass-roots way, build his audience as a writer, as an actor. I mean, that is true talent and true business acumen and it's to be celebrated. It's just not the totality of the fare that's out there.
WHITESome listener might be wondering if we're expecting too much from show business because it's not, after all, reality. So should we expect our entertainment always to be, well, authentic?
FUENTESThe business is very much reality. I think you're expected to make money. It's the entertainment business or the business of entertainment but the business is basically the writing word and I think that as long as you are figuring out a way like Tyler Perry, to make money in the business, people will follow. And when he started nobody wanted to support him. People thought that, Perry, this is a crazy storyline. This narrative doesn't really fly. There's no name actors. But hey, money speaks very loud and clear and in a language that everybody understands. Make a profit and you're in the game.
WHITEThat's why I...
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break, but please finish your point, David.
WHITEWell, I was just going to say, it's always going to be a balance between art and money and people, when they have a story, they tend to feel very passionate. From the writer to the producer to the actors who get involved to the director. They have a story that they want to tell and sometimes that is a window into a place that shows the reality of that place and sometimes it shows the exact opposite. It shows the quirky nature of some little, but you always have to have that balance. But, yes, I think it is reasonable to have some expectation that people are going to do their best to portray truth and reality when the opportunities arise.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we will continue our conversation about diversity on screen. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org to join that conversation, send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about diversity on screen. We're talking with Jennice Fuentes, film critic and pop culture commentator. Her work appears in Global Grind and Latino Scoop and ourtiempo.com. Jennice is also an actress who has appeared in numerous films including "Behind Enemy Lines," a Columbia production. In studio with us is David White, the Executive Director of the Screen Actors Guild, a labor union representing working actors, and joining us by now telephone from St. Petersburg is Eric Deggans. He is a TV and media critic with the St. Petersburg Times. He also contributes commentaries to NPR. Eric, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ERIC DEGGANSHey, thanks a lot for having me. And I'm not by telephone, I'm actually in front of a mic.
NNAMDIYou're in a studio at the St. Petersburg Times, right?
DEGGANSWe do. We do. We're a 21st century news outlet here.
NNAMDIThank you kindly. You wrote recently about the rise of the black best friend on television shows. Why do you think we see so many black actors cast as the buddy, or sometimes adversary, to white leads?
DEGGANSI think network TV is essentially a little skittish about centering big budget TV shows on black characters. And the last time we saw a news show advanced that way, it didn't do very well. It was a spy drama on NBC, and it featured a couple of African-American -- well, not African-American actors, but black actors who weren't very well known to the general public, and it didn't turn out very well. So I think the next best thing to avoid being criticized for a lack of diversity, is to take characters that would normally be white and just cast them with black people, or people of color, Latinos and East Indians are often cast.
DEGGANSYou rarely see much of their culture in these characters, and their characters rarely have much to do beyond supporting the white lead, and that's the problem. And you talked a minute ago, you asked the question about why we should care about this stuff, or why, you know, do we expect too much for entertainment. And I think the problem that people of color have always had in America is that there's not a lot of us in a lot of corners of America, particularly black people.
DEGGANSWe're concentrated in urban centers. And so the way that America gets to know is through this art. They get to know us through movies and TV, and video productions. And if we're not careful about the images that are portrayed there, then when it comes time to make decisions about policies that affect us, people don't have a really great understanding of what we're about, and all you have to do is look at, you know, what some of the presidential candidates have been saying about poor people and how to give them jobs and how to teach them a work ethic to show that there are some people in this country who are very powerful and very well traveled who don't seem to know a whole lot about people of color in their own country.
NNAMDIEric, you say black people who watch a show with a mostly or all-white cast, but that white people won't watch a show with a mostly or all-black cast. Why do you think that is, and what evidence do you have to back that claim up? "The Cosby Show" that we mentioned early seems to suggest different.
DEGGANSWell, you know, what I said -- I didn't say it quite that explicitly, but I do -- I do feel that because black folks are used to being sort of minorities in a pop culture sense, we are used to going to see movies that star a culture that is not really our own. We're used to rooting for Tom Cruise, we're used to rooting for Matt Damon, we're used to seeing Meryl Streep. And in the rare instances when we get movies from a Tyler Perry or a Denzel Washington that are centered on our culture, of course we love those too.
DEGGANSBut I think white viewers are much less accustomed to placing themselves inside pop culture where they are the minority culture. And, you know, one of the things I looked at for example with shows that had majority minority cast, but weren't explicitly quote unquote "black" shows. You look at a show like "Homicide: Life on the Street" when it was on NBC. For a long time, the majority of the characters on that show were people of color.
DEGGANSNow the show was challenging and it was very different, and it was not your typical police show, but it always struggled in the ratings, and one of the things the producers said to me was, you know, we wonder if it's just the fact that there are so many black people in the cast.
NNAMDI"The Wire" apparently had similar problems.
DEGGANSI was going to say David Simon from "The Wire" was very explicit about saying that. He felt that, you know, the highest ratings that the show got was when it advanced a story line -- "The Wire" by the way, for people who don't know, was an HBO series that was set in Baltimore. Three seasons of the series mostly focused on poor neighborhoods in Baltimore, but there was one season, the second one, that dealt with white characters that worked along the ports and the waterfront in Baltimore, and that was the highest rated season.
DEGGANSSo David took from that a sense that, you know, it is hard sometimes to get white audiences to watch shows with a majority black cast even when the show itself is not necessarily about black culture or isolationist in the way that maybe a Tyler Perry movie can feel or a Spike Lee movie can feel.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Shelly, David White. Shelly writes, "How does the independent film industry compare in terms of ability to prioritize the concept and quality of the film, and no simply what will sell to the majority of the public?"
WHITEThat's a great question. And the industry is the same, so people should know, independent film, big budget film, they come from the same source, which is creative folks who have an idea either because of something that they read that they turn into a script or an idea that they have that they turn into a script that's original. But the difference is, you can take more of a risk with independent film, and there's frankly less of an expectation that independent film will make money.
WHITESo there are thousands of independent films made every year. It's a laboratory if you will of artistry because people are able to put their vision up, and they can fund it in more creative ways, whether you're talking about your family, or credit cards, or if you get lucky and get into the independent filmmaking business. And at the Screen Actors Guild we try to help enable distribution of diverse independent filmmaking because we have an incentive program, and you can have lower wages and lower rates and more flexible working conditions which can expand your ability to do things through these incentives. And so we are -- we keep our eye on independent film because that's where a lot of the diversity happens.
NNAMDIHow does piracy play into this issue?
WHITEWell, piracy plays into the issue in an interesting way. So piracy, which is how people think about it, really it's digital theft, and it's the theft of intellectual property.
NNAMDIAbout which we've had several discussions here.
WHITERight. So when people feel like they are going to be unable to make their money off of product, and as I said before, you don't just make it in the theater. You don't make it off your initial exhibition, you make it when it goes downstream in DVDs or when it's been hanging around and it finds its niche audience, or you can…
NNAMDIEspecially if you're a small independent film maker.
WHITE...distribute it around -- absolutely. And so if people have no expectation of making money off of it, because they're already working with low margins with and independent film, and then that's going to be stolen, then they're not going to make that investment at all. And so it makes it that much harder to get distribution, that much harder to get financing, that much harder to get somebody to market it so that you can actually find your audience, and that means no one will take the risk to actually make independent film. And the more we move in that direction because we're unable to stop digital theft, the worse off we all will be.
NNAMDIJennice, we do see more LGBT characters than we used to, but some critics and actors complain when a gay actor is cast in a straight role or vice versa. If acting is depicting someone that you really aren't, why should it matter?
FUENTESIt shouldn't. I, you know, remember I think last year there was a hilarious movie "I Love You Phillip Morris."
FUENTESAnd it had two heterosexual men playing a gay couple. I mean, Ewan McGregor and ...
FUENTESJim Carey, yes. Well know heterosexuals playing a gay couple. It should not matter. I think the issue with gay or bisexual actors is will it hurt my career or not, and at what point do you come out, if you come out, and how does that play out. Very few people are like Ellen DeGeneres who was able to come out when she was in the top of her game, not that she's not right now, and she -- her career didn't seem to have to be hurting even today, and she was the trailblazer for others like even Jane Lynch who's now with "Glee" has said, when I saw her come out, that for me was a big sign that maybe it was okay.
FUENTESSo the more examples like Ellen DeGeneres that you have, the more that the LGBT community is going to feel more secure. But as we said before, this is such a difficult career, that I think it's half of one, six of another if it's going to hurt you or help you, and I think that any actor trying to figure out that decision will think twice before coming out because you don't know now if that's gonna help or hurt you.
FUENTESI think the jury is still out, and even someone like Ricky Martin took forever to come out because of the repercussions in his musical career, and he comes from a, you know, Hispanic background. It's known to be a very conservative, Catholic community, Puerto Rican community, and I think there was a lot of backlash that hit him hard in terms of denouncing him and maybe let's not buy his music and let's not attend his concerts.
FUENTESThere is a price that can be paid, unfairly so, because I think that most of the moviegoers and most of the public tends to be conservative still in that record, and it's like voting. It doesn't represent a more liberal point of view, which I think all of us here do express. I think that we do not represent the entire American population that actually consumes that product, and that's why that actor or that singer or that producer, whoever is thinking of coming out, thinks twice about it.
NNAMDIOnly I represent the entire population. Eric Deggans, I was coming to you with another question in which you could incorporate what you were about to say in the answer. We've been talking a lot about roles for actors, but reality TV has its own set of issues when it comes to dealing with stereotypes. How do we see that playing out on shows like "Hillbilly Handfishin" and "All-American Muslim"?
DEGGANSRight. Right. Well, first, let me talk about LGBT stuff...
DEGGANS...because I'm really interested in that. It has been interesting to see this kind of evolve, and I think one of the chips that people might have on their shoulder in terms of does a gay actor or straight actor play what role, is that straight actors have often been able to play gay characters, but it's been hard to have the reverse happen. You know, there is an actor whose name is totally escaping me, who was talking about wanting to be the first gay James Bond, and sort of felt like his career as a romantic lead had been hampered by being openly gay.
DEGGANSNow we have some role models, we have Neil Patrick Harris, for example, someone who regularly plays heterosexual characters, but is openly gay. He only came out a few years ago, though, and it seems like people who are able to do that. Jane Lynch also plays heterosexual characters, but we haven't had anybody who's a romantic lead. We haven't somebody who's like a Tom Cruise or a Harrison Ford or a dashing hero-type character who is gay who plays heterosexual characters, so that's I think something we still need to overcome, particularly in films.
DEGGANSNow, as far as...
DEGGANS...reality TV shows go, reality TV shows, particularly shows that are really popular like "Jersey Shore" and "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," or the "The Real Housewives" series, they're sort of a new generation sitcoms is what I like to say. They're sitcoms for millennials. And so they deal in stereotypes. You know, old school sitcoms always joked about stereotypes and these reality shows do that too.
DEGGANSBut the only problem is that they pretend on some level to actually be real. So you have people in "Jersey Shore," who by the way, some of them are not Italian, acting, you know, putting on these sort of behaviors that they sort of believe to be sort of urban-Italian. Some of them are not -- they don't live in Jersey, they're not from Jersey, you know. You know, "Jersey Shore" is supposedly about these Italians that hang out on the Jersey Shore and some of the characters are not Italian and they're not from Jersey, so I don't even get it.
DEGGANSBut they're slinging around these stereotypes that are very entertaining, but again, if you don't people from the south, and you see a show like "Hillbilly Hand Fishin," or you see a show like "Rocket City Rednecks," you know, what do you think about people from the south after you watch those shows? And they can be very entertaining. You know, one of the things I'm always telling people when I write about race and media in society is that some stereotypes are not ugly. They're very entertaining, they're very attractive, they're very appealing, and that's the danger, you know.
DEGGANSWe can be seduced by then. And, you know, I don't want to be, you know, rapping people's knuckles every time they try to do a reality show, but I do think we need to sort of check these people sometimes and say look, you know, there's a whole swath of the country that may think that people from Alabama are exactly like these guys in "Hillbilly Handfishin'," and maybe a show like "All-American Muslim," which is a very sensitive and well-rounded, and it feels like an honest portrayal of five Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, maybe we could deal with a few more shows like that.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Final question for you, David White, what's on the horizon? Can we expect more of the same from Hollywood, or is there change coming?
WHITEI think change is coming. If you look at supporting roles and series regulars, as was stated before, those roles are expanding. They're getting more diverse. Now we need to get into -- we need to continue that trend and get into leading roles and story lines and keep improving. But I'm optimistic.
NNAMDIWhat next can we look for you in, Jennice Fuentes?
FUENTESWell, I don't know if I'm at liberty to...
NNAMDIWhat do you got cooking?
FUENTESWhat do I have cooking? Well, that could be a personal question. Actually, I should be seen in the background as the maid in a show that's starting in April on HBO.
NNAMDII'll be keeping a sharp eye for you. Jennice Fuentes is film critic and pop culture commentator whose work appears in the "Global Grind" and "Latino Scoop" and ourtiempo.com. She is also an actress. David White is the Executive Director of the Screen Actors Guild, the labor union that represents working actors, and Eric Deggans is a TV and media critic with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. He also contributes commentaries to NPR. Eric, thank you for joining us.
DEGGANSThank you. I had a commentary today about anti-heroes on television on "Morning Edition."
NNAMDIAll right. You can check it out. David White, thank you for joining us.
WHITEThank you. It's good to be here.
NNAMDIJennice Fuentes, always a pleasure. Happy holidays.
FUENTESSame here. Always a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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