Hollywood Racism, Part of L.A.’s Rich Mosaic

by Tim Cavanaugh

Who will revoke Donald Sterling’s L.A. privileges, asks the great California journalist Joe Mathews in an article at Zócalo Public Square about Southern California’s tolerance for well-heeled rogues:

The racism heard on the leaked tape may have been news around the country, but Sterling’s discrimination against renters in his apartment buildings, and his anti-black, anti-Mexican, and misogynist views, were well-known facts of Los Angeles life for 30 years. Over those decades, no one in L.A. sought to dislodge Sterling from his role as owner of a major sports franchise. And now, with his bigotry a national news event, Sterling has become an outrageous example of the inability of L.A. to police itself, and its elite.

Even after the public release of an audio tape of Sterling demanding his girlfriend stop associating with black people, no Southern Californian was able to pull a Marsellus Wallace and kick him out of L.A. The consequences he has faced so far—and will face in the future—are all coming from the outside: from the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (who suspended him for life on Tuesday), from Sterling’s fellow team owners (who could force him to sell), and from corporations that sponsor pro basketball (and have disassociated themselves from the Clippers).

Thank goodness for those punishments, because who here would have had the juice to force him to sell the team? Prominent business leaders? L.A.’s rich corporate types are more engaged nationally and globally than locally, and they don’t have the public profile, or leverage, to threaten Sterling or his team. City political leaders? L.A.’s charter keeps mayors and city council members from having too much power. Ironically, the mayor of Sacramento, former pro basketball star Kevin Johnson, has had more of a role than L.A.’s own mayor, since Johnson was retained by the players’ union for advice on dealing with Sterling. The town’s newspapers or TV stations? They’re mostly shrinking in ambition and staff.

In L.A., accountability almost always requires outside intervention.

I’m not sure what (other than filling out the journalistic rule of three) Joe is getting at in that reference to limits on politicians’ power in the City of Angels. Plenty of L.A. business owners wish the power of city government could be more constrained, not less. And the authority to exile private citizens sounds like something for a Renaissance duchy rather than a contemporary municipal government. (The only city in L.A. County I can think of that functions that way is Vernon.)

I’m also not a big fan of “kicking people to the curb” and “reading them out” of acceptable society under almost all circumstances. The kind of censure Joe has in mind easily bleeds into a variety of uptightness that runs against one the greatest things about Los Angeles: its laid-back atmosphere of shallow civility, where everybody’s fabulous and there are no friendships older than twenty minutes.

But there is something notable here about the culture of Los Angeles. It’s an extraordinarily racist place. While much of that tension, such as the long war between Mexicans and blacks, is opaque to white anglos, some of it is not. I have personally witnessed exactly two clear instances of white-against-black racism — not crapola cases of “microaggession” invisible to the naked eye or “white privilege” that knoweth not itself, but actual racial offenses in which somebody is denied opportunity solely on the basis of ethnicity. The first was while I was working as a maintenance jerk at a Pennsylvania gated community, and the boss wouldn’t hire black applicants because, he said, experience had taught him blacks wouldn’t show up for work. The second was when, in more than one case, I tried to pitch a movie vehicle for a famous black actress to Hollywood producers.

There are infinite reasons to reject a movie pitch, but in all these cases the reason given, with no evasion whatsoever, was that the producers weren’t interested in any movie with a black lead player. To be clear, the claim wasn’t that race-conscious casting was reasonable in the sense that audiences might not buy Gabourey Sidibe as Marilyn Monroe or Jim Carrey as Idi Amin. It was a straightup no-blacks rule: We won’t make movies with black casts, and we also claim that’s the audience’s fault. I was told repeatedly that “foreign markets” couldn’t relate to black casts. (Funny how nobody worries whether Bangladeshis will relate to the self-obsessed hipsters in some Judd Apatow snoozer.)

I’m somewhere below the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, so nobody needs to worry about what they say to me. In fact, they didn’t need to make any kind of face-saving excuse when telling me no. But the exact same objections have been raised to Tyler Perry and George Lucas — whose movies, I hear, have made some money over the years. Lucas noted a few years back that he couldn’t find investors for his World War II movie Red Tails, because, as he put it, “They don’t believe there’s any foreign market for [black movies] and that’s 60 percent of their profit…I showed it to all of them and they said ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.’”

To be fair, Red Tails failed to open at home or abroad and was not a very good movie. But Perry’s filmography is a non-stop money machine, and he raised the same point in a 2011 rant:

Unfortunately, movies starring an all African American cast are on the verge of becoming extinct. THAT’S RIGHT, EXTINCT! Ask any executive at a Hollywood Studio why, and most of them will tell you one of two things. The first thing they’ll say is that DVD sales have become very soft, so it’s hard for a movie with an all black cast to break even. Secondly they’ll say, most movies are now dependent on foreign sales to be successful and most “black” movies don’t sell well in foreign markets. So what that means is you will begin to see less and less films that star an all black cast. Isn’t that sad in a 2012 America? Somewhere along the way we still haven’t realized that we are more alike then [sic] not.

The no-black-casts rule is strikingly straightforward, to a degree that you would not expect in any other part of the professional world. Here’s a 2012 anecdote from the actor Brian White (who, just so we’re all clear, is not white):

“Dennis Cooper, the writer, director and producer, is a Caucasian man who had some friends,” White said. “His friend David was the inspiration for Dr. Z and Dr. Howard — a Harvard-educated doctor that was involved with the film. And Dennis sold this great script to the studios, but he left the character descriptions out.

“When the studios found out the leads were black, they didn’t want to make the movie anymore, and Dennis had to go take his own money and his friends’ money and make this movie himself and then start the long road to getting a distribution deal.”

The argument that it’s only foreigners who don’t like black actors is also of long standing. “Unfortunately,” producer Andrew Vajna told the Washington Post in 1998, “there are no black actors today [who] mean anything to the foreign marketplace.”

The “foreign market” excuse is not just a classic case of blaming the benighted attitudes of some third party for what are in fact your own preferences. It is also directly refuted by business experience. The 2011 French movie The Intouchables was the biggest hit in the history of France and a major success around the world, taking in more than $400 million from international moviegoers who were not put off by star Omar Sy’s race. It even did more than $10 million in the American market, despite playing in only 194 theaters. No doubt it would have gotten a wider release in the U.S.A. if not for those foreign racists.

I agree with Joe Mathews that the Sterling story (everybody looks the other way at multiple cases of real, actionable racism until an illegally recorded private conversation gets leaked by a golddigger several hundred years younger than the subject) says something about L.A. culture. A big part of that culture is that in L.A.’s best-recognized business, major decisions get made on the basis of a type of racial discrimination that most Americans would roundly reject (and that I don’t think exists – at least openly – in any other industry).