What the ‘Hollywood Jim Crow’ Looks Like Today

The supposedly color-blind language of economics has allowed the mainstream film industry to hide its racial biases, a new book argues.

Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga in the Oscar-nominated Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly (Universal Pictures)

This year’s list of Academy Award acting nominees looks quite different than it did when April Reign first tweeted #OscarsSoWhite in 2015. Not only were all the performers white, but the movies vying for the top prize were also noticeably homogenous: Ava DuVernay’s Selma was the only Best Picture nominee with a black cast. Despite widespread criticism, the Academy put forth an all-white acting slate again in 2016. “This year’s list of Oscar nominees passes over popular, well-reviewed performances in the movies Creed and Straight Outta Compton,” The Los Angeles Times wrote at the time, also noting that Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson, and Will Smith were overlooked for nods. Smith responded to the lack of diversity by boycotting the ceremony. #OscarsSoWhite trended once again.

Jump to 2019, and the list of nominees is teeming, comparatively speaking, with the names of actors of color, including Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Mahershala Ali (Green Book), and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody). Spike Lee scored his first Best Director nomination, for BlacKkKlansman, and many of these films are up for Best Picture. Some critics see this shift as a result, in part, of the Academy’s 2016 decision to invite more women and people of color into its voting pool. The Oscars’ inclusion efforts, plus the box-office and critical successes of movies such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, suggest that 2018 was a promising year for diversity in cinema.

Yet, these developments focus on the most visible signs of change. A recently published book by Maryann Erigha, titled The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry, offers a provocative lens for understanding how entrenched the industry’s racial imbalances are—and how the lack of people of color in top studio roles only perpetuates this inequality.

Now an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Georgia, Erigha was a graduate student when she attended the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. There, she was struck by the realization that African Americans were virtually nonexistent on the screens meant to showcase some of the year’s most groundbreaking international movies. This experience birthed the earliest kernels of thought for what would become The Hollywood Jim Crow.

The title, which echoes that of Michelle Alexander’s landmark 2010 book about mass incarceration, raises questions about the extent to which Jim Crow persists in entertainment today. Erigha acknowledges that Hollywood’s racial hierarchy isn’t identical to the system of legal segregation that existed in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century. But she believes that many of the same principles apply. “That Jim Crow was a legally enforced [system] that affected everyone—their mobility, their bodies, their ability to find work,” Erigha told me. Yet, she underscored the fact that the “Hollywood film industry” (by which she specifically means the six major studios that make most of the country’s big-budget films for a global audience) flourished during this period of immense violence and segregation.

Because overt racism was the law, it was perfectly normal to see black Americans depicted in the crudest of stereotypical movie roles: as servants, rapists, and unintelligent slaves. It wasn’t until the 1930s that many black actors were able to find onscreen work in Hollywood; when they did, it was mostly in the song-and-dance genre. In 1940, when Hattie McDaniel received her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (the first Oscar awarded to an African American actor) for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, she had to sit at a different table from her white co-stars, because the Academy had picked a venue that didn’t allow blacks into the building. (The hotel made an exception for McDaniel.)

Hattie McDaniel holds the Oscar statuette she received after winning Best Supporting Actress at the 12th annual Academy Awards ceremony. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The vestiges of that racial hierarchy are still at work today, Erigha argues in The Hollywood Jim Crow. The author’s most compelling claim is that the supposedly color-blind language of economics has allowed the contemporary movie industry to justify its long-standing racial biases. “Hollywood decision makers view movies with black casts as being economically risky … and for that reason they restrict them to small budgets,” Erigha told me in a recent interview. In other words, producers and studio executives generally see these films as having limited marketability.

Erigha studied 1,300 films, analyzing production budgets and the racial makeup of casts. She also drew from the 2014 WikiLeaks hack that unearthed more than 170,000 emails from thousands of Sony Pictures Entertainment employees. These documents reveal how race often surfaced in discussions about profitability. Erigha points to an email written by a producer—given the pseudonym “Billy”—and sent to Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton as an example of how casting black actors is associated with financial risk. “Casting [Denzel Washington] is saying we’re ok with a double if the picture works,” Billy is quoted in the book as saying of the 2014 film The Equalizer, using a baseball metaphor. “He’s reliable at the domestic [box office], safe, but has not had a huge success in years.”

Erigha interprets Billy’s reference to “a double” to mean that casting Washington, for a movie with a $55 million production budget, would result only in a second-base hit at the box office—not a home run. Billy continues: “I believe that the international motion-picture audience is racist—in general pictures with an African American lead don’t play well overseas.” He concludes that producers would have been wise to either cast a white actor or cut the budget. Sony did neither, but The Equalizer still grossed $192 million worldwide, with slightly less than half of those tickets sales coming from outside the U.S.

“Movies with predominantly black, Latino/a, or Asian casts or lead actors are thought of in terms of their racial makeup,” Erigha writes in her book. “Hollywood executives conceive of small, specific audiences for ‘Black films’ and large, general audiences for ‘white’ films that often go racially unmarked.” Thus, one might wrongly presume that black films are less profitable because they’ll only appeal to black audiences.

While Erigha’s study doesn’t focus on Crazy Rich Asians (The Hollywood Jim Crow looks primarily at how the industry treats black talent and stories), she told me that executives deployed a similar logic with this film as they do with black-led movies. The 2018 rom-com, starring an all-Asian ensemble, was a major hit that grossed $174.5 million domestically. Yet the production designer had to re-create the ultrarich world of the best-selling novel on a midrange budget of $30 million. “The returns are exponential compared to that budget,” Erigha said of the movie. She contended that the main reason Crazy Rich Asians was greenlit by Warner Bros. was because the international success of the book pointed to a built-in audience. Even still, a producer who had considered making the film told the author, Kevin Kwan, “It’s a pity you don’t have a white character.”

Of course, expensive films with white leads flop all the time. And for all the cautiousness about the demographic makeup of movie casts, the latest Hollywood Diversity Report, produced yearly by a team of UCLA professors, reveals that audiences prefer films with racially diverse ensembles—a conclusion in line with findings from earlier reports. For years, academics and journalists have debunked the myth that movies starring actors of color do poorly with audiences. And yet, UCLA researchers found that films with “majority-minority casts were released, on average, in the fewest international markets in 2017” and nonetheless posted impressive ticket sales.

There are long-term consequences for the stubborn, racist logic that determines movies starring people of color are “unbankable.” One major concern, according to Erigha, is that these kinds of films will continue to be underfunded, even when they prove they can succeed. For example, the author said, “There’s this belief that if a black movie makes money, like Black Panther, then all of a sudden Hollywood will rush and make a lot of black movies.” But, Erigha noted, the overall number of black films tends not to increase dramatically, and those that are made continue to be underbudgeted. This leads to a system that consistently labels black-led or black-directed films economically inferior to those starring and made by white actors and directors. Erigha fears that this means the disparity in budgets, even among white and nonwhite films within the same genre, will persist, and perhaps even widen. Of course, black indie films with small to moderate budgets—such as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight ($4 million) and If Beale Street Could Talk (an estimated $12 million)—can become Oscar contenders. But the question is, why should so many black movies, indie or not, be expected to make do with less money for production and marketing?

Change comes slowly in Hollywood, so it can be tempting for audiences to attribute obvious signs of progress to deeper, structural shifts. Erigha agrees that “symbolic and numeric representation”—how people of color are portrayed and in what numbers—matters. And she does believe things are evolving, mostly thanks to an increase in women, people of color, and LGBTQ people behind the camera, as directors, writers, and producers—the types of crucial jobs that receive less attention come awards season. Still, it is the arguably most invisible segment of the industry that holds the most power and that is most resistant to change: the overwhelmingly white and male upper ranks of major movie studios, the people whose claims about what movies are economically inferior hold enormous sway despite having little basis in reality. These elite few agents, producers, and executives locate the talent, find the scripts, greenlight the movies, and set the budgets. They, in effect, shape the ways in which Americans understand the world through film.

Upending this power structure, something that no single movie or awards show can do, is key to dismantling the “Hollywood Jim Crow” system. At the same time, Erigha understands why the Oscars matter to so many people, why an event that will honor both a first-time indigenous actress from Mexico and a veteran African American director feels praise-worthy. “Everyone has their own way of coping with the idea that the society is not racially inclusive,” Erigha said. “For some people, that might mean not watching; for others, it might mean watching and celebrating the awards that happen for [people of color].” It seems the #OscarsSoWhite creator herself, April Reign, would agree. “The work continues,” she recently told The Hollywood Reporter, which announced that Reign would be attending the Academy Awards for the first time on Sunday. “But I am thrilled to be able to celebrate the incremental progress that has been made,” she continued, “even if only for a night.”