Hollywood Should Rethink Their African American Stereotypes

White people “tapping” into Black culture and reinterpreting it to suit their narratives has to stop.

I’ve helped connect and market Hollywood to Black audiences for over 20 years. I’m also an avid movie-goer and television watcher, and I’ve been known to buy tickets to a movie that I have no interest in seeing to show my support for Black entertainment content. I’m not alone. Group ticket sales to African American schools, salons, and churches often increase the box-office earnings of many Black films. 

In fact, African Americans consume 21% more media content than any other demographic in America, including watching 37% more television. Like me, most Black audiences don’t tune into just any type of content. They are discerning about what they consume and starved for content that puts our lives and likeness front and center. 

Despite the dedication of Black audiences, Vox reports that decisionmakers at movie studios don’t expect a “black movie” to do well, so they’re less likely to allocate the kind of resources that can help a film become a hit. Additionally, when the film doesn’t perform well overseas, it’s taken as a sign that their expectations were well-founded, and that this myth is true. Yet the reality is very different. Often, even when the films and television shows Hollywood creates for us aren’t up to our standards, African Americans will show up—sometimes paying to see the same movie several times—just to support the talent who made it or starred in it. We do this to encourage Hollywood to continue producing more diverse genres of African American content in the future.

We now have the world’s attention, and many want to know how to combat the systematic racism that led to the death of George Floyd and thousands upon thousands of injustices big and small that are perpetrated on us every day. This has led us to confront the self-fulfilling stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood—stereotypes we can only combat by opening up communication and challenging head-on the fact that there are not enough Black people in the room.

For better or worse, Hollywood’s non-Black executives, producers, and screenwriters have always played an outsized role in portraying and defining what it means to be Black in America, and what they portray too often glorifies rogue behavior by police while simultaneously portraying people of color as drug addicts, violent thugs, deadbeats, subservient simpletons, beaten-down single mothers, nurses, janitors, cool but one-dimensional sidekicks, or simply face-in-the-crowd symbols that check the box on “diversity.” 

Now it’s time to incarcerate the stereotypes, because what Hollywood chooses to greenlight for the big screen can shape the culture. This is why many activists—including Idris Elba, Viola Davis, Queen Latifah, Kerry Washington and Chadwick Boseman—have recently signed on to the Hollywood 4 Black Lives Initiative to address the inequities in Hollywood. 

Part of their open letter to Hollywood reads, “The way that Hollywood and mainstream media have contributed to the criminalization of Black people, the misrepresentation of the legal system, and the glorification of police corruption and violence have had dire consequences on Black lives.” They go on to say, “White people make up the smallest racial demographic globally, yet their stories are seen as internationally universal. When we do get the rare chance to tell our stories, our development, production, distribution, and marketing processes are often marred, filtered, and manipulated by the white gaze.”  

Another group of more than 100 Black filmmakers, including Park Pictures’ Savanah Leaf and Prettybird’s Calmatic, has teamed up to launch Change the Lens backed by the Black Filmmakers Collective, a group that includes Park Pictures director Leaf and Alli Maxwell, executive producer at Florence. The initiative asks creative companies to commit to increasing the diversity of their department heads and crew, at all levels and more, to reflect 15 percent Black representation. It also asks production and talent agencies to consult a head of diversity and inclusion to mediate and oversee the diversity pledge.

I’m in full support of what these groups is fighting for, and it should be added that encouraging diversity in Hollywood is as much about a good business outcome as it is an ethical call to action. Thanks to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, Hollywood films no longer own the big screen but must compete with streaming content that is much more robust and diverse. Currently, streaming seems to be winning. African American audiences are now streaming up to 60% more than they were before COVID, which is a great opportunity for Hollywood film companies that are rethinking how and when they release new content. But to make a difference, they will need to rethink how well that content reflects reality and connects with Black audiences. “Netflix doesn’t have to trot out the one or two things, but it has a library that’s a wide cross-section of taste and content that speaks to the understanding of that audience,” said Ava DuVernay. 

Understanding Black audiences is key, because being Black in America means many different things to different people. When Bill Cosby headed the Cosby Show in the eighties, it was transformative to depict a Black man as a doctor and his wife as a lawyer. Today, Black men and women hold a greater number of impressive and high-level positions than ever before, and yet the way they are depicted in many movies and television shows still has not caught up, resulting in anemic content that audiences can’t relate to in genuine or authentic ways. 

On the other hand, when Black creators like Tyler Perry have ideas about what will resonate with Black audiences, studio after studio turns it down. In his case, Lion’s Gate was the exception, and it was rewarded handsomely with the “Madea” franchise that brought in Billions of dollars. Tyler Perry is also now the first African American to own a studio. He says, “Going back to the blaxploitation era, we’ve repeatedly seen this sudden thirst to tap into us, that happens about every seven to 10 years, before it fades.”

African Americans should be telling their own stories in their own voices without high-level executives adding their “stereotypi-twists” so it will play better to white audiences. It’s only when African Americans retain creative control over our product that we will be able to tell the stories of our true life experiences. For this to happen, winning Black audiences must be enough. Even when measured in dollars and cents, it IS enough. Especially when you consider that African Americans have nearly $1.3 trillion in annual buying power and are 81% more likely to influence the clothes people wear, the music they listen to, and the activities they consider to be cool—including what the movies and television shows they watch.

In short, if Hollywood wants to win Black dollars, it will have to make an investment in Black talent, whether that means bringing more Black players into the creative, production and promotional process.

Current movements are asking corporations to show the diversity and inclusion statistics within their own ranks—especially in leadership and C-suite roles. Now Hollywood is being asked to give African Americans a deserved seat at their table. Regardless of whether or not they do, the curtain has opened, and our show will go on.

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