Of all the information that’s surfaced due to the Sony hack — which at this point bears the same relationship to the word “leak” as the Deepwater Horizon disaster does to the gusher from “The Beverly Hillbillies” — the revelation that comes the closest to genuine news is the exchange of racist emails between Sony co-chair Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin. In advance of a breakfast with President Obama, the duo swapped joking suggestions about what the president’s favorite movies might be. “Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” Pascal asked. “Or the butler. Or think like a man?” Rudin responded: “Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.”
The response condemning both parties was swift: “Selma’s” Ava DuVernay said they reflected the “sad, limited, crass view of the work that people do in this industry who are not from the dominant culture,” while Shonda Rhimes fired back at those trying to label the remarks “racially insensitive” rather than straight-up racist: “U can put a cherry on a pile of sh*t but it don’t make it a sundae.” Al Sharpton issued a statement reading in part, “What is most troubling about these statements is that they reflect a continued lack of diversity in positions of power in major Hollywood studios. The statements clearly show how comfortable major studio powers are with racial language and marginalization.”
Journalists have been so consumed with sifting through leaked documents for dirt and pressuring Pascal and Rudin for the standard public apology that it’s taken days for anyone to actually run the numbers and investigate the link between their clubby racism and Hollywood’s systemic failure to back movies by and for African-Americans. Forbes’ Scott Mendelsson did just that, and the results, as they say, will surprise you:
Over the last three years, Sony has distributed twelve films that featured prominent black leading men and women. They released “Think Like a Man,” “Men in Black 3,” and “Sparkle” in 2012, “The Call,” “After Earth,” “White House Down,” and “Battle of the Year” in 2013, and then “About Last Night,” “Think Like a Man Too,” “No Good Deed,” “The Equalizer,” and the upcoming remake of “Annie” in 2014 (review dropping Wednesday). That’s twelve feature films in mainstream theatrical release over 2012, 2013, and 2014, with five of those films dropping just this year… Sony still leads the pack among the major studios by a lot.
Twelve films in three years isn’t great, but it’s better than other studios’ dismal results: Warner Bros. had five films over the same period — counting “Cloud Atlas,” which included Halle Berry among its ensemble cast, and featured several actors controversially made up as people of different races — Universal had eight, Paramount had seven and Fox had three. Strictly by the numbers, Sony’s track record is the best of a bad bunch.
That doesn’t mean that Pascal’s email exchange with Rudin — or the one in which she described the vogue for making television deals as “Hollywood’s new black baby” — aren’t racist; if nothing else, they unquestionably reveal the blinding whiteness of Hollywood’s upper echelon, where such chuckles can be swapped without apparent concern that they might cross a powerful African-American’s virtual desk. But it does indicate that the relationship between casual racism and racist business practices is not necessarily a direct one — nor, conversely, is being a right-thinking Hollywood white liberal sufficient to overwhelm the industry’s historic biases. It’s a mistake to sort people in two piles, racist and non-racist, and assume that’s sufficient to describe the problem.
Maybe digging through the top emails of executives at Fox, Paramount and Universal wouldn’t yield the same smoking guns, but you’d surely see the conventional wisdom of what movies black audiences will and won’t see being passed around, the same canards about how African-Americans won’t turn out for art-house movies (unless they’re “Fruitvale Station”), the same lists of bankable stars who just happen to be mainly white men. The nature of living in a racist system is that the only thing you need to do to perpetuate its existence is nothing.
This is as good a time as any to have a conversation about structural racism in the movie industry — and in the country that nourishes it every day. But it would be a tragedy if the main lesson Hollywood executives took from Pascal and Rudin’s plight was to hesitate a little longer before they hit “Send.”