Here’s an excerpt from a summary of a 2012 event that took place at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where Robert Johnson gave a speech about his rise to success:
“I fundamentally believe that if there were more John Malones in this society, there would be more Bob Johnsons,” Johnson said. He said that society needed to find a way to make capital access more available to black businesspeople. “It is becoming more and more difficult to gain access to capital and not because of scarcity of capital,” he said. “There is a trillion dollars sloshing around this economy, but none of it is blowing our way.” He believes that in many situations, black people and other minorities just need the opportunity to get their foot in the door. “My story is because someone in the white community said, ‘I want to back this young African-American guy on this idea called BET,'” he said. “It was a real roll of the dice kind of gamble. But somebody did that, and it paid off.” He said that as he is nearing the end of his career, he wants to see more black and minority Americans prove to the broader society that they deserve the right to manage and create value out of the wealth of the nation.
That got me thinking about many of the conversations we’ve had and continue to have on this site, especially about power, ownership and influence in this industry, especially in light of the ongoing and dominant diversity conversation, the #OscarsSoWhite protests, etc.
I could be reading Mr Johnson’s words incorrectly, but the sentiment I get from the above is that Johnson wants to emphasize the fact that a rich white man in John Malone invested in him, a black man with promise, and that this is the kind of thing we need to see happen more often, if black people (and other minority groups) are to participate in the broader financial success stories of this country.
So essentially, reiterating the idea that white people have the money and power, and that we (black people) may need them in order to climb that ladder of success – especially those who want to be owners and power players themselves.
I feel like this goes against a lot of what we discuss here at S&A about self-reliance, and the need for *US,* black people, to invest in ourselves; meaning that there are more than enough black people in the entertainment industry in this specific case (and in the business world in general) with their hands in some of that trillion dollars that Johnson says is sloshing around the economy, and instead of the (white) John Malones of the world investing in us, those black people whose bank accounts are overflowing (like a Robert Johnson for example), should maybe consider investing in promising/proven black talent.
Although to Johnson’s credit, the Duke University summary says that Johnson *invented* what he calls the “RLJ Rule to give back,” which states that companies should interview at least one minority applicant for any position at or above the director level; but of course it’s all voluntarily. Companies aren’t forced by law to do so.
“I’m not asking for any form of reverse discrimination, but I just have to live with the facts,” he said. “If you can’t get access to pursue your dream, you will not be able to be competitive.”
That’s true, but other than *inventing* this rule to give back, I think we’d all like to see Johnson (and others of his socio-economic class) do for up-and-coming black entrepreneurs what John Malone did for him. Although maybe he has, and he just isn’t shouting it from rooftops, I must note.
But my point here is really to ask if this is popular thinking among *US,* black people. In essence, when it comes to the film industry, are we waiting for white folks to invest in us, or should we be looking to those black influencers in the business, with both the money and the power, to do that instead?
I think of one recent example in Lee Daniels, when he was trying to get funding for “Precious.” Long story short, white millionaires (who really weren’t even in the film business, but wanted to get into it) funded the film. And then after the film was made, and it was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, 2 prominent and very rich black celebrities in Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry came onboard as “executive producers.” If you’re not familiar with that whole story, read it here.
My question to them would be, where were they when Lee Daniels was trying to raise money to get the film made in the first place? Why couldn’t he go to them?
And we’ve seen this kind of thing happen more than once.
Maybe mine isn’t a popular opinion (which is why I’m asking here); I suppose I don’t understand why we have to insist on waiting for white people to invest in us, when we have black people (many of them across the entertainment industry, and beyond) who are in positions to do just that.
For example, a few years ago, my business partner and I thought it would be a good idea to finance short films by black filmmakers. Neither of us is exactly wealthy; quite far from it. We just felt that it was time to act, and do something, because I was getting so tired of being upset with Hollywood’s ignorance of the volume and variety of our stories. So we took the little money we each had to spare, and, over the course of 3 years, financed 3 short films, spending a total of about $20,000 on all of them (my business partner put in more than I did), over that time period. I didn’t have any expectations of ever making any of the money back that we used to back these filmmakers, and I never did. But I wasn’t motivated by profit. I just wanted to do something beyond writing about why there isn’t much diversity in Hollywood. And that’s what I did. It’s something that I’d like to do more often, but, again, I’m not rich. I did what I could, with what I could spare. But I’m not finished. Regardless of whether I’m wealthy or not, I continue to act in my own little way, helping out black filmmakers whenever I can.
But I mention this, not to pat myself on the back, because there’s still a lot of work to be done. I mention it because I believe that this is the kind action from within our community that’s necessary to bring about the kind of change that we have for so long being asking for. And I also believe that there are many who have access to far more funds than I ever will during my lifetime, who could be leading that charge, and I’m just not sure why they aren’t. How do I know that they aren’t? Because if they were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, among many other conversations and annual protests like it, which we’ve been having for a century now, because, little has changed, which I think is rather sad.
You can read the full report of Johnson’s talk here.
Below, watch Sam Greenlee (author of “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” which was made into a 1973 film, financed by black investors) drop some wisdom on this subject.