As Americans grapple with systemic racism following the police killing of George Floyd, one Black crew member said he felt empowered to tell his story of working three decades in the industry. Jon Johnson Sr., who works as a parking coordinator for New York productions, penned an open letter that shines light on racial inequality in film and TV production.
The four-page letter, “Working in Silence,” has been circulating the internet, including when Ramy Youssef shared it with the cast and crew of “Ramy.” Johnson’s credits include work on the Hulu series, as well as “The Avengers” and “Sex and the City.” Parking coordinators manage a department that handles the logistics of reserving spots on public streets, among other duties. In Los Angeles, those duties fall under the security department.
“It has been a fantastic experience to work and be a part of the projects I’ve been apart of both in the film and television world, but did you know I’ve done this while working in silence?” Johnson wrote. “As a Black man in a predominately white workplace and workforce, I’ve had to work and be silent at the same time. I have countless stories of how I wanted to scream but couldn’t in fear of being viewed a certain way by my colleagues and the fear of losing employment based on just speaking out and speaking my mind.”
Johnson told IndieWire he has essentially been writing the letter since he started working in production, but only now felt empowered to put pen to paper following the response to Floyd’s killing. “I knew if I put the letter out I would be ostracized,” he said. “I never wanted that because this is my livelihood.”
Johnson offers specific examples of the frequent racism he and his crew encounter on the job — like how white residents in an affluent neighborhood, irked at the presence of a film shoot, get into conflict with the often Black parking production assistants. UPMs or location managers fielding those residents’ angry calls more often than not take the residents’ side.
“I was once on a set shooting in Soho and I’m telling a white gentleman he can’t park, we’ve got a truck coming,” Johnson said. “The first thing out of his mouth is the N-word. I’m doing my job, but he needed to preference that he doesn’t see me as a person, he sees me as the N-word. Right away, I wanted to react. If I had reacted, I would have lost my job right then and there.”
But the racism Johnson encounters isn’t always overt, nor is it limited to people outside the crew.
He said the parking crew, which can consist of up to 50 PAs, is almost exclusively Black and Latino, compared to other departments that are majority white. A common path in Hollywood is to start at an assistant level and work your way up — all the way to director or executive. But Johnson said the parking department is excluded from any upward mobility in the industry: You start entry level, and you stay entry level.
“It shouldn’t be a closed door,” he said. “You should be able to go different places to move up. With us, because of the race we are, you come in parking and you stay in parking — it comes down to Black and white.”
Creating a path for parking PAs to move up in the business would be a great step forward in increasing access for Black people, he said. He’s assembled a group that’s advocating for those and other solutions, including mandating racial diversity training before all productions, in the same vein as sexual harassment training.
To read Johnson’s letter, to learn more, or to share your story about racism in the film industry, visit the Working in Silence No More website.