Sony emails show Hollywood still has a long way to go on racial equality

Sony Pictures made the decision not to release the film “The Interview,” starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. The film’s plot centered around the acting duo’s characters being recruited by the United States government to assassinate North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, under the guise of a television interview. The problems took off in real life, however, when hackers threatened retaliation if the film was released. (The United States says the North Korean government was behind the hack, however the North Koreans deny involvement.)

What followed was a series of events that could be used as a plot for a movie on its own merits. Sony suffered a massive cyber attack in which a number of unreleased films were leaked, employees’ Social Security numbers exposed, and a slew of emails revealed, many of which shed light on Hollywood’s dirty laundry that Sony Pictures, and probably a lot of Hollywood execs, wouldn’t want to be made public.

A lot of the focus with this ongoing story has been centered on North Korea, and the fate of “The Interview,” yet the emails between those in power at the company have, once again, shone light on an ongoing problem with Hollywood: racism and lack of diversity.

Two email leaks in particular highlight this. The first involves jokes made between Sony execs Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin about the kind of movies President Obama would like. The two executives went back and forth naming movies with predominanty African American casts. The exchange between the executives obviously displays an idea that African Americans are a monolithic group and all watch the same kinds of films, with only African Americans in them. Amy Pascal issued an apology after the email was leaked, but the damage was already done.

In another email, an anonymous producer in Hollywood advised Sony to pull back on using black actors as leads for their films, if they wanted to perform well in the international market. The producer used the excuse (I say excuse because this notion is completely unfounded) of international markets’ anti-black mentality. 

Like much of the rest of the system we live under, wealth and power seem to be in the hands of a few in Hollywood, with most large film and television companies in the same few hands. Those in power seem to still have very backwards views on race and diversity, in an ever-changing society which grows more racially diverse every year.

Although skeptics might argue that Hollywood is simply a money machine looking at the bottom line, and that their business practices are just exploiting the already racist sentiments to be found in society, various studies have actually shown that lack of diversity is NOT actually better for Hollywood business.

In a recent study titled “2014 Hollywood Diversity Report: Making Sense of the Disconnect” from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, it is suggested that movies and television shows with more diverse casts actually earn more at the box office, and score higher ratings, than productions with homogenous, predominantly white, casts. The study goes on to show that African Americans, Latinos, and Asians are greatly underrepresented in movies and television. Yet, when diversity of films and television shows moved towards up to 25 percent representation for those groups, profits were very high for those films globally, along with very high ratings for those television programs.

So what does that mean for Hollywood big bosses who like to claim that diversity doesn’t sell?

In an interview with NPR News, the study’s lead author, Daniel Hunt, said, “It seems that people who have been in the industry for a long time, in high-risk situations, tend to surround themselves with people who make them feel comfortable, who are a lot like them.” Hunt went on to say, “It’s a vicious cycle. The industry likes to present itself as this bastion of liberal thought. But when it comes to diversity, it’s one of the worst industries in the country. The idea that the underrepresentation of minorities and women is all about economics has been taken off the table.”

If nothing else, the Sony cyberattack has highlighted a continuing issue with Hollywood: the dirty, and not so secret, secret that Hollywood still has a long ways to go to being as progressive as it likes to claim to be. That seems more important than the release of a most likely unfunny new “bro” comedy. And yet, this movie, which no doubt has plenty of offensive jokes riddled throughout it towards women and people of color (like a good amount of Rogen’s films tend to have), is being turned into some sort of symbol for the fight for democracy and free speech, with people calling for it to be released.

Consider: this film, with its hiring of Asian actors, is probably one of the few made this year that had a so-called more diverse cast. And yet, the Asian actors had to no doubt play exaggerated stereotypes for comedy. These types of jobs are the few available to actors of Asian descent. Racism, and lack of diversity, in Hollywood will continue to be a problem long after people have moved on from the hoopla of “The Interview.” I find that kind of story way more interesting than the so-called struggle Sony is going through right now.

Photo: In one email to Sony CEO Michael Lynton, a producer questioned the casting of Denzel Washington as the star of “The Equalizer,” claiming “pictures with an African-American lead don‘t play well overseas.” (Matt DeTurck/CC/Flickr)



Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.