- The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry by Maryann Erigha
By Maryann Erigha
New York: New York University Press. 2019. 240 pages. https://nyupress.org/9781479847877/the-hollywood-jim-crow/
Maryann Erigha makes an important contribution to the study of colorblind racism, with her study of the market logic of racial exclusion in major-studio Hollywood cinema. She focuses on the careers of black directors and shows how white executives displace and excuse their own racial exclusions by sustaining the myth of an anti-black global audience. This book should interest scholars of race and popular culture with its original findings about the production of the world's most popular entertainment, and with its provocative call for a black cinema collective to work outside of white-run studios. Erigha has combed trade-journal reports, email dumps from the infamous Sony hack of 2014, and Internet Movie Datebase details of blockbuster film production and release. From these data, she draws important conclusions about genre production, career trajectories, and occupational segregation by race and gender in one of the world's most high-profile industries.
Erigha makes a strong case for the relevance of her topic, no less than visibility on the world stage of the most widely shared entertainment, and the difference that having black filmmakers tell black stories can make to that prominence. She shows how Hollywood producers use the market myth of the globally "unbankable" black filmmaker and black story to justify constraints on budgets and opportunities given to black directors. They limit black visibility and water black culture down to "crossover" entertainment, repackaging black stories for white consumption. In the face of evidence that black-themed films made by black directors and writers are reliably profitable, white executives in Hollywood maintain the "unbankable" myth as part of the colorblind racism of the post-Civil-rights era, at the expense of both black careers and black stories. She suggests as well that the box-office focus of Hollywood has even shifted toward global returns as a way to maintain white hegemony during a rise of black success on the domestic market. The colorblind logic of Hollywood economics seems highly attuned to race.
Erigha uses trade-journal stories and IMDB data to detail the consequences for the careers of black filmmakers, who must work fewer jobs, with lower budgets and lower award profiles, and less support for wide releases, and thus fall behind in the fiercely competitive industry. White directors receive plaudits and promotions instead for helming most of the award-nominated depictions of historical racism and black heroism. Black filmmakers also work in a narrow range of genres, excluded from the big-budget, fantasy-franchise production that accounts for the bulk of Hollywood profits: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Avengers, Lord of the Rings, and other such cycles. With a single exception (2018's Black Panther) in over a century of feature filmmaking, such plum jobs in fantasy and science fiction franchises have been kept from the reach of black filmmakers. Erigha's focus on exclusion from tent-pole filmmaking makes for a striking contribution to the literature on occupational segregation.
Erigha shows how the project-based industry keeps directors focused on looking for the next job, and making each one as high-profile as possible in hopes of sustaining fragile careers. She shows that a single box-office disappointment can cripple a black career in a way that white male directors need not fear. The colorblind logic of race exclusion has led some black directors to abandon blackthemed stories for "crossover" hits sold as stories of "universal," "human" experiences. Erigha argues that such (limited) integration within the industry comes at the cost of black expression and culture, because it must occur on "colorblind" terms of racial exclusion.
That insight leads to Erigha's most provocative argument, that black filmmakers would do well to turn from individualist advancement of careers in competition for scarce jobs on high-profile, crossover (i.e., white-friendly) projects, toward solidarity with other black artists instead. She recommends rerouting black resources toward a truly collective project...