- Hollywood History Is So White
“Well, I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the white people’s choice awards. You realize that if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job.” This is how comedian Chris Rock, the host of the 2016 Oscar ceremony, kicked off his opening monologue. His pointed remark underscored the fact that no Black actors were nominated for any significant award for the second year in a row, a snub that prompted a social media campaign to boycott the Academy Awards under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Despite the outrage, this was actually business as usual in Hollywood. A similar but longer nomination “whiteout” occurred between 1975 and 1981. As might be expected, Oscar nominations are indicative of broader employment trends in the movie industry. According to the 2014 census, minorities comprised 40 percent of the population in the United States, in contrast, they remained underrepresented on every front of the film industry—at the level of 3 to 1 in film leads, 3 to 1 among film directors, and 5 to 1 among film writers.1 Where there are few employees, there can hardly be many Oscar nominees.
The uproar over minority representation is just the most recent episode in what is a long history of exclusion and discrimination. Motion pictures were born in the 1890s, following the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. Hollywood flourished in tandem with a new and invigorated form of racism, one that was more self-conscious and more systematic. After all, the film that symbolized the potential of the medium—The Birth of a Nation (1915)—was also an affirmation of this new form of white supremacy. In such a pervasively racist atmosphere, African Americans and other ethnic minorities found few opportunities to work in the film industry. Among the mainstream companies, there was no serious attempt to portray themes related to Black life or to recruit African American creative talent. Moreover, until the late 1920s, the limited number of Black film parts were predominantly performed by white actors in blackface. As African American journalist Geraldyn Dismond commented in 1929, Black people mostly entered the studios “through the back [End Page 70] door” as servants of white stars. When employed, Black actors were usually relegated to minor, one-dimensional roles such as waiters, maids, laborers, musicians, slaves, janitors, and servants, all of which served to confirm and amplify negative cultural stereotypes.
Justin Gomer’s new book, White Balance, provides a rich, detailed, and insightful survey of another important episode in this ongoing history of racial discrimination in the American film industry. Covering the three decades following the civil rights era, Gomer reveals the central role played by Hollywood in the formation, triumph, and persistence of colorblind ideology. Offering equal measures of historical synthesis and film analysis, the book argues that Hollywood movies not only reflected colorblindness, but “fundamentally constituted the ideology,” as they were central to its articulation (p. 5). Gomer draws attention to the “symbolic relationship” between the “sociopolitical project” of colorblindness and its “cultural and aesthetic” counterpart (p. 6), suggesting that Hollywood’s mobilization in support of colorblindness was self-serving. The themes and images conjured to convey and promote this ideology proved useful in attracting audiences to theaters and helped the industry reinvent itself in the years following the collapse of the studio system.
Colorblindness as a political concept has been a popular topic of inquiry for historians, cultural theorists, as well as legal scholars, and Gomer demonstrates an impressive command of the existing literature. While the idea of a society in which skin color is not a significant category has been around for over a century, the current discourse traces back to the 1960s and the oratory of Martin Luther King Jr., who, during the 1963 March on Washington, proclaimed that he dreamt of a nation in which people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character...