I was slack-jawed when actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay were not announced as Oscar nominees for Selma. Slack-jawed and disappointed.
Early 2008. I met with the broadcast agent at ICM. At the time, I was a full-time on-air regular member of Whoopi Goldberg's national weekday morning radio show. I was seen in Monday through Friday daytimes repeats as host of a Food Network TV show that had been airing for six years . Also, I was a comic actor seen as a recurring news character in comedy videos from The Onion. Those pieces aired on MSNBC. And I was the first black person to host a prime time weeknight celebrity talk show VH1, a performance that earned me a good review on my photo on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section in a Sunday edition of The New York Times in the late 1980s. The ICM agent said, "I wouldn't know what to do with you."
Did anyone say that to Mo Rocca? He did comedy news pieces for The Daily Show. He hosts a show on the Cooking Channel. And he does celebrity interviews on the CBS Sunday Morning program. I heard pretty much the same rejection from three other top agencies. I don't mean to imply they're bad companies. No. They are top agencies. That was my personal experience as a black performer. If you don't have a manager -- and I don't -- an agent can help you land auditions for future work. All the work I mentioned above? Those are all gigs I booked without the benefit of a broadcast agent.
I fully understand the frustration of minority talent in Hollywood. We all constantly come up with ways to keep ourselves in the loop for work consideration. We've got to get creative and make our own luck because the playing field is not level. We are grateful for all the support we can get.
Look at the frustration of black actresses as an example of the diversity problem. Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis are the only black actresses with two Oscar nominations to their credit -- in the entire history of the Oscars. All other black actress up for the award got one nomination and that was it. Not because they weren't talented -- but because good script opportunities weren't there for them. Most had to turn to TV. Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis turned to TV. So did Oscar nominees Taraji P. Henson, Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard and Gabourey Sidibe. Jennifer Hudson followed her Oscar win for Dreamgirls with appearances on NBC's Broadway-based TV series, Smash. She's not been given another big screen musical. Veteran black and Latina actresses such as West Side Story Oscar winner Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee and Angela Bassett got one Oscar nomination. Jennifer Lawrence, still in her 20s, has three nominations to her credit that include one Oscar win. No black actress in Oscar history has three nominations. Jennifer Lawrence has three. And better script opportunities, I'm sure.
Director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo got the kind of rave reviews that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks got for Saving Private Ryan. Those were Oscar reviews. So when we didn't hear their names announced as Oscar nominees, it hurt. Oyelowo was riveting as Dr. Martin Luther King. Selma is a Best Picture nominee. Its only other nomination is for Best Song.
Here's another major color wall: Remember when network TV morning shows had regular movie critics? Remember the critics on syndicated TV shows? All white males. We minorities have to push and push to get an on-camera spot reviewing movies. It's 2015. If you asked most white TV viewers to name three black people they've seen review movies regularly on national TV, they could only name two. And those two would be the "Men on Film" duo from the comedy sketch show In Living Color back in the 1990s.
When it comes to film reviewers on national television, black critics have not been invited to take part in the film arts discussion. That goes for Latinos and Asian-Americans too.
There needs to be more racial diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Blacks make up 2%. Latinos make up less than 2% of the membership. I grew up in South Central L.A. Those percentages do not represent the Los Angeles that I know. It sure doesn't represent the New York that I've known for 20 years.
In all my years of meetings at top agencies in New York City and Los Angeles, rarely have I seen a black agent. I saw one at William Morris in 1990. The black and Latino employees at top agencies were usually the receptionists, the assistants or worked in the mailroom. And they were the ones who knew more about my work than the Caucasian agents did. Why are there so few African American and Latino agents in the top agencies of Hollywood and New York City?
In the early 90s, I had a terrific time hosting a summer replacement syndicated TV game show (another gig I got without an agent). We all hoped the show would get picked up for a full season but, unfortunately, it didn't. A few years later, I had lunch with a member of the Hollywood game show's production team. A very smart, very blond guy. He told me that the camera crew dug me, and the writers dug me...but he was a bit surprised when the top producers -- after I'd gone home -- would discuss whether or not America was ready for a black game show host. Again, this was the early 1990s. I doubt talent like Rosie O'Donnell, Tom Bergeron, Carson Daly and Billy Bush ever caused producers to ask if America was ready for another Caucasian TV show host. As I've written before...we minority performers aren't just lucky if we get the same on-camera opportunities white performers get, we're lucky if we can a chance to audition for the possible opportunities. I still consider myself lucky and grateful to get auditions. Hell, I wish I had a shot at covering the Oscars in Hollywood this weekend.
Progress has been made but there's still work to be done. Bravo to KNX NewsRadio for taking on this issue.
Listen to the live KNX Spotlight entitled "Fade to White" on Friday, Feb. 20th, at 10:00 a.m. Pacific/1:00p.m. Eastern. The hosts will take phone calls and read tweets. The station's Twitter handle is @KNX1070.
Most of my readers have seen this already. If you haven't, here's a sample reel of my VH talk show host work. I could not get a good broadcast agent during or after this gig: