Friday, July 5, 2019

Black Directors Speak Out

If you have access online to The New York Times, there's a July 3rd article I urge you to read. It gives you insight to the iron curtain of discrimination people of color in the entertainment industry have to scale on a regular basis in order to keep employed in the entertainment industry. If you're a serious film fan, I'm sure you aware of Julie Dash. This stellar woman was the first African American female to direct a feature that went into wide release. Her 1991 breakthrough film, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, is now considered a modern-day American classic. Last month, director Ava DuVernay presented it on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) as one of "The Essentials" with prime time host, Ben Mankiewicz. Available on Netflix, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was picked by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
In the article, "They Set Us Up to Fail: Black Directors of the '90s Speak Out," a quote from Julie Dash to columnist Reggie Ugwu made me gasp and made me angry. Said Dash, "I tried to get representation at the Gersh Agency in New York. They told me I didn't have a future. They saw no future for me as a black woman director. What were they going to do with me?" Hollywood blocked her from work after her trailblazing 1991 film that made American film history.
As columnist Reggie Ugwu mentions in this article, this was all years before the "OscarsSoWhite" hashtag and long before Twitter was a thing. The other Black directors experienced similar industry disrespect. One other Black female director was told that she didn't look like a filmmaker.

This hit a nerve in me because of my journey as a Black person in the TV industry. Just about all the major TV jobs I got in my career, I got on my own. No agent submitted me for an audition or hooked me up with an introductory meeting. Agents turned me down with "We don't get a lot of work for Black talent" or "We wouldn't know what to do with you." Also, from the first meeting I had with a New York City agent which was in 1990 to the last meeting I had with an agent in New York City which was in 2008, I saw only one Black person working as an agent. That was in 1990. All the agents who turned me down, even when I was on network TV at the time, were white.

The first agent I met with asked me what I wanted to do. I'd just come off three successful years on VH1, years in which I had my own prime time weeknight celebrity talk show. That show got me great reviews from The New York Times, TV Guide and People magazine. It also got me appearances on CBS Late Night. My goal was to do host another talk show like the one I had or become a regular entertainment contributor on a show like CBS SUNDAY. I knew the barriers that blocked actors and filmmakers of color. They were told they were "not marketable." Women of all color were not getting equal opportunities to direct films. As an entertainment reporter or a talk show host, I wanted to address those issues, interview those talents and help bring about some diversity/inclusion change in my own way.  But, after VH1, I could not get those TV host/network entertainment contributor opportunities because I was being slapped with the same comment the Black actors and filmmakers were: "We wouldn't know what to do with you."

If you're new to my blogsite, here are two demo reels of my talk show host work on VH1.


Broadcast agents turned me down for representation.

In 1998, I got myself a second job hosting a live nighttime local cable show in New York City. In one episode, I was slated to discuss movies with film critics. I told my producer I wanted race/gender diversity in the panel. Not a bunch of white critics. Here we are -- Black, Latinx, Caucasian, male and female. My point is -- diversity and inclusion can be accomplished. Way too many times, I had seen TV present the film arts discussion from the mostly white male viewpoint.
Today, I look back on my VH1 work and fully believe that, had I been a white guy, I would've had at least one offer to host another national talk show. I was never offered another talk show host opportunity. I took rejections from broadcast agents personally until 2007/2008. I had a meeting with a broadcast agent at a major shop in New York City. At the time, I was on national TV Monday through Friday. The show I hosted on Food Network (another gig I got on my own) was in weekday repeats late in the morning.  Early in the morning, I could be heard on live syndicated radio with Whoopi Goldberg. She'd contacted me to be a regular in her on-air national morning radio team. (Yep, got that job on my own too.) In addition to that, I was playing a recurring comic character in political pieces for The Onion. Some of my features for The Onion aired on MSNBC.

With those three national items going for me, the white middle-aged broadcast agent said that she wouldn't know what to do with me. I sat across from her and thought "This is not about me. This is about color."

I'm using him not out of meanness but as an example. Mo Rocca. Years ago, he did satirical news segments for THE DAILY SHOW. Then he hosted a show on The Cooking Channel. Then we saw him do humorous lifestyle features and celebrity interviews on CBS SUNDAY.

Broadcast agents knew what do to with him. He's now hosting a weekend morning educational show on CBS and, occasionally, he's been the anchor/host of CBS SUNDAY for the vacationing Jane Pauley. I could never get a meeting or audition with CBS SUNDAY -- and I used to do network appearances on CBS Late Night as a monthly guest on the old Pat Sajak Show. From 2000 to 2008, network news producers at ABC and CNN and broadcast agents in New York City asked me if I knew anything about movies, had I ever done entertainment features and had I ever done any on-camera TV work. That's a clue as to how much attention they were paying to me. Black talent can be invisible in the entertainment industry.

I know you've probably seen those videos of mine in previous posts. However, I post them here for a reason. If I could not get representation and equal opportunities from broadcast agents through the years after I had my own national celebrity talk show, if I could not land an agent to help me get a show like INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO on which I could interview female directors and people of color in the actor/filmmaking business, imagine the frustrations Black directors and actors have endured. People of color are needed as producers and agents in the entertainment industry.

Julie Dash, the Hudlin Brothers, Mario Van Peebles, Matty Rich of 1991's STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN, Leslie Harris of 1992's JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE I.R.T. (Ms. Harris was on my live nighttime local cable show), Darnell Martin of the juicy 1994 film I LIKE IT LIKE THAT and other Black filmmakers are in that New York Times article. They speak out -- and it's about time they did.

Go read the "They Set Us Up to Fail" article.  www.nytimes.com.  See some of the films mentioned in the article. You'll agree that a lot of talent was denied equal opportunities.

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