Is American Cinema Racially Biased?

The question of racial bias in American movies is supposed to be over. You know, the product of some long-forgotten age. Way back in Antebellum time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and we had just discovered fire.

However, almost every major study on this issue completely and adamantly disagrees. Take for example Andrew J. Weaver’s report, The Role of Actor’s Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure to Movies, published in 2011 by the Journal of Communication. Weaver’s study found that white audiences were largely less responsive to the concept of an African-American leading man, especially in a romantic role.

Other studies have not only confirmed Weaver’s results but have gone even further. Racial bias also appears in mainstream movie reviews, as was demonstrated in the report Racial Bias in Expert Quality Assessment: A Study of Newspaper Movie Reviews by Lona Fowdur, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Jeffrey Prince in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. They found a systematic and measurable review bias against movies with a leading black actor (generally by 6 per cent) that was consistent enough to rule out other critical factors.

Numerous academic reports clearly outlines racial bias with the audience and the press. My own first-hand experience showed racial bias with the average exhibitor. Most theater managers are convinced that any movie with a large black cast will bring in a crowd of gangbangers, and they hit the panic button. Some theater managers actually resent it when a movie is successful with a predominately black audience.

Once, when I was working as the lead reviewer with a weekly newspaper, someone phoned in a “hot” tip. Supposedly, local businesses near a theater showing Menace II Society were complaining of “problems” with the audience to the movie. The caller was suggesting that I should do a story on this in the hopes it would force the theater to withdraw the film. The caller was the guy who owned the theater and thought I would do him a favor. Privately, I wrote him off as a nut.

So, basically, we have an abundance of empirical and anecdotal data that overwhelmingly support the claim of racial bias in American movies. What is not clear is how much this plays out within Hollywood’s creative and decision processes. Actually, it is sort of clear and unclear at the same time: Hollywood is singularly blessed with the unique ability to speak out of both sides of its collective mouth in different languages and still manage to say absolutely nothing.

A quick overview of the history of ethnic presentation in American movie history would suggest that Hollywood has been pretty democratic in insulting all non-white races. Let’s be honest, at times Hollywood was pretty backhanded to the Irish and the Italians as well. Part of this was evidenced in the approach used in casting found in old movies. If the character was suppose to be Chinese, they would cast a Swedish actor (Warner Oland or Nils Asther). If it was a Western with an Indian in a speaking part, it would be played by an Italian-American actor.

But African-Americans were a problem. Especially once show biz had to give up on the blackface bit. For the first forty-some years of American movies, blacks primarily functioned as servants and crude comedy relief. The Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry restricted images that ostensibly might incite racial unrest or present issues of racial inequality. Basically, it pretty much restricted any presentation of blacks, period. Making them go away was seen as an “equitable” solution.

Some changes did take place. In the 1941 production of High Sierra, Willie Best catered to stereotype humor as a lazy, slow witted black guy. When the film was remade in 1955 as I Died a Thousand Times, it was decided that they had to cut out the  racist stuff. So the character was turned into a Mexican and made even dumber and lazier.

In short, the history of Hollywood on this point is not very reassuring. Their only defense is, they give what the audience will accept. Of course they also condition, manipulate and reinforce the audience’s expectations on what they have conditioned the audience to expect, resulting in a great circle of something or other. It’s a complicated relationship. But Hollywood is far from being blameless in this process.

Not that things haven’t changed. They have, big time, though paradoxically the changes are most noticeable in television. Mainstream American movies are still mighty slow to move. As always, Hollywood is fast with the finger pointing. They blame their dependence on the foreign market. Foreign audiences don’t want to see African-Americans in lead roles nor do they want to see inter-racial romances etc. etc. Damn those foreign bastards for holding Hollywood back.

Personally, I find that something just doesn’t smell right about this argument. OK, some of these films would not fare well overseas because they involve uniquely American social or political issues. Others might not fare well because they are very African-American in their cultural viewpoint and gee, guess what, that makes them extremely American in their codes and references. You see, most African-Americans have cultural and personal roots that go much further back in American history than those of us whose great-grandparents arrived around 1900 (all on the same boat, I hear).

But most of all, Hollywood is busy peddling tent-pole productions overseas and most movies headlining an African-American cast are not tent-pole productions. Arguably, the comparison becomes a bad case of apples and oranges. I have no doubt that Lee Daniels’ The Butler is not going to play as well overseas as, say, any movie showing Bruce Willis blowing up half of a city. This is not necessarily anything to do with race. We are talking about radically different kinds of movies.

We are also talking about Hollywood’s longstanding ability to completely sidestep a major issue. And yes, the Hollywood cinema is racially biased. It always has been.