Review: The Hollywood Jim Crow

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Maryann Erigha has definitely done quite a bit of research for her book, The Hollywood Jim Crow. It’s an open secret that Hollywood has embedded in itself a racial belief and divide that with a few exceptions, Black directed and starred films are not bankable. Though primarily focused on Blacks in the film industry, the author tangentially applies this to Asian and Hispanic led films.

This idea is challenged with researched numbers dispelling this idea, though. Not only do Black helmed films do well, they proportionally outperform. The author primarily focuses on Hollywood’s treatment of Black directors and studio reluctance to dole out films of significant budgets to black directors. I do not dispute that there is significant racial bias in favor of white filmmakers, the numbers prove the author right. Of course there is a reason Peter Jackson directed all three Lord of the Rings movies, he was also the producer and writer. It was his project from the get go. That it ended up as big a budget and as huge a franchise as it ended up being was a gamble that paid off. Erigha used this as an example without the context of the background.

In bringing up Black Panther, the author points out that it took Marvel and Disney eighteen movies to hire a Black director for their films. Without a doubt, Black Panther was a financial success and it scored well critically as well. And let’s face some reality about Marvel movies, part of their success is their ability to fit as a whole narrative almost like a multi-part single movie. Directors are basically work for hire executing a big narrative. There is very little reason for this sort of racial disparity.

Those are blockbusters and The Hollywood Jim Crow points out as many successes as “bankable” stars or directors have had, their have been just as many flops. Yet Hollywood still hands out the big bucks and the projects. There was hesitation of having Denzel Washington star in The Equalizer, for instance. Now, Denzel Washington is probably one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, yet Hollywood still has this belief that a person of color can’t carry an action film, especially overseas. It did quite well. And for the first time in Washington’s long career, he signed on for a sequel.

As it is, studio execs, either purposefully or not, have little to no faith in films by Black filmmakers or starring Black actors in lead roles. And when those films come around, they are lower in budget and given less marketing than their equivalent movies of similar budget. Filmmakers like Tyler Perry have had more consistent profit in the box office despite lower market saturation. Is it because he appeals to a niche market and his films will only be as profitable as what his lower budgets are? We don’t know that for sure.

Although Erigha presents her facts well, at times, those facts are repeated a few pages later. Also, I did have some confusion on whether it was a good thing that Black directors were given projects with primarily White casts or not. Also the book does mention that many Black directors are pigeon-holed into making Black-urban films – characters struggling to get out of their “ghetto” life.  To me, those are fine films but it’s the same as asking a Chinese actor if they can perform martial arts for their character. One anecdote from a director says “I make movies about human.” And the human experience as far as cinema is concerned encompasses every experience of our lives. A recent example from this year of a human story, but also a Black story is the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk.

The book is definitely an academic work. The dead giveaway is that it is published by NYU Press. The Subject matter is compelling and certainly relatable, but at times it does come across as dry. It relies on published anecdotes, and figures but  does not seem to reach out to some of the personalities that the author talks about. It would have been nice to hear from Spike Lee or Chris Rock directly for the book rather than rely on previous interviews. It may have provided more current perspectives, if only a few comments.

Not mentioned in the book as much is also the way Asian actors and directors have been treated in Hollywood. As big a star as Jackie Chan is, he’s never had his own starring vehicle and been paired with a partner for market purposes. It is only recently in the rather serious film from him The Foreigner that he was the main lead, albeit, Pierce Brosnan was the villain. Asian directors, such as Justin Lin, and James Wan have had better success, though. That success in getting the big budget films comes from someone at one time giving them that big budget seat at the table. Not everyone gets that chance.

In the end, much of the author’s arguments are a call to action for better representation not only in the director’s char but in the studio boardroom as well. It is about the money, but that buttresses against old Hollywood beliefs about marketability and bankability. There is quite a lot to digest in such a short book, but it is well worth a read and a read on hand reference for those who don’t buy into the myth that people of color don’ make money in the box office.

I received The Hollywood Jim Crow as an advanced galley through edelweiss.com but it does not effect the positives I feel for this book. It is educational and well-informed. It could have even been wider in scope. But the author made a conscious choice to focus primarily on Black filmmakers and I don’t fault that choice. It is well worth a read.

It is my hope that studio execs give this a read or at least get an intern to read and summarize for them, because it holds a mirror to Hollywood’s shortcomings when it comes to representation behind the camera and within the industry. I seriously doubt it though. But as demographics change, Hollywood will have to as well if they want to stay profitable.

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