Is there a more powerful and influential industry on earth than the movie industry? Is there a more powerful and influential position than the presidency of the United States? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then what should we make of the recent revelation that Sony executives, while preparing to attend a fundraiser for President Obama, regaled each other with racist jokes at the president’s expense?
In the wake of Sony executive Amy Pascal’s apology for what she termed “insensitive and inappropriate” language, this episode reveals two important points about power, influence and workplace equality generally and in the film industry specifically.
First, there are the experiences and career trajectory of Pascal herself. An October 24, 2009 New York Times article mentions her scrappy temperament and meteoric rise from a secretary to the co-head of Sony Pictures. The pivotal moment in that career trajectory was an incident wherein she was left “virtually apoplectic” over the hiring of a male outsider to be her boss; a job she believes she was entitled to. Sony CEO Howard Stringer was so taken aback by her angry protests that he fashioned a “co-chief” arrangement wherein Pascal and her would-be boss actually shared the new job as equals. It is ironic that someone who personally experienced – and admirably fought - bias in an overwhelmingly white male dominated industry, would so blithely denigrate the man who is the very embodiment of that struggle, right before she hopped into a limo to attend a fundraiser in his honor.
The second point is contained within the emails themselves. Pascal jokes about the types of movies the president is likely to enjoy. She lists “Django Unchained”, “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”. I am surprised she didn’t throw in “The Help” for good measure. What these films have in common is that they all portray black people in subservient, albeit sometimes heroic, roles. In fact, it seems major studios can only manage to find roles for today’s extraordinarily talented roster of black actors in films which portray them in this fashion.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the making of “Gone with the Wind”, a film which resulted in Hattie McDaniel becoming the first black actor to receive an Academy Award for her role as a maid. When the film premiered in Atlanta, McDaniel was banned from the segregated theatre because of the color of her skin and when she accepted the Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, she was forced to sit in a segregated portion of the room.
The movie industry shapes and influences every aspect of our culture. If something good comes from the Sony incident, perhaps it will be the notion that equality in the workplaces – both real and fictional – is an idea whose time is long overdue.
Joseph K. West
President & CEO