Written by: Alyssa | February 19th, 2016
As an actor and filmmaker of color, the issues of racism in the media become apparent pretty quickly. You immediately become aware, by the roles you are–or or not considered for, of how the industry views you (or people of your race). I started my career in the mid-80s, with a clear understanding that the movie industry was, in my view, pretty racist, and that opportunities for Asian American actors were very limited, and that there was much work to be done. I was coming into it (at the time), in the middle of a fight that had begun years earlier, at least as far back as the 60s, when the Asian American theatre company, East West Players (EWP) was formed (EWP was created in 1965 by a group of Asian American actors who needed a place to perform roles with depth or meaning, since Hollywood was only offering stereotypes and limited opportunities).
When I joined EWP (1985), I became aware of how racism limited the stories Hollywood chose to tell, and who got to tell them, and how racist media affected my self-view as a child, and adult. This gave me a distinct sense of purpose, as an actor, and as a filmmaker. By the mid 90s, when the play, “Visas and Virtue” came my way, the fight for more equal and more truthful representation, onscreen and at the Oscars, was partly what drove me to want to make the film.
So, in other words, racism in Hollywood (#OscarsSoWhite) is nothing new, and was fully in my consciousness when I won the Academy Award (1998), and not a whole lot has changed.
However, I can say there has been significant change in the last 5 years. There is an awareness now, and acceptance, and not just amongst artists of Color, that race representation in movies (and TV and other media) is problematic. And more of the establishment (networks and to a lesser extent, movie producers) are wanting to change it. In large part because recently, studies have shown that “Diversity” is profitable, or makes sense business-wise (and money talks).
A little while after I joined the Academy (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, or AMPAS), around 1999 or 2000, they held an open forum for members, to discuss issues in the industry, to find out what aspects of the industry the membership felt was important or if people had concerns. I attended with the subject of race/discrimination/opportunities on my mind, as a topic that needed to be addressed. I sat there, silent for most of the discussion, mostly which centered on the new digital technologies (this was the late 90s) and how they would change moviemaking. Race was nowhere in the discussion. I was trying to decide if I would say something (I was very new to AMPAS, which can be intimidating), and if so, what. I remember there were very few people of color there, though I do remember seeing Sidney Poitier. After about an hour or so, Mr. Poitier left, which made me sorry I had not yet spoken up. Finally I raised my hand. I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure I came off as angry. I know I was very nervous. When I finished, the then Academy president stood up and was very defensive, and practically shook his finger at me, and said “You’re only seeing what you want to see.” He said race wasn’t a problem, or something to that effect, informing me he had a Black actor in his last movie. He lectured me, sat down, and no one else said anything. We moved on to the next question. I was frustrated, though I can’t honestly say I expected much more of a response. Afterwards, a few individuals did come up to me and say I had given them something to think about, that it was something that had not given that much thought to, or realized was a problem, and some even thanked me for what I said. However, for the most part, I was shut down, and was made clear to me the topic was not relevant to the Academy.
Things are much different now.
I was fortunate to be invited in to the Academy, and also fortunate that I have been asked to serve on various committees, which have given me an inside view. The Academy has seriously been addressing its diversity problem, for the past 5 or so years, encouraging Branches to invite more diverse membership. The call for diversity was coming from the top, as opposed to coming from us, the artists, going up the chain. Again, this is a significant change, and has only happened fairly recently. The fact that a call for change is now a common desire throughout the industry — top to bottom, means more work can be accomplished. But, it’s going to be slow. The industry is a century old, and change won’t happen overnight.
– David Bryant Perkins