What It's Like To Be A Black Woman In White Hollywood

Four accomplished directors open up about the trials and tribulations of the business.

About once a year, Angela Robinson stops over at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles to explain to a group of women just how few people in Hollywood want to them to succeed.

It's important to Robinson, a black woman who has directed films that include "Herbie: Fully Loaded," that these women know what they're up against: an industry in which women and people of color are few and far between, rarely run the show and are seen as threats to the job security of established white men.

As she explained to The Huffington Post, "If you have a job, then probably a white guy doesn’t."

To say a successful black female director like Robinson is a rarity in Hollywood would be an understatement. A recently published study out of USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism assessed 407 of the directors who premiered major movies and shows during 2014-2015. Only 53 were people of color. And only two, Amma Asante and Ava DuVernay, were black women.

When it comes to other positions behind the camera, the situation is equally dismal for women of color.

“I’m often the only black person around. I’m often only the woman around," Robinson said.

When talking about the lack of diversity at the Oscars, many people think about black women only in terms of their representation in front of the camera. But the success of DuVernay's "Selma" aside, black female directors remain one of the most underutilized and systematically silenced groups in Hollywood.

Kasi Lemmons.
Kasi Lemmons.
Getty / New York Daily News Archive

Like many women and people of color in Hollywood, Robinson has grown used to not working with many people who look like her. She likes to say she is "fluent" in white maleness. When she first walked onto the set of Shonda Rhimes' diverse ABC show "How To Get Away With Murder," she found herself thinking, "Oh my God, there's so many people of color around.'"

"Then I realized, 'No, my own kind of view has been totally warped,'" she said.

Robinson emphasizes that she likes the white men she works with, for the most part. She doesn't believe they are especially racist, either, just occasionally unaware of their own privilege -- as when Matt Damon recently caused a viral uproar on HBO's "Project Greenlight," a show about the making of movies. The Academy Award-winning screenwriter told Hollywood producer Effie Brown that diversity was only in front of the camera, not behind it, leading a visibly shocked Brown to respond, "Wow, OK."

“I was like, that’s it!” Robinson said when she saw the viral clip. “It’s so off the cuff. It’s so the air we breathe."

Moments like this one are common among women and people of color in Hollywood. They just usually aren't aired on HBO.

Kasi Lemmons, the director of films including "Eve's Bayou" and "Black Nativity," remembers the confusion she encountered after she wrote a script with white leads and only one black character. “I would go into meetings and people literally thought I was the assistant,” she laughed.

Julie Dash has plenty of these types of stories, too. Twenty-five years after her 1991 film "Daughters of the Dust" won an award for excellence in cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival, Dash is still waiting for her first feature film to be green-lit. But she's heard every sort of excuse along the way.

“The answer was always going to be no, but they came up with more creative ways of saying no,” Dash said.

Studio executives once told her that a movie about a black woman in science and technology might "confuse the audience." She was told by someone she was asked to work with on a "Scandal"-like show called "Enemy of the Sun" that the plot was "not plausible" since her co-worker had "never met black people like this." Other times, she has faced hurdles that would give anyone with even a surface-level knowledge of black history a headache. Once, for example, a woman asked Dash while she was pitching a film about the Harlem Renaissance, "Is it happening now?"

On the off-chance that black filmmakers are asked to make a movie, they are usually given a shorter leash than their white male peers, Robinson believes.

It takes a couple times to learn how to be a director or a TV writer, and the white guy gets like 10 chances, so by the 10th movie or episode, he’s a pretty good director,” Robinson said. “The black person or the woman gets the one chance, which is really hard-fought.”

To prove her point, she recalled a story an actress once told her, in which she asked on the set of a television show why there weren’t more female directors involved. "Oh, we tried that once. It didn’t work," someone replied.


Then there is the issue of what types of movies black directors are actually offered, which often include some mixture of adaptations (DuVernay recently signed up for one of those), movies about poverty and historical dramas.

When we do do films, everyone is looking for us to do a civil rights story!” Dash said. “Why cant we just make films like everyone else?”

Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of such films as "Love & Basketball" and 2014's "Beyond the Lights," which was not included in the USC study because it was distributed by a company that was not examined, believes studio executives approve so many movies about the civil rights movement and slavery because those narratives are much more familiar to them than anything related to contemporary black culture.

"There is a comfort in a period piece because you recognize those characters, because you’ve grown up reading about them in history books," she said.

Dramatic stories about contemporary black culture and women of color, on the other hand, are a harder sell, according to Prince-Bythewood. "That’s what’s discriminated against," she said. "They feel that the audience is limited."

“The truth is, we need more films on contemporary life to open it up and allow people to see different sides of black life," she said. "We’re actually not a monolith."

“That’s why it’s so refreshing to have movies like ‘Straight Outta Compton,'" Lemmons agreed.


Robinson, for one, believes the problem is much more complicated than a lot of people make it out to be. After all, she works with and likes these people. They are often white men, yes, but also self-proclaimed liberals who listen to NPR and support Bernie Sanders. The issue, in her eyes, isn't any one individual, but the system they collectively come together to create.

“If you were to ask me, 'Is Hollywood racist?' Yeah. But are the people inside it? Eh, kind of?” she said.

Robinson believes the situation is best described as a “my kind of people” problem. Movies are expensive, and studio executives want to trust and really know people when they hand millions of dollars over to them.

"If I were to give someone $50-100 million dollars ... I'd really, really want to feel super comfortable with that person," she said. “Racism and sexism kind of go into it, but it’s more just a comfort thing. Like, you are my kind of person. I grew up with people like you. Or I went to college with people like you."

"And that’s more complicated than somebody [saying], ‘Oh, I just hate you for being black.'"

But there are signs studio executives shouldn't be so scared. In 2008, for example, a study out of San Diego State University found male and female filmmakers perform similarly at the box office when given similar budgets, perhaps a sign that the risk isn't as high as executives think.

Angela Robinson

For Dash and others, this isn't just a racial issue, but clearly a gender-based one as well. "I've been at events and they'll mention that Spike Lee and John Singleton, Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry -- they are in the [Library of Congress’] National Film Registry," Dash said.

"Well, I’m in the national film registry, too," she noted. "I’ll be sitting in the same audience, and they won't even mention me with the group."

"I've heard people say, 'Well, better to be African American than a woman -- women really don't work,'" Lemmons lamented. "Well, where does that leave African-American women?”

Looking forward, the women see it as their duty to help pull up people who look like them -- not just actors and directors and writers, but editors, production designers and everything in between, too.

"There are so many panels about how can we help diversity, and at the end of the day, you help it by not doing another panel, you help it by hiring," Prince-Bythewood said.

There's evidence to suggest that the best way out of Hollywood's diversity problem is through empowering these women. A separate, more recent study out of San Diego State University found that including even just one woman creator or executive producer drastically improved the percentage of women both in front of the camera and behind it.

Now it's just a matter of convincing the people at the top of Hollywood's hierarchy to see black women as the great artists that they are, first and foremost.

“We don't want to have to live with a banner across our chests and around our head," Lemmons said. "We just want to create. We just want to be appreciated in the environment in which we’re working, like everyone does. We want to work. We want to get paid for it, [and] we want to get acknowledged for good work."

She paused briefly, then added once more, "Like everybody does.”

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