Sony Back on the Racial Hot Seat

Amy Pascal chairperson of the Motion Pictures Group of Sony Pictures Entertainment is gone. Film producer Scott Rudin apologized profusely and has kept a deliberate low to no public profile. Both took much deserved heat last December when a stack of hacked leaked emails caught them taking silly and ugly racial digs, barbs, and shots at a parade of noted blacks within and without Hollywood. Pascal's kick to the curb and Rudin's apology seemed to bode well that Sony's racial soul search might spur it to right the ship and create real opportunities for blacks who have tried mightily to crack into the film business.

But now along comes a former long-term Sony employee who says that Sony executive's renunciation of its racial gaffes and talk about diversity is nothing more than a cover-their-fanny PR ploy that hides a far deeper problem that's endemic at Sony and other film studios. That's the systematic door-shut policy toward hiring and promoting African-Americans. And worse, the former employee claims, that the few who do manage to slide through the air-tight door, are subjected to verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation. The leaked emails in December sent Sony, the feds, President Obama, and the film industry into a tizzy. This former employee was prominently mentioned as an "unnamed African-American woman."

During her five plus years at Sony from 2006 to 2011, she worked under several top Sony executives, and was privy to many internal documents on film projects, personnel decisions on hires and promotions, and those fired and laid off. She compiled the names and numbers of African-Americans and non-African-Americans who came through Sony's personnel doors and what their fates were. Her list tells a brutal tale of a company that systematically engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination. She claims that during her tenure working under the top executive at International Distribution at Sony Pictures Television in Culver City, the scorecard for black hires and promotions reads zero. During the same period she claims 24 non-African-Americans were hired. During the same period, three African-Americans were fired or laid off.

Sony denied the charges. But yet in another telling email, Sony attorneys ordered that there be no response or engagement with the former employee. The glaring implication is that this is just another case of an embittered, disgruntled ex-employee trying to get back at a company that dumped them.

The problem with this is the charges of blatant discrimination by a former insider, if anything underscores the bigger problem that the film industry has been smacked with in recent years. That's the virtual disappearance of minorities from top to bottom positions in the business. Two studies in 2014 by UCLA and USC Annenberg found the same abysmal numbers on minorities and women that the former Sony employee detailed in every area of the film industry. It found few minority and women directors, writers, and on-screen performers in the studios.

The Annenberg study found that the industry has been in virtual free fall since 2007 in the number of non-white actors with speaking parts in major films. It's not simply the numbers that paint a dismal picture of diminished black fortunes in Hollywood. Over the course of nearly a century's worth of Hollywood films, 88-99 percent of all Academy Awards winners have been white. There's also the issue of sensitivity. On the eve of the Academy Awards ceremonies, an anonymous member of the Academy bristled at the criticism of the Academy members for excluding Selma director, Ava DuVernay. The member purportedly claimed that Selma "had no art to it." This sentiment about an important film almost certainly is not the ravings of a lone bigot, but the sentiment of many academy members toward racial-themed film's wariness and hostility.

Now back to Sony Pictures Entertainment. It is a global movie and entertainment behemoth. It reported 8 billion in group sales in 2013. The company along with News Corporations which owns 20th Century Fox, the Walt Disney Company -- owns Buena Vista, Walt Disney Studios. Miramax/Dimension Films, Viacom -- owns Paramount Pictures, Time Warner -- owns both Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. And NBC Universal -- owns Universal Studios are known as the Big Eight among film companies. They totally dominate the movie and television production market. Studio executives can make or break any film project. They have full say-so over who gets hired or fired. The decisions Sony executives make in these crucial areas of film making set the trend for the entire industry. If Sony promotes a culture of racial insensitivity and outright bigotry in its personnel practices that rest of the industry will take that as its cue.

True diversity is more than a studio spotlighting a few black mega stars in big production movies and then back patting itself for its efforts to make diversity a reality. It means implementing meaningful programs, initiatives to promote diversity training and hiring, and promotions opportunities for talented filmmakers, writers, and opening the Academy door wide to minorities.

The former Sony employee that went public with her claims of racial harassment and exclusion stands as yet another sorry case of a film biggie dumped back on the racial hot seat. Its challenge is to get off.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. His forthcoming book is: From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History (Middle Passage Press).

He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.