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2000-03-24

Changing the Face of Hollywood: Black Filmmaker Sues Hollywood Over Racial Discrimination

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Well, the Academy Awards are approaching, and the Oscars that were stolen were recently found in a trashcan. It seems that if you are a person of color in the film industry that’s the only way you are going to get an Oscar. Since 1940, when Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her role in Gone with the Wind, only five other African Americans have won the award. And an African American has not won for best supporting actor since 1963, when Sidney Poitier received an Oscar for "Lilies of the Field." [includes rush transcript]

Hollywood is a predominantly white business, with 96% of the directing jobs going to whites. But one Black filmmaker is out to change the face of Hollywood. He is suing the major movie companies as part of a class action discrimination suit. Some of the companies targeted include Warner Brothers, Disney, Paramount, MGM and Universal.

Guests:

  • Jamaa Fanaka, Black filmmaker, graduate of UCLA film school and 1991 recipient of the NAACP Image Awards. He has written, directed and produced six feature films, including the "Penitentiary" series, "Street Wars" and "Soul Vengeance." He is suing the major Hollywood film companies. E-mail: Jamaa Fanaka Call: 310.833.2367.
  • Irving Meyer, lawyer for Jamaa Fanaka.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know what your plans are for the weekend, folks, but for some people, they are going to be paying attention to the Academy Awards. And today, we’re going to take a look at that issue, as well.

There was an interesting piece in the paper the other day that we took a look at, the Los Angeles Times, by Karen Grigsby Bates. It said, "The retrieved Oscars were still warm from the TV crews’ lights at the press conference where they’d been displayed when the jokes began, all a variation of the same thing: ’That’s about the only way a brother’s gonna get an Oscar in Hollywood.’

“Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but the spirit of the observation isn’t too far off the mark. In its 72-year history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been a bit, well, stingy in awarding its coveted little gold statuettes to actors who happen to be significantly browner than the general membership. Hattie McDaniel was the first person to win one in 1940 (best supporting actress) for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s devoted slave, Mammy, in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Since then, there have been so few more that we can name them all here:

“Sidney Poitier won as best actor in 1963 for his role as itinerant laborer Homer Smith in Lilies Of the Field.

“Louis Gossett Jr. won best supporting actor for his portrayal of a tough drill instructor in the 1982 movie An Officer and a Gentleman.

“Denzel Washington won best supporting actor for his role as a slave-turned-soldier in 1989’s Glory and is nominated this year for best actor for his depiction of boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter in The Hurricane.

“Whoopi Goldberg won best supporting actress for her performance as a sharp-talking medium helping to find the killer of a New York banker in the 1990 film Ghost.

“Cuba Gooding Jr. won best supporting actor for his 1996 role as a 'show-me-the-money' football player in Jerry Maguire.

"As Porky Pig would note, ’That’s all, folks’—until Willie Fulgear found the filched Oscars that made him, temporarily anyway, the most Oscar-laden player in all of Los Angeles. Of any color."

Well, we’re joined right now by two people to talk about the situation for people of color in Hollywood, particularly today looking at African Americans. Jamaa Fanaka is with us, black filmmaker, graduate of UCLA Film School and 1991 recipient of the NAACP Image Awards. He’s written, directed and produced six feature films, including The Penitentiary Series, Street Wars and Soul Vengeance. He’s suing major Hollywood film companies. And we’re joined by his lawyer Irving Meyer. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

JAMAA FANAKA: Hello.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jamaa Fanaka, tell us the basis of your suit.

JAMAA FANAKA: Well, the basis of my suit is that Hollywood for decades has had hiring practices that violate the law. And it’s apropos that we follow your segment on PSYOPS, because PSYOPS or the procedures of PSYOPS or the concept of PSYOPS also apply not only to war, but to peace. Once you get the mind, the heart will follow. And so, I took the President’s Initiative on Race, the report of the President’s Initiative on Race, to heart when they said that the media is the key to racial harmony in America, because the media influences all institutions. The media influences the family, the media influences the church, the media influences the school. And for the media to be, as the NAACP recently said, "the most racist industry in America" is a national disgrace.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, could you tell us a little bit about your experience in Hollywood, in terms of getting the artistic works, the film works that you want to produce made real?

JAMAA FANAKA: Yes. Well, I, in 1994, founded the African American Steering Committee of the Directors Guild of America. Once I founded that body, I was very serious about changing the landscape, employment landscape, for minority filmmakers. That’s all minority filmmakers. Latinos — by the way, are you the same Juan Gonzalez that wrote Harvest of Empire?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I am. Yes.

JAMAA FANAKA: Great book, bellwether for the twenty-first century. I just wanted to mention that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you.

JAMAA FANAKA: But after I founded the African American Steering Committee, I educated myself, and I found out that in 1981 the studio, the networks agreed to include Article 15-201 into its collective bargaining agreement. Article 15-201 says — and I quote — "Producers" — that means all the signatories of the collective bargaining agreement of the Directors Guild — "shall make good faith efforts to increase the number of working women and ethnic minority directors." Since that time, minorities, the appointment of minorities has gone down. Women have gone up from a miniscule 3% to a very, very small 8%. So that means that 88% of the jobs go to white males, 8% to white females, 4% to all minorities.

And I decided that someone somewhere had to take a stand, and I initially filed my class-action lawsuit in pro per. I was able to educate myself in the intricacies of the law, because of the internet and because of a system called LexisNexis, which allows the layperson — you know, we don’t have any rights. We don’t have the wherewithal to protect. I mean, you know, you see on Cops all the time where you see people say "I know my rights," but, you know, you might know your rights, but they don’t mean anything unless you have the wherewithal to protect those rights. So I set about this litigation, and we recently won a major victory, thanks to the excellent attorney who’s on the other line, Irving Meyer, who won a major victory in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. They reinstated our class-action lawsuit with gusto.

AMY GOODMAN: Irving Meyer is with us, Jamaa Fanaka, and I wanted to ask him, the grounds on which it was first dismissed and then reinstated, Attorney Irving Meyer?

IRVING MEYER: Sure. It was initially — it was dismissed because of some technical pleading inadequacies, so the judge in Los Angeles thought — two things the judge said were lacking in Mr. Fanaka’s complaint. Oone was the fact that Mr. Fanaka had actually stated and shown that he had applied for approximately 2,300 jobs as a director for motion pictures and for television shows and did not receive one offer, in spite of Mr. Fanaka’s experience, did not receive one offer. The judge said, "Oh, it’s impossible for Mr. Fanaka to have applied for 2,300 jobs." Well, in fact, he did. He did it just the way the system requires you to apply for the jobs, and that is to let the studios know and the networks know that you’re available to do these shows that are in the process of being produced.

The other thing that the court said that was inadequate was that Mr. Fanaka did not state the number of minorities who applied for a director’s job with the studios and/or the networks. And that, in fact, is an impossible statistic, because no one keeps it, number one, and number two, which is more important, is the fact that minorities over the years have learned and know that the studios and the networks have discriminated against them and are not in fact interested in them to be a director of films or television shows, and therefore there’s no reason for them to apply, because it’s just a fruitless effort for them to apply. So even if there were statistics, they would be unreliable as to the number of minorities who were capable of — who were interested in those jobs, because they’re discouraged from applying.

So we’re in the process of putting together a Sixth Amendment complaint, in which we will put all of that information together. We’re going to pare down the number of jobs that Mr. Fanaka applied for, although we’re going to include the 2,300 jobs, but we’re going to clarify a smaller number to show the judge just that Mr. Fanaka applied for these jobs, because Mr. Fanaka did not get those jobs and didn’t even get an interview for those jobs, in spite of the fact of Mr. Fanaka’s major accomplishments as a director, which far exceed just about most — I’m not talking about maybe a film like Titanic, but most of the films that are directed by directors, a lot of whom are first-time directors. So that’s where we are right now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Jamaa Fanaka, what do you make of the recent hullabaloo between a lot of the television networks and the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza and other groups, in terms of them suddenly now saying, "OK, we’re going to make a commitment to actually move on hiring directors, actors and people in all other aspects of at least the production of television shows"? Do you sense that this is any — that this is substantive or real, or is this just an immediate reaction that will go like many of the others and in a few years it will slip back into the status quo?

JAMAA FANAKA: Firstly, I want to say I support the NAACP and La Raza and the other efforts of the civil rights organizations to bring Hollywood into compliance with law, the Civil Right Act of 1964. But I do not trust Hollywood, and I have good reason not to trust Hollywood. First of all, the agreements reached by the NAACP, et al., have no provisions for enforcement; they are not binding. And Hollywood back in 1981, as I see it, for the first time included Article 15-201 into its collective bargaining agreement, which contractually obligated Hollywood to apply good faith efforts to increase the number of minority and women filmmakers — and we lost ground!

As a matter of fact, I’m going to give you a scoop right now about the felonious federal crimes that the Directors Guild of America, my former union, committed against me in order to silence me and kick me out of the DGA. They charged me with doing ridiculous things, like at meetings, like they charged me with standing up and calling people "MFs" and charging the stage and scaring the top executives at one meeting. Pure unadulterated BS. And I can prove it, because my parents, who are in their eighties now, have taught me from the time I was a child: never go into a lion’s den wearing a pork chop suit. So each time I went to the DGA, I had a tape recorder recording each and every word I said. Each and every time I addressed a fellow DGA member, I said, "My brother, my brother" — not "MF" — "my brother".

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe they translated it that way.

JAMAA FANAKA: Yeah, yeah. They conveniently translated it that way. I have taken these federal crimes to the office of the US attorney here in Los Angeles, Alexander Mayorkas, and he has assured me that he is going to vigorously investigate. What they did to me can be compared to the police scandal. It’s no different. The only difference is that they murdered —- attempted to murder my reputation and my name and my credibility in order to undermine my lawsuit. And they did it by committing the crimes of perjury, subordination of perjury, conspiracy, intimidation of witnesses, falsification of documents -—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me just ask, as we go out, which movie companies are you suing?

JAMAA FANAKA: Every one of them. Every major studio and every television network.

AMY GOODMAN: Universal, MGM?

JAMAA FANAKA: Universal, MGM, the Spielberg companies —

AMY GOODMAN: Warner Bros.?

JAMAA FANAKA: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, the Warner Bros. channel. I’m suing them all.

AMY GOODMAN: Disney and Paramount.

JAMAA FANAKA: They’re all in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Jamaa Fanaka, filmmaker, maker of Penitentiary, Street Wars, Soul Vengeance, suing the major Hollywood film companies, and his attorney Irving Meyer. If people want to get in touch with you, where can they call or go on the web?

JAMAA FANAKA: OK, right now, I’m making a website called "Pro se can you see." It will be up soon. But my email address is fanaka(at)aol.com. My number is (310) 833-2367.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you very much for being with us. That’s (310) 833-2367.

JAMAA FANAKA: Thank you, and God bless you both.

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