Adapting reality to the white viewer

The New York Times recently ran an article lamenting the all-white list of nominees for this year’s Oscars.  Randy Shaw (see below) points out that it ain’t just the movies; television offers few characters or programs aimed at the non-white audience. 

Shaw references David Simon’s The Wire as a blessed exception to the rule and wonders why such a critical success hasn’t been emulated (except by HBO’s Treme, and that show is also produced by David Simon).

It’s simple; The Wire was always more popular with critics than with viewers.  It held its own; but Simon’s programs received only a fraction of the audience that followed The Sopranos, for instance.  Why is that?  

The answer isn’t pleasant.  White audiences don’t relate well to non-white protagonists.

Early on in the Tulia fight, several producers showed a tentative interest in bringing the story to the silver screen.  I didn’t pay much attention to the let’s-make-a-movie phenomenon because we were years away from resolution.  Secondly, I figured the story was too morally ambiguous for Hollywood.  I remember being asked if my family would be interested in playing the starring role in a film.  When I protested that the affected community should be at the center of the movie I was assured that the American viewing public would have little interest in poor black people living in an isolated Texas town.

This was probably true; but the comment troubled me. 

As I expected, the much-ballyhooed Tulia movie never materialized.  Initially, Halle Berry was chosen as to play Vanita Gupta, the attorney who organized the final stage of the legal fight in Tulia.  Many wondered why an African-American was selected to play an Asian character.  I was told that the movie was expected to appeal primarily to an African-American audience. 

Again, this may have been true (I have no idea), but shouldn’t an important story be of interest to everyone?  No one made a film about Tulia because only in a few cases could actual innocence (as opposed to insufficient evidence) be demonstrated.  This wasn’t true in Hearne, so American Violet, a story that generated much less publicity than the Tulia story, was adapted for film instead.

Increasingly, entertainment and even the nightly news is being packaged for discrete audiences.  One result is that the news is viewed as a form of entertainment.  Is it any surprise that Americans are being told only what they expect to hear and that most stories from the criminal justice system cannot be told because, when heroes and villains are difficult to distinguish, viewer response is hard to anticipate.  Editors inevitably take a cautious approach and shocking examples of injustice pass unnoticed.

Take the war on drugs, for example.  In this drama (as The Wire clearly revealed) there are no good guys.  The dealers, the cops, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the media all come off looking bad.  Who wants to watch that kind of ambiguous jumble?  Had David Simon not crafted the most compelling television drama on record The Wire wouldn’t have survived the pilot.  Alan Bean    

The “Whiteout” of American Culture

Randy Shaw

Last Sunday night’s Grammy awards offered non-whites an increasingly rare opportunity to be seen on a mainstream national entertainment show. With the ten Oscar-nominated films whiter than those in 1940, and scripted network and cable television shows as white as the days before I Spy, it seems that African-American entertainers are only visible when singing or playing sports.

It’s even worse for Latinos. Despite steadily rising population numbers, Latinos are virtually invisible in mainstream movies and television. Nor are they given voice on national or cable news shows, including the “leaning forward” MSNBC. A troubling feature of this racial “whiteout” is that movie and television industries are not run by Tea Partiers, but by the type of celebrity progressives who blog on the Huffington Post. While these entertainment leaders donate to Barack Obama, their “whiteout” of American culture promotes cultural ignorance and helps ensure that issues affecting minority communities – such as the plight of our 13 million undocumented immigrants or the hardships of inner-city unemployment– stay ignored.

As census figures show the United States becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, those who fund mainstream culture in the United States are going in the opposite direction. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott detailed the decline of African-American movie roles in the February 13 New York Times, noting that most of the Oscar-nominated films lacked even a remote connection to the lives of African-Americans.

But the world of scripted television series is no better. The standard situation comedy directed at twenty-somethings (i.e. Friends) is an all-white affair, and so-called “premium” cable is just as racially exclusive.

The Showtime lineup has no African-American or Latino stars. HBO is little better with the exception of Tremé. Given the incredible critical acclaim for David Simon’s previous multi-racial, The Wire, it’s a sad comment that HBO shows that he is not involved with are largely whites only.

The Social Impact

As fewer Americans read a daily news source, television and movies have greater influence in shaping public attitudes. When African-Americans are limited to portrayals as drug dealers, criminals, police officers or other parts of the criminal justice system, it sends a strong message that these are people associated with, and even tolerant of, violence.

When is the last time Hollywood financed a multiracial film in which a young African-American regularly attended school, worked hard, played by all of society’s rules but was then unable to get a living wage full-time job? We have lots of movies about the white working class – both The Fighter and The Town are Oscar nominees – but the problems faced by the black and Latino working class are kept away from the mainstream movie audience.

It’s no wonder that whites have a much more optimistic view on the continued existence of racial discrimination than do African-Americans or Latinos. That’s another off-limits topic for movies and scripted television shows, which then contributes to whites not appreciating the extent of the problem.

The problems faced by the thirteen million primarily Latino undocumented immigrants, the reality of inner-city schools, or even comedies about multiracial workplaces are also out of view of mainstream moviegoers. Instead, our liberal Hollywood elite funds an entertainment culture as relevant to real life as June Cleaver wearing heels and pearls in her kitchen and the even more fictionalized life of the Ozzie Nelson family.

The Political Fallout

It often appears as if the Republican Party is not comfortable in a world of global warming, lesbian and gay rights, the structural unemployment crisis, and other features of modern life. Yet Hollywood liberals continue to fund an entertainment industry that re-creates this halcyon majority-white world and where none of today’s modern problems exist.

In other words, progressive entertainment producers are promoting films and television shows that bolster right-wing fantasies. Why? Is it all about money? Or is the insular white Hollywood infrastructure itself oblivious to the non-white world of Los Angeles that surround them?

Nobody is suggesting that producers create “Popular Front” vehicles where working people battle capitalist oppression; but it can’t be that hard to promote entertainment that includes the myriad daily struggles of people of color at all income levels, and which portrays African-Americans and Latinos beyond the standard stereotypes.

For example, a television series profiling a hard working family of undocumented immigrants could do more to pressure Congress and the Obama Administration to enact comprehensive immigration reform than any number of protests or elections. Imagine if each episode ended like the legendary, The Fugitive, in which the lead character must leave for another town every week to avoid being captured by police.

Some will argue that movies and television are all about money, and that shows featuring people of color would get made if they had an audience. But Tyler Perry’s box-office success has not sparked Hollywood to follow this model, and The Wire’s critical acclaim did not result in HBO adding any new series involving multi-cultural urban America.

It’s also claimed that movies and television series also fail to realistically portray working- class whites. But the above two films and many others refute this, and there are many television series – including HBO’s Hung and Showtime’s new Shameless portraying white working class families and their concerns.

The Obama Factor

Some believe that Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American president led entertainment moguls to feel safer in ignoring films and television series featuring non-whites. After all, how can they be accused of racial insensitivity when they backed an African-American for the presidency?

In light of Obama’s own primary reliance on white male advisors, and the exclusion of African-Americans (outside of his wife) or Latinos from his inner circle, there may be something to this. Many felt that Obama’s election would usher in a “post-racial” America – which for the entertainment industry means portraying the United States as it was in the 1950’s, with blacks and Latinos out of sight and out of mind.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, and is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.

8 thoughts on “Adapting reality to the white viewer

  1. Alan, Why don’t you find a script and get investors? Video technology has reduced costs. I am not an expert on this but you might want to look at actor financial participation in productions.

    Television needs advertisers. Desperate Housewives actually has a lot of scripts about undocumented workers. The mechanism is that Gabrielle and Carlos’s daughter was switched at birth with another girl and their birth daughter was raised by and lives with undocumented workers. The girl who lives with them is the birth daughter of the undocumented workers. Carlos found out when the girls were like 10. They didn’t want to upset the girl who believed that they were her birth parents so they reached out to the other parents without disclosing to the children that they had been switched as babies in the hospital. I know — a soap opera. But they have advertisers and a source of income.

    Death at a Funeral was a British comedy film made in 2007. It was remade in 2010 with black actors. My husband and I saw both and we were really confused at first when we saw the 2010 version. Didn’t we see this before? I think they used the same house and the same midget. The lines are the same I think. Just the race changed. The black family was shown as living in a big house filled with nice furniture.

    I don’t think there is much of a market for productions about people working in misery. The key word is “entertainment”.

  2. P.S. What do you think of “Grey’s Anatomy”?

    Did you ever follow “Boston Public”?

    I really think work themed docu drama’s are the vehicle you are looking for. How about one based on a building inspector? or a restaurant inspector?

  3. Wow where should I start on this one? First as a boxing fan I enjoyed the true story in the movie The Fighter. However I was disappointed that it didn’t include Ward’s fights with Arturo Gotti which were some of the best action I’ve ever seen in boxing. And The Town was so powerful that it left me paranoid that my store would be robbed. Both are great movies. Maybe I should be ashamed that I enjoyed watching people who I could identify with since I am an Irish American ex-fighter myself but I don’t. Does this mean I do not go to independent movies absolutely not. In fact they are my favorite genre. I enjoy viewing the lives, places and cultures of people that I have little interaction with. I can’t say that I do not know much about minorities since I have always been the minority where I live. Ironically after living in public housing projects in my youth I still have African Americans on all sides of home that is now in a relatively affluent neighborhood. Many cities and a few states are majority minority now including the one I live in. Texas is now in this same club now take this quote “Texas added nearly 1 million children under 18 — 95% of them Hispanic.”

    Speaking of Texas this was a damning article on Texas public policy.

    As I said I have a store in another state where 95% of my customers are Hispanic. Many weeks I never speak English at work and even my employees speak only Spanish.

    When I went to the movie ATL about urban youths in Atlanta (I went because two of my grown children also live there.) I was looked on with suspicion by the overwhelmingly black audience seated near me. Maybe the fact that I ‘m an older white male looking at attractive youths bothered them. I don’t know but the vibes were not positive. My daughter also was nearly attacked after viewing a movie about a white women stealing the affections of black men from there black wives. (She has never dated a black man but has many black friends of both sexes.) Maybe this type of uncomfortable experience reduces the box office numbers. After all we go to the movies to enjoy ourselves. For industry it is all about $ PBS is where

    You mention the news and I watch too much of that but I can not help but notice racially mixed (black/white/or Hispanic) news casters are well represented. CNN has the Black In America series and there is Oprah. I also see an effort in most series to include a respectable number of African Americans and usually in positive roles. If there is a really terrible character he usually is a Neo-Nazi, Russian mob boss or a home grown terrorist. For example I watched a movie about prison where three African American friends went to prison and one was raped by a white supremacist. This does not happen according to the studies. Here is a link and a quote.

    Past studies have documented the prevalence of black on white sexual aggression in prison.(213) These findings are further confirmed by Human Rights Watch’s own research. Overall, our correspondence and interviews with white, black, and Hispanic inmates convince us that white inmates are disproportionately targeted for abuse.(214) Although many whites reported being raped by white inmates, black on white abuse appears to be more common. To a much lesser extent, non-Hispanic whites also reported being victimized by Hispanic inmates.

    Other than sexual abuse of white inmates by African Americans, and, less frequently, Hispanics, interracial and interethnic sexual abuse appears to be much less common than sexual abuse committed by persons of one race or ethnicity against members of that same group. In other words, African Americans typically face sexual abuse at the hands of other African Americans, and Hispanics at the hands of other Hispanics. Some inmates told Human Rights Watch that this pattern reflected an inmate rule, one that was strictly enforced: “only a black can turn out [rape] a black, and only a chicano can turn out a chicano.”

    Maybe we should also have programs that truthfully depict this as well. After all last year we had 216,600 new victims and this is only counts the first time rape victims. They usually continue to be raped daily thereafter but no one counts that.

    Do you feel we should get this sad truth out or hide it? It would make a terrifying horror film wouldn’t it?

  4. You know honestly, I’m not at all sure I agree with this idea that the American people are not interested in the plight of poor black people. I really don’t think the average American is stupid or necessarily lazy – but we are so often sold that bill of goods. I think we’re often told by Hollywood what we, the American viewers, want – and mostly their wrong. Half the crap Hollywood puts out is geared more for the adolescent male – most the folks I know are not that and are not interested in that (well, except for the adolescent males of course). Just because we’re told we want something – doesn’t mean we actually do want it.

    I want film and TV programming to inform me, educate me – as well as entertain me. I want to know what happened in Tulia (which I actually learned about via a documentary) or other places where injustice abounds. I want to be challenged in my views and encouraged to think outside the societal box. We need that more than anything in this current day and age.

    So if there is any way you can get this story out – visually and viscerally – please do. We need it bad. We must be challenged on every level of our assumptions and world view.

  5. The most complete story of what happened in Tulia is available in print. It’s Alan’s book, “Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas.” It’s available directly from Alan or from

  6. Southland is a good exception to the rule. Currently, it features two women of color as leads, and deals in a sophisticated way with issues of race, class, criminal justice, and power.

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