The Wall and the Other Side of the Camera

Two weeks ago I worked on a hilarious Pilot for a weekly 1/2 hour show. It was an immensely enjoyable experience. I have every confidence that it will be picked up. I hope that if it is I will be called to work on it.  

It was refreshing to work on this pilot for two outstanding reasons:

Reason One (yuck)

I’ve been working in the most popular genres in American television, the procedural. Each week a myriad of television crime dramas present it’s audience with a cadaver, a suspect, a motive and a solution all in the time it takes to sell hot wings, lingerie and a few luxury cars. 

The weekly sight of another scantily clad coed cadaver laying in the bushes has calloused the minds of America to the horrors of murder and desensitized the public to the lasting repercussions of losing a loved one to a completely preventable and many times unnecessary death.  

Reason Two (and the main point of this essay)

Last month I was working on a feature and we were shooting in a kids community center. The director wanted the change the bulletin board and said, “Do you have any colored flyers”?  I responded, “We call them the Tuskegee Airmen”…(crickets)
thought it was funny…
OMG, B-L-A-C-K people! 

The film industry is a notoriously nepotistic and homogenized industry. I’ve spent most of my career as the only or one of few African Americans on most of the productions I’ve been a part of. I could easily say aloud, WHOLE DUP!…and…get…no…response. Culturally isolated.  A vast chasm of Morissey, Nickleback, Kenny Chesney, Dane Cook, Surfing, soccer and Hockey with so few culturally congruent references that I remain lost on my own island of Jazz, Hip-Hop, Basketball, African American history and culture.   The NFL may be the only consistent common ground, culturally. 

This was a refreshing repose from such isolation. The executive producer and star was a longtime acquaintance and I truly consider him “family”. I must qualify “family”. The African American community within the film industry is a sort of secret “family” due to the limited numbers of African Americans in the industry. 

As elated I was to see people of a similar visual signature and assumed cultural familiarity I was soon brought back to reality as I observed that the only other caramel, chocolate, mocha, coffee and latte flavored human-suits were worn by the executive producers entourage and fellow actors. Alone again, naturally.

              

The Wall

The population behind the camera steadily grew
as the week progressed and read through and rehearsals vulcanized the body of teleplay. I felt life, humor and humanity breathing into the concept of the production. As more and more writers producers an network personnel arrived for rehearsals and run throughs I consciously or subconsciously scanned for another person of color.

The executive producer/star had a staff of friends/relatives on the production that he was grooming as writers/producers for entry into our industry. Some of them worked for his company others were new to the process. Their exclusive presence via invitation only was the most poignant reminder that the only opportunities for advancement for African Americans in this industry are made by African Americans in this industry.  

At weeks end and time for the first live show the stage was a buzz with excitement as the final product was performed in front of a live stage audience. Genuine laughter from our audience and the network, production and studio personnel validated the week of hard work and whispered a promise of a new hit show. 

As the audience filed out and the stage floor flooded with the network people congratulating the cast, crew, writers and producers I wondered if anyone other than myself saw that humongous elephant. At least 150 people on the floor and only two, the 2nd assistant director and myself, were African American. It’s not unusual to have such an absence of cultural balance or lack of representation on a production. 

I wasn’t sure who all “those people” were. When we performed the “Network” run through the entourage grew.  As I took visual inventory of them I wondered what their paths were. The film industry touts itself as an equal opportunity business. With a bit of positioning, twisting, turning   
and quite a few modifications I’m sure we could rise to such obscure definitions of “equal” and “opportunity”. 

They were all polite, cool, articulate personable and seem to defer to the Star/Producer in complete admiration and deference. I do know that not one person other than me was African American. I also know (or feel) that not one person in that crowd was more qualified, experienced, talented or articulate as I or many of the talented African Americans I know in the business and in other industries. The determining factor is not just the invisible wall that we say doesn’t exist. It’s also a legacy of mentorship in this industry which is predicated upon its historically nepotistic origins. 

Nepotism unfortunately carries with it some very negative connotations. The word can invoke the image of a spoiled, entitled son or daughter of a studio executive gets the keys to drive a car that he doesn’t know how to drive. Nepotism can also be used to explain why a young man who just happens to be the son of a gaffer is so knowledgeable about lighting that he becomes a director of photography by time he’s 28. He has benefited from two lifetimes of experience ; his fathers and his own. 

The perpetual cycle of exclusion can only be broken if those who benefit from it (WHITE PEOPLE) make the effort from the other side of the racial barrier. 

  

Yes WHITE PEOPLE!

If you ask most department heads why they don’t hire more African Americans the usual answer is, “I don’t know any”. A polite and non confrontational person would let it end there. We know that this is neither an acceptable answer nor a solution to diversity in any industry.  The lack of experienced African Americans on the other side if the camera can be directly attributed to the lack of opportunity to learn the crafts and skills. When Afrycan are given lip service opportunities it’s often under pressure from an outside agent or an “above the line” force.  A reticent department head will hire an African American to acquiesce to the pressures of the producer(s) or director. They get any black face qualified or not to quiet the drums. Offer no support and subliminal or overt sabotage to validate their latent bigotry. I’ve seen this scenario a few times.  I’m pretty sure I’ve disappointed a few bigots because I more often than not rise to occasion. 

My point is if there aren’t any qualified Latinos  or African-Americans it is time to find Latinos and African-Americans and assist them  in becoming qualified. 

If you can count how many African Americans you know, you don’t know enough. 

When there is a production in town with an African American producer or director that has been present and verbal enough to tell his or her department heads that there is a diversity goal on the production the phones of African Americans start ringing off the hook as department heads scramble to staff a few tokens and window dressing. I usually turn down these calls if I know that I’m being hired because of this brand of affirmative action.  

My logic and reasoning is this: if you are calling me because someone lit a fire under your ass and told you to hire some qualified African American craftsman and you had my number in your pocket, why didn’t you hire me when you weren’t compelled by the producers? I’m not an excellent “black” crew member, I’m an excellent crew member. You’ve told me in no uncertain terms that you would only consider me when forced to. I don’t want to be forced on anyone. It is also clear that you are hiring me to save yourself. I’ve been through this a few times. I get an unsolicited call from a leadman or decorator that I’ve known for years. When these calls come from out of the blue I always hope that I’m working or in a position to turn down work. The point which may have eluded the willfully myopic is this: If you know an African American don’t wait until someone puts a gun to your head to hire him/her. If someone has to put a gun to your head to get you to do it, it’s not worth it.  

The wall must come down 

The African Americans in the industry simply cannot do all the heavy lifting in this project. First of all the wall doesn’t want to be moved. 
That is precisely why I say the the wall can only be torn down by those that have erected it (and PLEASE don’t try to tell me that it’s not there because I’m looking at it now).
Those that deny racism facilitate its proliferation  
The journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step. It would be nice to have directions toward the proper path or never shown a possible destination. 

What’s the solution? I thought you’d never ask! 

A group of studio executives and a development team that resembles the cast of “FRIENDS 2.0” escorting an entourage of LAUSD and LACCD Latino and African American teens and twenty somethings through the stages, editing suites, marketing departments, development offices, writers rooms and screening rooms is EXACTLY the scenario I envision. Id imagine a peek behind the curtain and a no holds barred dialogue about EXACTLY the journey that was taken would demystify what’s behind the wall. Students would be given a tangible mental property to anchor their ambitions.  

If I had my way each person on the floor would be assigned four African Americans to mentor and nurture toward a studio position; One in high school, one in Junior high and one in college one from inside of the industry that shows interest or applies to a program.  I’d also endorse a studio high school and junior college mentorship and intern program tied directly to LAUSD,  NAACP (they have time for the image awards) and LACCD. 

You mean you want ME to mentor, nurture, guide and facilitate someone to compete for MY job? 

In a word yes. 

What is your fear? 

Competition?

Competition makes us all better at what we do.

Displacement?

If you work hard you’ll move up and those that you’ve mentored will be there to support you and probably make you look like you’re more talented than you actually are. 

We could justify and squirm all day but we all know that this industry does not reflect in its personnel the percentage of minority’s that reside in its host city.
I challenge the writers, producers, executive producers to broaden their perspective and deepen the talent pooled creatures and technicians that make our wonderful products. 

It is a challenge to those on both sides of the wall. I’m open for solutions but please don’t try to tell me that it doesn’t exist. I’ve bumps a bruises from running into it and I have the scars to prove it.

Bruce Bellamy local 44 

3rd best on-set dresser and the guy who calls out the elephant in the room.

Brucebellamy@mac.com

  
PS:

For all those whom the above cultural reference has been lost upon, the correct response to the call “Whole Dup”! Is “Wait a minute, let me put some (boom, funk, love, groove, boogie, bass) in it”!

ie:
“Hold up, wait a minute. Let us put our groove in it”!

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