On April 13, 1964, Sidney Poitier made history by becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Poitier’s Oscar-wining performance in Lilies of the Field resonated nicely with the integrationist project of the times by promoting a carefully contained image of blackness, the “Good Negro.” This representation would flourish in film and television throughout the turbulent 1960s, just as the philosophy of nonviolent direct action associated with the Civil Rights Movement was losing discursive ground to the more militant doctrine of Black Power.
Today — 50 years after Poitier’s achievement — an African American man occupies the White House and an African American woman heads the prestigious fraternity of Hollywood insiders who control the Oscars. But these achievements, viewed in isolation, run the risk of diverting our attention away from the stubborn realities of race in America. Just as the mass of African Americans today still find themselves near the bottom of society on nearly every measure of socioeconomic status, so too do people of color continue to enjoy only marginal participation in a Hollywood industry that produces more than mere entertainment.
To be sure, there has been a lack of racial and ethnic diversity throughout the history of film and television, both in front of and behind the camera. Not only has this situation resulted in limited employment access for people of color in the industry, but it also has constrained the quantity and quality of the racial representations circulating in society. This is significant because media representations contribute greatly to how we think about who we are, who we aren’t, and who we hope to be. We spend much of our existence engaged with the fiction-based dream worlds created by the Hollywood productions saturating much of the nation’s cultural space. But when marginalized groups in society are absent from the stories a nation tells about itself, or when these stories circulate representations rooted primarily in caricature and stereotype, inequality is normalized and is thus more likely to be reinforced over time.
How do we make sense of the disconnect between an increasingly diversifying America and the continued marginalization of people of color in popular film and television?
During the 2013-14 academic year, the Bunche Center will mark the 50th anniversary of Poitier’s historic Oscar by kicking off a research project that centers this question. The Hollywood Advancement Project aims to accomplish three goals: 1) to generate a comprehensive research analysis of the inclusion of diverse groups in film and television, including starring roles, writing, directing, producing, and talent representation; 2) to identify and disseminate best practices for increasing the pipeline of underrepresented groups into the Hollywood entertainment industry; and 3) to examine the relationships between industry diversity (or the lack thereof) and the representational practices that shape popular film and television in an evolving America.
As we roll out the pilot study for the Hollywood Advancement Project, please join us at the Bunche Center for an engaging year of lectures, book signings, and other programmatic initiatives.
Professor of Sociology