The Sony Fallout: How the Emails Showcase Hollywood’s Racism

It’s been a wild couple of days since the Sony hackers, who go by the name “Guardians of Peace” released some very private and very telling emails between Sony brass and high-powered movie makers.

According to the hackers–who may be motivated by the Sony film North Korea hates, The Interview, a comedy about a plot to kill North Korea’s leader–this is just the first wave of private information they’re going to release to the public, but if there’s anything we can glean from the little bit they have released, it’s that Hollywood is just as racist as we’ve known it to be. Or perhaps I should say some of us have known it to be racist –let’s remember that there are some out there, like Rupert Murdoch and Ridley Scott, who don’t see a problem with having an all-white cast play Egyptians and have the actual people of color playing subservient roles. 

So what’s been going down with the released Sony emails? The correspondences between Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin reveal some out-of-date modes of thinking, including a particularly slimy strain of racism. I say “slimy” because it’s the kind of racism that isn’t overt and gets labeled “racial insensitivity.” But racial insensitivity is just a nicer word for “racism.” But because racism is generally thought of by most people of keeping minorities from lunch counters or burning crosses, the slimier strains of racism usually fly under the radar, even the radars of people who believe themselves not to be racist.

Such is the case with Pascal and Rudin. As published on Buzzfeed, Pascal and Rudin had engaged in various pigheaded conversations concerning Hollywood and race. One conversation, held before a Hollywod fundraiser for President Obama held by Dreamworks exec and ardent Obama supporter Jeffrey Katzenberg, involved Pascal asking Rudin what she should ask the president at “this stupid Jeffrey breakfast.” Rudin replied, “Would he like to finance some movies.”

“I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” Pascal asked, to which Rudin said, “12 YEARS.” Then came a litany of movies starring black actors and actresses or movies about black stories, like Lee Daniels’ The Butler or Think Like a Man. Or, as Rudin suggested, “Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.”

“So what’s racist about this?” you might be asking. Look, maybe he does like 12 Years A Slave” or Django Unchained. He wouldn’t be the only person, much less the only black person out there to like those movies. But to think that he’d only like the black movies? Does everyone think of black America as a Star Trek-esque monolithic community that we all dress, act, and think the same?

How come neither of them thought to just ask President Obama “How are you today?” like ANY OTHER HUMAN BEING? Or, since the fundraiser was a breakfast, what about ask “How ’bout them pancakes?” or something silly to break the ice? Why ask what to say to a black president as if he’s not a person who has concerns and thoughts outside of the color of his skin? Ironically, as Buzzfeed points out, the topic Obama did decide to address was the diversity portrayed in Hollywood, which he views as one of America’s best tools for diplomacy.

However, the issues with race don’t stop there. The Wrap reports that Defamer acquired documents revealing a March email conversation between Pascal and another Sony exec, Michael Lynton, and Screen Gems President Clint Culpepper. Let’s remember that Screen Gems, the division of Sony that released Think Like a Man, is what helped Hart get on the acting map.

The emails consist of a conversation about an upcoing movie starring Hart and how his team asked for more money for social media promotion purposes. That sounds fair; the idea Hart and his team had was that he’d do all the normal press junket interviews, photocalls and other types of publicity, but that he wanted more money to promote the film to his social media followers. Why not ask for more money? I figure he thinks that since he’s talking to Screen Gems, technically his movie home, and seeing how he consistently brings in an audience for Screen Gems, asking for more money shouldn’t have been be a problem.

But, that request didn’t go over well at all. Culpepper wrote in an email, “I’m not saying he’s a whore, but he’s a whore.”

Why would anyone say this about a person who consistently makes them bank a thousand fold each time they appear on the screen? I’m not that big of a person in Hollywood, but I’ve never lost sight of the fact that you never know who could find your emails or other online correspondence. Anything you write can be found out with the right technology and know-how; if you feel you’ve got to call someone a whore, then perhaps you should do it over a lunch date or something, so that there won’t be a paper trail. Ditto for Pascal and Rudin with that junk about presidental questions.

So is calling Hart a whore racist too? Well, I’ll say this–it certainly doesn’t speak well of a company who depends on Hart’s money to degredate their star in something as permanent as internet correspndence. One could argue that they don’t particularly care about him as much as they care about the money he can produce.

Hart seems to share my sentiment, since he released an Instagram statement:

Kevin Hart Instagram response

Since the email releases, Pascal and Rudin are trying to walk back the stain on their public images. Pascal called Rev. Al Sharpton to apologize for her emails. “I’m being proactive [,] [a]nd I want to accept responsibility for these stupid, callous remarks,” she said to The Hollywood Reporter.

Describing Sharpton as being “very warm” and accepting of her apology, she said that the conversation was “very preliminary” and had talked about “getting together and hoping to discuss a healing process.” Pascal also discussed with The Hollywood Reporter what it’s like to be called a “racist,” saying, “I know it’s not true. And I know it doesn’t reflect who I am or what I feel or what I’ve done. That certainly doesn’t reflect this studio and what we’ve done here.” She also included Rudin in her conversation with The Hollywood Repoter. She said she’s talked to Rudin since the the emails were leaked to the public. “Scott feels equally bad,” she said. “We both feel hideously embarrassed and disappointed in ourselves…I’m sue you’ve written emails that you wouldn’t want other people trying to be figuring out.”

So far, it would appear Culpepper hasn’t released a statement walking back his opinion of Hart. But with or without apologies from any of them, it shows what many have known all along–that Hollywood has a long ways to go before it actually becomes the bastion of diversity as Obama proclaims it to be. That work, though, begins on the inside, since Hollywood, like it’s movies, concentrates a lot on artifice.

Hollywood, which made its first money with the KKK-centric film Birth of a Nation, has somehow acquired the perception of being a liberal place, but several studies will tell you that Hollywood is anything but liberal. Hollywood still has a low rate of films featuring diverse casts or minorities in leading roles. Hollywood is still scared of showing gay relationships and gay characters who aren’t molding to a stereotype. Hollywood is only just getting out the mindset that only funny black films sell to audiences and thanks to the international success of Dear White People, it’s also just now retiring the idea that minority-led films don’t sell overseas. And to tip  a bit in to Hollywood’s sexism, older men get to remain action stars while older women still have to fight for roles outside of “mother” or “grandmother.” Old men are still seen as sexually viable while middle-aged and older women keep getting facelifts to stay looking young and to be seen as a viable actress.

The reasons why Hollywood is thought of as a liberal place can be found in Pascal’s worldview. Pascal, like a lot of Hollywood movers and shakers, contribute heavily to the Democratic Party. As such, many people think of themselves as liberal, progressive, and above all, not a racist (especially since the Democratic Party has an overwhelming number of minorities in its ranks).

But that’s where the flaw in the thinking is. You can be a liberal, progressive person who voted for Obama and feel like you are a person that doesn’t fit the traditional bill of “racism.” And indeed, you don’t actually have to be a self-proclaimed racist to be a little racist.  But being a liberal who voted for Obama does not mean that you aren’t immune to racist thoughts or a racist culture, which could be argued makes up a lot of Hollywood. Thinking that Obama would only watch what Hollywood calls “black” movies proves this to be true.

Key members of black Hollywood, including Shonda Rhimes and Sharpton, have come out against the emails. Rhimes tweeted:

Sharpton, who Pascal said accepted her apology, said to Variety, “These emails nominate Amy Pascal to be considered by some of us in the same light that we concluded and moved on the ownership of Donald Sterling of the L.A. Clippers…The statements clearly show how comfortable major studio powers are with racial language and marginalization. Her apology is not enough; there must be moves by her studio and others to respect the African-American community and reflect that respect in their hiring and business practices.”

I invoked Exodus: Gods and Kings above and to round out this post, I’ll invoke it again, because the film and its casting reflects what’s really wrong with Hollywood. The key players in Hollywood have bought into the perception that they are not working in a racist business when, in fact, they are. Hollywood only reflects and creates based on American society; Hollywood, like America, indulges in white privilege, whether it’s giving roles that require people of color to white actors and actresses or calling a prime money maker for your studio a “whore.”

The idea that black people in Hollywood are better seen and not heard, are only good for the money they make, and should only be relegated to the roles Hollywood feels is fit for them is what’s really wrong with Hollywood from a racial standpoint. Sharpton is right–it will take more than an apology from Pascal, who is one of the people who literally holds the types of images (or lack of images) we see of ourselves in mainstream media in her hands.  It will take her and others actually investing their time and energy into an audience they still don’t seem to know or even want to understand.

UPDATE: Now included in the racial fallout are emails about Denzel Washington’s international star power and Aaron Sorkin’s idea that there aren’t any viable Asian male stars. Also, Sony has since cancelled any screenings of The Interview (including VOD releases) after theaters pulled out of showing the film due to the hackers threatening a 9/11-esque attack on any theaters showing the film.  Also, Sony employees are now suing the company; they claim the company didn’t do enough to keep employees’ important information, such as social security numbers and medical records, from being breached by computer attacks.

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