A couple of days ago I read the New York Times article What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (*If you’re not a straight white man.). More accurately, I read the article over a two-day span, because I became so disheartened and angry that I stopped reading halfway through the first time and finished it up the next day. It’s an excellent piece, a collection of honest and insightful interviews with women and ethnic minorities who have managed to forge ahead and establish careers for themselves in Hollywood, in spite of the gatekeepers, the good old boys and the white monopoly that exist all the way from the cast and crew up to the studios heads and executive producers who see no reason whatsoever to have people of color and women be a part of the industry unless it would serve their bottom line.
The article got me thinking about and remembering experiences in both my personal and creative life – including 13 years pursuing and working as an actress in Los Angeles – that relate to a number of the stories contributed to the article. I decided to explore it section by section and use it as as a jumping off point to blog about some of those experiences.
SAM ESMAIL, Creator, “Mr. Robot”
“Growing up, I [thought] white male was the norm, the default character in every story. I never thought other possibilities could exist. And I remember thinking, when I would watch Woody Allen films or films that felt personal, I wonder what I’m going to do when I write my personal films, because I can’t cast an Egyptian-American; that would be weird. In film school, there was this need to talk about your ethnicity and to make essentially social-message films. But I resisted, because I felt that it changed the conversation of what the movie was about.”
I grew up as part of my closely knit tribe of Nigerian-Trinidadian family, and although my childhood and adolescent years were spent in white-majority neighborhoods, I don’t recall actively thinking that white or that white male was “the norm.” Yes, I was different, and while that felt alienating at times, I also liked being unique.
I read a lot, and every story I read for school or for leisure, with a handful of exceptions, had a white protagonist. Not that I ever thought much about whether they were white, it was obvious they were. I also grew up assuming they were, because if they weren’t, it was mentioned. The default was white.
In my preteen and teenage years, there was this series I loved called The Girls of Canby Hall, and there was one black character of the trio of friend. Her name was Faith. She was pictured on the front of the book with nice coco-brown skin, and she even had short, Afro-curly hair. Some of her story lines had to do with her stuggles to fit it because of looking different and also coming from a working-class background to a presigious all-girls boarding school. However, while Faith was aware of her otherness, she mostly had the same types of struggles everyone else did, trying to fit in in high school. I appreciated that, that her story wasn’t all about her being black, that she was a whole person that I could relate to as much as I could relate to the other girls.
Fast forward years later when I was serious about acting as a career. I became more and more aware that many of the movies I had grown up watching, loving, and that I still aspired to be a part of were about the full spectrum of life experiences and human emotions, fleshed out and put up on screen. But those movies never had black people embodying those roles, telling those stories. They were always white. Always. Black people were in the movies about gangs, the ghetto, inner-city life, extreme poverty, drugs – all stuff that was far outside the realm of my protected, suburban upbringing.
Sam Esmail says, “In film school, there was this need to talk about your ethnicity and to make essentially social-message films. But I resisted, because I felt that it changed the conversation of what the movie was about.” I had a similar resistance because I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as a “black girl” or a “black woman” – I found that so limiting to define myself in those terms, and it wasn’t me, to view myself so narrowly and make that one aspect the most important aspect of my identity to the exclusion of anything else. So, I had no desire to take on roles that put me in that position, where blackness was the basis and often the extent of who my character was or where she was coming from. To incorporate it as part of a fully developed character or story is one thing. To make that what every story is about, simply because of the way that I look, does change the conversation of what the movie is about.
What makes me mad is that white people and white stories don’t have to do this. Why? Because they get to be the default. In fact, white people are just “people,” and they’re not “white stories,” they’re just stories. That’s the message we get time and time again. On the other hand, actors of color are permitted to tell stories about their particular group’s experience, with the implication often being that it is something “other” than a more complete human experience.
I find this ludicrous. It’s almost funny, except that it makes me so frustrated I can’t laugh about it. Usually I’m steaming, seething, and once or twice even crying with rage and bewilderment about the arrogance that would drive somebody to see me in such a one-dimensounal way – a way that I have never, ever seen myself.
These days when I read stories and scripts, I have less of an automatic assumption that the protagonist is white, but the tendency to assume white is the default is still there. I have changed, though, from my childhood and teenage years; now I seek out more stories written by authors of color and writers of non-U.S. origin, because more often than not, the default is not the white, middle-class default I grew up reading.
As for the movie business, I’m no longer in Hollywood (and not missing it), and I so appreciate the creatives of color who are contining to push forward not only with stories that are ostensibly about race and ethnicity in the United States, but also the stories that aren’t about that. Maybe I look to those films more to push through the gates of stereotyping and prejudice in a subversive and very powerful way, because they show us the lives and universal human experiences as told by protagonists who happen to be Mexican-American. Chinese-American. Nigerian-American. Indian-American. That’s redifining the default.