It’s no secret that Hollywood has a problem with racism. Although the film industry has a reputation for being a bastion of liberal thought, it’s still full of white people who are prone to making terrible and insensitive decision. Nina, the recent the Nina Simone biopic, has become an emblematic example of how a group of ostensibly well-meaning white people (plus David Oyelowo and Zoe Saldana) can ensure a film will flop simply by making ill-advised casting and production decisions.
Yesterday we had Andrew Ti from Yo is This Racist? weigh in on Nina and the controversy that surrounded it. Today, we checked in with Jezebel staff writer Kara Brown, whose terse article “Meet the Team Behind Nina” exposed one of Hollywood’s biggest underlying problems. Here, she discusses the financial impetus for more diverse casts and how the media can help push Hollywood in the right direction.
So considering that Nina was basically dead on arrival, what’s the takeaway for Hollywood from this whole experience?
I think that there were a lot of important lessons learned, maybe not necessarily by the filmmakers or people involved with the film, but on a wider level, audiences watching the way that the film crashed and burned from day one was really interesting. And there was a lot of dialogue, especially for a film that no one had even seen yet. I live in Los Angeles, I think I saw it playing in four theaters. The movie did not get great distribution.
You always hope that Hollywood will learn their lesson. I would’ve hoped they learned their lesson with [Exodus: Gods and Kings], where they had all of these people in Egypt, and it was a bunch of white people, which is not what ancient Egypt looked like. And that movie was panned in the reviews. I don’t think it made very much money, I don’t think it broke even [Editor’s Note The film made $24 million in the US during its opening weekend. The movie’s budget was an estimated $140 million. It eventually grossed $267 million worldwide, but is still considered a flop.], so you would sort of hope that each time something like that happens, Hollywood would learn more.
I think that [studios are] becoming more strategic with how they spin some of these poor casting decisions, or outright racist casting decisions. But it’s hard to tell right now, especially because Nina was such a small film. Nina Simone was a very important artist to a lot of people, but I don’t know that she’s necessarily this huge star in America. Seeing her biopic botched like that would really affect a lot of people. It affected a lot of black people, and a lot of black women, and people who were fans of Nina Simone; but it’s not like they came out and completely ruined an MLK biopic, which would cause people to pause for a little bit longer. If nothing else, the people involved with making Nina learned a lesson, and those people work in Hollywood, so at the very least I would hope that there won’t be anything [else] remotely like this coming from those particular filmmakers.
It’s interesting because, as your article showing the photos of the team behind Nina pointed out, one of the underlying issues is that most of the people in decision-making roles here were white. How does that problem get dealt with?
It is the studio executives who are ultimately choosing to greenlight things and who to give funding to. For me at least, what I feel like I can do is not support these films. Hollywood, they want to make money. It’s about making money. If this becomes unprofitable for them, if they make another movie like [Gods and Kings], and they’ve lost $70 million, I think that a string of those will cause them to rethink things. There have been reports that films with more diverse casts make more money. You can look at The Fast and the Furious, which has a super diverse cast in their franchise, and even something like The Hunger Games, which stars a woman. If they’re taking “risks”—I don’t even really think that putting nonwhite people in movies should be considered a risk—and they’re paying off, they become more comfortable with the idea that these are films and actors that make money for them. I would like to think that their conscience would be enough to push them in that direction, but I really do think that it’s just going to have to be proven financially that doing a film that way with a bunch of white people in brown makeup is going to lose money, and they’re not interested in losing money.
Does the general public have any tools at their disposal, other than boycotting or passively choosing not to see a movie, that can help sway Hollywood in that direction?
I think that at the very least it’s more of a conversation and people are being challenged more. Maybe this isn’t necessarily coming from the general public, but I think that people who are covering films and writing about films and talking to filmmakers are challenging them a bit more on the decisions that they’re making with their projects. Just today or yesterday, Seth Rogen gave an interview where he looked back and said that he thinks Superbad was rather homophobic. Looking back on it, he was like, “I’ve realized that had some issues.” It’s great that he realized that, but I think that they should be pushed more in the immediate when that’s happening. Like if you’re going to cast Scarlett Johansson as an Asian woman, at the press junkets she should be drilled about that. Filmmakers should be asked about those decisions. You sort of saw that happen during #OscarsSoWhite, and a lot of people put their feet in their mouths and said really stupid things in response to being asked these questions. But that’s important because people don’t like looking stupid, so either they’ll get better about what they’re saying or they’ll stop doing things that make them look stupid.
It’s hard as a person who watches movies, because that’s really all you have right? Is your dollar, and voting with your pocketbook. You don’t have access to these people, and I feel like in general Hollywood is a very insular world, so a lot of the same people talking to themselves and talking to each other without inserting new voices. So beyond just getting new voices in those rooms as much as we can, without that or without them realizing that these projects aren’t going to work, I’m not sure that anything will change. Things haven’t changed for a very long time.
One of the troubling things about this is that just recently they announced that Tilda Swinton was going to play an Asian character in Doctor Strange, so it seems like the lesson isn’t being learned. Do you feel like part of this is a generational problem?
Look at TV. I feel like she is always the default, but someone like Shonda Rhimes who is a bit younger perhaps than an Aaron Sorkin or someone like that who’s been doing TV for a long time, is certainly doing a better job to reflect the way the world actually is. On one hand [our] generation—who has had a black president, and we have Caitlyn Jenner—we’re more comfortable with different types of people. But then there are a lot of kids today who are still super racist, who don’t really care. It’s a bit of a fallacy, thinking that a newer generation is going to usher in a more enlightened audience, because I see kids writing online and emails that I get. It’s not necessarily as simple as just, “We’re all older now and we all like President Obama so now we’re going to make diverse films.”
To me, the fact that there are so few Latinos on screen makes no sense. Living in Los Angeles, when I see a show that has no Latinos onscreen, that literally makes no sense. As the demographics of the country change, just from a marketing perspective, whatever the percentage is, that’s millions of dollars in marketing and advertising. At a certain point executives who are looking at the bottom line are gonna realize, “That’s not gonna cut it. We’ve got to expand this if we want to make money,” which is what it always comes back to.
Right. I guess rather than it being strictly tied to one generation or another, it’s a reflection of the general racism that pervades our society.
Yeah. If you don’t like black people, you’re not going to like a black James Bond. So if you have a bunch of people who don’t like black people, that’s not going to work. By no means is the onus on Hollywood to fix that, but to act as if entertainment doesn’t play a very important role in shifting views on certain types of people or certain issues is not true. It is very important. It’s obviously not the only thing that moves the needle. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding sort of bleak because if you have a bunch of people out there who are voting for Donald Trump and want to build a wall on our border with Mexico, then maybe they’re not going to watch Eva Longoria starring in a show. I don’t know what to do about that and I certainly don’t think Hollywood knows what to do about to that.