Anyone observing the conversation around this year’s Academy Awards will recognize that the demographic makeup of the film industry is clearly organized so that African Americans exert only a minimal amount of influence. Ownership among studio heads is so concentrated among white males that African American studio heads are virtually unknown. Nonetheless, there are individuals within the film industry who are striking against this disparity and attempting to carve out new spaces for African Americans within the world of entertainment.
Comedian and Entertainment Studios head Byron Allen is such an individual. After the release of the widely praised “Birth of a Nation”, an ambitious independent film portraying the heroism of the slave revolt leader and revolutionary Nat Turner, Allen bid $20 million to purchase the rights to the film, a dollar amount matching the bid of movie distribution heavyweight Netflix. Though the rights to the film were ultimately purchased by Fox Searchlight for $17 million, a record bid, we cannot ignore the significance of Allen’s role in the bidding process since it sheds light on the potential power of African American studio heads in Hollywood. A self-described “fully integrated global media production and distribution company,” Entertainment Studios offers a glimmer of light in an otherwise dismally uniform film industry. For this reason, they deserve the enthusiastic support of those of us who desire to put our dollars into a film industry that accurately reflects the cultural and ethnic diversity of the country.
Aside from the bid itself, the context in which it was made is also worth special attention. Reflective of the rising consciousness on issues of race in America, “Birth of Nation” aims to focus mainstream media attention on the savage cruelty of the slave system and it’s reverberations in the institutions that we confront today. As the film’s director Nate Parker astutely noted at the film’s premiere, “I made this film for one reason: with the hope of creating change agents … That you can watch this film and see that there were systems in place that were corrupt and corrupted people, and the legacy of that still lives with us.”
Indeed, the legacy of a barbaric system that violently forced African Americans into a position of inferiority persists in the staggering inequalities of wealth and opportunity not only in the film industry but throughout a wide range of sectors of American industry. The National Urban Leagues’ annual State of Black America Report is instructive in this regard stating, “rather than having the whole pie (100%), which would mean full equality with whites, African Americans are missing about 28% of the pie.” Therefore, the underrepresentation in the film industry is but an expression of this larger systemic problem that withholds the socioeconomic gains—education, jobs, justice—from an entire group of people based on skin color. As a result, the cinematic retelling of Nat Turner’s revolt couldn’t be timelier especially for those of us who are not content with receiving a portion of the pie that discounts our contributions whether in front or behind the camera.
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