Charles Dumas – Director, Acting in Media Program, Temple University (2005-2006)

A PERSPECTIVE ON DIVERSITY

The perception of diversity in the film and TV industry may seem, to some, as greatly improved in 2006.  A big budget African American film, Dreamgirls,won a Golden Globe. There are multiple possibilities for Best Actor awards for brothers in a veritable plethora of A-list pictures. (Though Jennifer Hudson in the aforementioned Dreamgirls, Penelope Cruz, and Rinko Kikuchi are the only sisters in the mix).  The dream is realized, you say? Finally we have reached a point where Hollywood seems to reflect the real diverse world that we all live in? Not exactly.

I have been a member of SAG, AFTRA, AEA for twenty-five years and the WGA for nearly twenty. I have also been on the teaching side of the industry, twelve years as an associate professor at Penn State and the Director of Temple’s Acting in Media Program since last year. As a working actor, director, and writer, I have had the opportunity to observe the ebbs and flows of our industry regarding diversity. As a working African American actor, I’ve been bathed by those tides.

True there have been some effective changes in the representation of images of diverse people over the last twenty-five years and especially over the last five. Correspondingly, that has provided jobs to those of us hired to portray those characters on the screen.  The stereotypes of African Americans that cinema historian Bogle discusses, the “Mammies, Toms, Coons” and their like would not be tolerated on today’s screen, nor would many of the corresponding negative images of Asians, Hispanics, or Africans.  Yet at the same time, in our post-911 frenzy, we permit the depiction of Muslims and Arabs to be dehumanizing and disrespectful. Demonstrating that racism has not disappeared, but changed targets. Also people and groups who are at variance with U.S.foreign policy in the Middle-East or domestic policy regarding immigrant low-wage workers are portrayed with contemptuous disrespectful imagery. Two steps forward and one step back.

We should, also, not confuse cosmetic changes with qualitative transformation, which needs be grounded in quantitative reconstruction and major redistribution of power decisions. If we are to have an industry that truly reflects the rich diversity of the world in which we live,  more people of color need to be in positions of making decisions and providing jobs for people of color and others.

Finally, we are in the middle of a major technological revolution in the industry.  People spend more time in front of the computer than they do in front of the TV or at the movies. That change has resulted in more people generating programs for the Internet, but it has not resulted in a more positive environment for diversity. More media producers cannot bring about greater diversity if the producers’ orientations and inclinations are toward staid stereotypes and bigoted images. Hands cannot construct the apparatus of transformation; for that we need to change people’s hearts. And, brothers and sisters, that is what we, as artists and theatrical workers, should be about anyway – facilitating the transformation of our collective perspective.

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