There was big news this past week acknowledging, and celebrating, Tyler Perry Studios as the first-ever, fully Black-owned, movie studio in history. I first read about this on a celebratory post by a woman of color, on her Facebook page where she actively works hard to bring entertainment industry professionals together. The ensuing flood of negative comments by white folks was a head-shaking mess. Was it shocking? Unfortunately, no. The backlash over a Black Stormtrooper and mermaid over the past couple of years is certainly a big indicator that not everyone is interested in diversity. However, it would be great to think that those of us who work in “Liberal Hollywood” would understand. But then again, “Liberal” does not equal “not racist.” Regardless of whether we label it “racist,” or “(white) entitlement,” or “(white) privilege,” or “fear of a Black planet,” the result is the same: an epic accomplishment by a Black man is seen as a threat, as something to mock and/or diminished as “not that big a deal,” by angry white people.
Let’s give this some historical context: In over 100 years of filmmaking history, right now in 2019 is the first time a Black person has ever owned a movie studio in the U.S.
I was born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s and began adult-hood in the 90s (in Los Angeles), Robert Townshend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” and Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn,” were early introductions for me into how the film industry viewed people of color: they were either unimportant, white-washed, or represented as caricatures. I worked in the entertainment industry for most of my adult life, and had seen a slow progression of token inclusions on all sides of the camera, to the more-prominent roles being filled by people of color. Behind the camera, Black directors who were able to work in commercials, mostly came from the music video production world, and were largely hired to only direct “urban” projects, while White-European directors dominated the “mainstream” commercial world. And yes, putting urban and mainstream in quotes is intentional, as it marks terms used at that time to draw a segregated distinction.
For all of the collective screams by those who “don’t see color” and believe we should not mention color because “we are all equal,” the dismissal of the fact that these accomplishments are being acknowledged because they are actual accomplishments, says a lot.
Why the (white) anger? We were sold an American Dream that does not exist. We were told that if we work hard, follow our dreams and keep working hard, everything would be great; We would have the house, the cars, the family, the retirement plan and so on. And for most of us, that has not worked out so well. With any hardship, it is always convenient to have someone to blame it on. And, historically, that has been people of color.
One commenter on that Facebook post asked: “Will Tyler Perry hire white people?” As if the all of the white-owned studios that existed the day before Tyler Perry opened his, suddenly ceased to exist. And, as if that white-person-who-works-in-film-production isn’t still hire-able by literally every other movie studio. That said, if the commenter had taken a few seconds to Google his question, he would see that Tyler Perry has said that he doesn’t discriminate and will hire whomever is best for the job. He will always look to see if there is a Black person who is best for the job, because again, in the 100+-year history of filmmaking, his is the first Black-owned studio.
Another commenter asserted that “it is time to stop making things about ‘first-Black this’ and ‘first-Black that,’ as we are all humans and this is divisive.” Consider that if it wasn’t the actual first Black “something,’ it wouldn’t be worth noting. But again, the fact that these accomplishments are still happening in 2019, because they haven’t happened before, is what points to already-existing divisiveness.
My favorite comment was, perhaps: “What if someone opened the first white Rap studio? Wouldn’t that be racist?” While this guy earns extra points for the mental-gymnastics it takes to unpack the racism in his comment, I have to say first that he knows nothing of what he is talking about. While there are a few Black-owned record labels, the reality is that they are still subsidiaries of other “Major Labels,” owned and run by white people: i.e., Bad Boy Records is owned by Sony Music Group. Second, we need to stop minimizing Black art and culture to only being represented by Rap music.
To the fourth commenter, who simply said: “BFD,” yes, it is a very BFD. Again, in over 100 years of movie-making history, we get to experience the first Black-owned movie studio in history. So, congratulations to Tyler Perry and everyone involved!
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Photo credit: Variety via YouTube