UCLA Study: Minority Actors Can Sue

Most minority actors in Hollywood realize that screenwriters don't create enough roles for their type. But a UCLA study released in December 2006 argues that, though 69 percent of roles were reserved for white actors, minority actors have an option to improve their job prospects by suing the entertainment industry for violating their rights under Title VII, the equal employment opportunity clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But whether actors will have the guts to sue for discrimination and risk damaging their careers remains to be determined.

Russell Robinson, professor of law at UCLA and the author of the study, titled "Hollywood's Race/Ethnicity and Gender-Based Casting: Prospects for a Title VII Lawsuit," studied casting breakdowns put out between June 1 and Aug. 31, 2006. The survey revealed that 94 percent of roles in character breakdowns specified gender. Twenty-two percent were designated for white actors. Additionally, Robinson found that 46.5 percent of roles did not specify race but were by default understood to be for white actors — making the total percentage of roles reserved for white actors almost 69 percent.

The study notes that nonwhite actors were limited to competing for the 8.5 percent of roles listed as open to all ethnicities, in addition to the percentage of roles listed for individual ethnicities, which ranged from 0.5 percent for Native Americans to 8.1 percent for African Americans. "These rigid set-asides stand in sharp contrast to employment opportunities in virtually every other industry, where the law authorizes that all races/ethnicities be allowed to compete for every available job," Robinson wrote in the study. According to him, Title VII contains a loophole for the entertainment industry: Gender discrimination can be permitted if it is "necessary for the purpose of authenticity or genuineness," as it arguably could be in casting. Robinson told Back Stage that race and sex should be taken into account only for the purpose of historical accuracy, such as in biopics.

Fear for Career?

Despite the discrimination he documented in the study, the professor said he found no evidence of a published court decision in which an actor filed a Title VII suit. Robinson attributed this to the probability that most actors are loath to take legal action for fear it could damage their careers. He noted that working actors are particularly unlikely to sue, because they're paying the bills through their craft, even though they might be weary of playing stereotypes. "I think what we would need in terms of a lawsuit are actors that are willing to take a chance and accept the possibility that they might never work again, but that in the long run it might create more opportunity for other people," Robinson said.

Shenita Moore, who participated in the interviews for the study, said the findings mirror her experiences in Hollywood as an African-American actor. For the past decade, Moore has pursued acting in Los Angeles by competing for the small number of roles — the majority of which, she said, are stereotypical — designated for her race and gender. "For an African-American woman, it's the ghetto girl, prostitute, things that I found myself telling [my agent], 'Please don't send me out on [that],'" Moore said. Despite describing her struggle to secure steady work in Hollywood as "an uphill battle," the actor said she would probably not file a Title VII lawsuit for discrimination — not out of fear of being blacklisted in Hollywood but because she feels such a suit would ultimately fail to change the status quo.

Sumi Haru, the national chairwoman of the Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee at the Screen Actors Guild, said Robinson's findings are nothing new. The Screen Actors Guild released a casting data report in 2004 that showed improving but still limited opportunities for minority actors. She added that she wishes actors "had the gumption to go to court and test Robinson's theory" but doubts they will. Haru, an Asian-American actor who helped form the committee in 1971, said SAG has made efforts to improve opportunities for minorities through its producer contracts, which require producers to attempt to realistically portray the American scene in their work. "I don't believe [producers] are doing that, so that's why I think there's some meat to this study," she said.

In the early 1980s, Haru noted, SAG voted on whether to file a Title VII discrimination suit on behalf of minority actors, and the measure didn't pass. In the nation's current conservative climate, she speculated, the vote would in all likelihood still fail. "I think people who are white are afraid of giving up their roles to us," Haru said. "That's not necessarily what's going to happen. It just makes it a level playing field. But if they have an advantage on the playing field now, why would they want to give it up?"

Actor Suzanne Du Charme submits herself for "male" white-collar professional roles — such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers — for which she feels gender is insignificant. "I've seen many breakdowns where the character description is listed as some type of white-collar professional, such as a lawyer, with no gender specified but with the assumption being that the role was male. It's infuriating," the actor wrote in an email to Back Stage. She added that she might consider taking part in a class-action lawsuit filed by actors, depending on the factors involved, including the identities of fellow complainants, as well as who the defendant was. "I think that it might sound a wake-up call to producers, but there are so many variables and intangibles that it would probably be difficult to prove damages," she wrote.

Games or Gains?

Angel Rivera, SAG's national director of affirmative action and diversity, said he disagrees with some of Robinson's findings, because they clash with some of the numbers in the union's Casting Data Report 2004, which shows that African Americans are working more (13.8 percent of roles, compared with 8.1 percent in Robinson's study) and Asian actors are working less (2.9 percent, compared with 4.3 percent) than indicated by Robinson's study. The SAG study measured the percentage of minorities who secured work in 2004. Robinson's study, on the other hand, examined the work opportunities available over three months in 2006, as well as the percentage of leading roles played by white actors in commercial films in 2004 and 2005.

Rivera said he questioned Robinson's assumption that open calls for roles that don't specify ethnicity are assumed to be for white actors, especially because Robinson backs up the claim with only three sources: two "casting professionals" and a Los Angeles Times article. By stating that 69 percent of roles are either explicitly or implicitly designated for white actors, Rivera said, Robinson makes it sound as though very few work opportunities exist for people of color. "That's not true," said Rivera, noting that in the three years since SAG released its casting report, the union has documented the percentage of minority actors on the rise. "Things are getting better. I'm not saying that everything is great and there's nothing that has to be done, but I think that this study has created some confusion."

Scott David, a casting director for 11 years, said he felt frustrated by the study. He found Robinson's recommendation to ban the use of racial and gender designations in character breakdowns "except where casting an actor of a specific race/ethnicity or gender is truly integral to the narrative" unrealistic.

"[Casting directors] try to filter what [they're] intentionally looking for; however, here it sounds like [Robinson is] asking [casting directors] just to ask for every single possible person in the whole wide world that fits," David said. "It just makes more work for us if we were to put out a breakdown and not narrow it down." David added that producers tell casting directors specifically what types of actors to look for, so although many of them try to be as colorblind as possible, it's sometimes out of their hands. To provoke change on this issue, David said, Robinson should go straight to the top: the studios.

Rivera said he's spoken with casting directors in the industry about widening the employment opportunities to include more minority actors. Some have responded by saying that would result in being inundated with inappropriate submissions — something Rivera has little sympathy for. "Some of the laws make my job much harder. I still have to adhere to the law," he said. "The answer can't be, 'Well, that makes it too hard for me.' " He believes the solution lies in hiring more-diverse writers, directors, producers, and executives at the studios.

Latina actor Tatiana Suarez says producers are the problem. "Producers, the people with the money, are white, so they will create and fund projects that appeal to their very own cultural and social sensitivities," she wrote in an email to Back Stage. "As long as power remains in the hands of those same people, not much is going to change."

Robinson hopes the industry responds to his study by creating proactive solutions to discrimination in casting so the matter doesn't have to end up in court. He said a number of people in the entertainment industry have contacted him, saying they're brainstorming ways to change the system.

But, he said, minor improvements in opportunities for minority actors are nothing to cheer about. "It's sort of like being happy that you're able to ride in the back of the bus. We are supposed to be a society that's committed to equality for all people, and to say, 'Well, at least you're on the bus, you're just at the back' — we would never say that to Rosa Parks. And by the same token, I don't think that actors of color and women should have to ride at the back of the bus," he said, adding, "I don't think we should be grateful for that. I think that we have a lot more work to do to have true equality."