Hollywood Reparations

Could a plan for reparations in Hollywood include allotting the same amount of money used to create The Birth of a Nation? Photo by Devin Berko on Unsplash

Reparations. It’s one of the buzzwords that has gathered popularity after the 2020 murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others. The social uprising that followed was a wake-up call to America, and since America is funded by capitalism, companies in many industries started taking a closer look at how they do–and don’t–financially support Black Americans. 

For instance, in the weeks after the murders, beauty and clothing companies like Sephora, Everlane, Savage X Fenty, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Amazon, collectively donated millions of dollars, with Amazon donating $10 million to the ACLU Foundation, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Brennan Center for Justice, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Other companies also pledged millions in donations as well as business restructuring plans. PepsiCo, for instance, promised to commit $400 million over five years “to lift up Black communities and increase Black representation at PepsiCo.” The company also pledged to expand its roster of Black managers to 30 percent by 2025 and increase recruitment at HBCUs, including creating scholarships for Black students. The company also pledged company-wide unconscious bias training, double its business with Black-owned suppliers, and invest $50 million of that $400 million over five years “to strengthen local Black owned businesses,” among other promises.  

Paypal also invested $530 million in Black business initiatives, including creating a $500 million opportunity fund “to support and strengthen Black and underrepresented minority businesses and communities over the long term. The company also pledged to help drive financial health, access, and inter-generational wealth creation, $10 million in emergency grants to Black owned-businesses impacted by COVID-19 or “the racial justice crisis,” and increasing high school and university recruiting. 

Apple also committed $100 million to its newly-formed Apple Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, which will focus “on education, economic equality and criminal justice reform.” This plan includes partnering with the Equal Justice Initiative and working with HBCUs, community colleges, underserved students and STEM teachers. The company also pledged to increase diversity within its workforce. 

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre Tuesday, June 1, 2021, at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre Tuesday, June 1, 2021, at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Biden also announced June 1 that his administration would launch “an interagency effort to combat unfair appraisals for homeowners of color and fight inequality in the real estate sector.” He also announced he would address the racial wealth gap in the country, including allotting “an extra $100 billion over five years” to help entrepreneurs and a $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. 

In Biden’s speech during the commemoration of the Tulsa Massacre, Biden noted that over $1.47 million of Black wealth was lost from the massacre. That amount equals a massive $20 million today. But of course, if you think about how much $20 million can appreciate over time–like, 100 years, you’re looking at billions, if not trillions of dollars lost, all from 24 hours of domestic terrorism. This isn’t counting the trillions America already owes Black America from slavery–according to 2020 stats, America’s reparations bill would cost between $10 trillion to $12 trillion.

All the hundreds of billions of dollars Biden is allocating for Black entrepreneurship and Black homeownership is supposed to create a dent in the wealth gap we have now, and hopefully it’s successful. Some might even argue that it is a step towards reparations without being called “reparations.” Regardless, with businesses and the government looking at how they can repay Black Americans, I started thinking about how Hollywood could do the same. Thankfully, unlike America, Hollywood doesn’t have 400 years under its belt, which means a plan for Tinseltown’s reparations could feasibly work. 

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How Racism built Hollywood

A 1916 newspaper ad for the film's screening in El Paso, Texas (Public Domain)
A 1916 newspaper ad for the film’s screening in El Paso, Texas (Public Domain)

If you are aware of your movie history, you’ll know that Hollywood as we know it today began with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 action-adventure epic, The Birth of a Nation. His film, telling the history of the south before and after the Civil War, is still taught in film schools today because of his narrative techniques. Indeed, he is considered the creator of the first big-budget blockbuster. 

But, The Birth of a Nation is an intensely racist film. It’s so incindiary that the NAACP tried to stop its release, including protesting, creating a public information campaign, and petitioning film review boards to block the film from cinemas. Because most of the boards ran by primarily white men, the NAACP, unfortunately, met with failure more often than success. However, the NAACP’s most successful campaign included a national boycott of the film and a mass demonstration in Boston, leading to the film finally getting banned in three states and smattering cities across the nation. 

Non-Black allies, including Hull House founder Jane Addams and Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise, also spoke out against the film’s racism and lies, but they saw their words failing to incite mass like the NAACP’s repudiation of the film. 

Instead, The Birth of a Nation emboldened and empowered racist whites to target and commit violence against Black Americans. A Harvard University paper released in 2015 states, for instance, that “[o]n average, lynchings in a county rose fivefold in the month after [The Birth of a Nation] arrived.”

The Economist created a chart as recent as March, showing how the film led to a killing spree across America in the years that followed. Some of the casualties: 250 Black St. Louis citizens, Mary Turner–a pregnant Black woman–and 12 others in Lowndes County, GA, and countless Black Americans in over three dozen cities in a period called the “Red Summer.”

Most heart-wrenching of all–the film singlehandly brought the Ku Klux Klan back into public consciousness, making the domestic terrorist group popular with viewers across the nation and leading to the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan at Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Moreover, the film romanticizing the group into (literal) white knights saving the south from animalistic Black men captured white America’s imagination. 

The KKK catch the lustful Gus, played by Walter Long in blackface. (Public Domain)
The KKK catch the lustful Gus, played by Walter Long in blackface. (Public Domain)

By 1915 standards, Griffith spent massive amounts of money on The Birth of a Nation. According to calculations, Griffith spent $100,000 at the time, which comes out to $2,560,000 as of 2020 adjustments for inflation. The film’s monumental success meant Griffith made his money back and then some. According to film critic Richard Corliss’ 2015 stats adjusted for inflation, The Birth of a Nation raked in $1.8 billion worldwide, with James Cameron’s films Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) finally surpassing that record. 

The amount of money spent to make the film, plus the amount earned, comes out to around $1,803,000,000. This amount of money was the seed money to fund the Hollywood industry we know today. If Hollywood decided to donate that amount of money today, think of how it could level the playing field for so many POC creatives trying to make inroads into the industry, but are coming up against financial stop signs. Think of how just a part of this sum could be the seed money for new film companies–companies that could one day rival the major studios in Hollywood. 

Writers programs, the kind that retain and train aspiring creatives to write for television, are often immediately touted by film companies as their ways of giving back to underserved writers. But, while there have been individual success stories, these programs seem to be a Hollywood version of corporate diversity programs that aim to make the company seem committed to diversity without actually opening the floodgates for new talent. 

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Harvard Business Review cites that “most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity.” Instead, corporate companies are “basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s [such as] diversity training, hiring tests and performance ratings…which “can activate bias rather than stamp it out.” The same seems to be the case with writers’ rooms. 

The University of Southern California’s Annenberg Initiative found in their 2016 study that “[t]he film industry still functions as a straight, White, boy’s club,” as said by USC’s Stacy L. Smith to NPR. “I think we’re seeing, across the landscape, an erasure of certain groups; women, people of color, the LGBT community…this is really [an] epidemic of invisibility that points to a lack of inclusivity across [film and TV].” Despite Hollywood’s granular moves forward, the USC still found in 2020 that the industry still lags in diversity in front of and behind the camera. If Hollywood was committed to truly increasing diversity, some of the reparations could hire POC and marginalized people in various positions, from writers to executive leadership. 

Can Hollywood afford to donate $2 billion?

Photo of the Hollywood sign by Nathan DeFiesta
The Hollywood sign. (Photo by Nathan DeFiesta on Unsplash)

To the layperson, allocating nearly $2 billion dollars to various diversity projects might seem like a lot of money. But as we have seen from companies and the government’s feverish pledging of millions upon billions of dollars, $2 billion is nothing. 

Just one of the major studios could front $2 billion–which means that each company can allocate that much for their own diversity initiatives. Warner Bros., for instance, made over $30.4 billion in overall revenue in 2020, including video games, publishing and music. Disney’s overall 2020 revenue is $65.388 billion, with the theatrical arm of Disney earning $11 billion alone. Universal Pictures alone earned $4.239 billion in 2020, but Comcast, the company that owns Universal Pictures, NBC, and other media entities, earned $27 billion. 

Frankly, these companies could come together and give even more than $2 billion towards ending the racial gap in Hollywood and it wouldn’t even cut into their everyday expenses. But for the sake of argument, these numbers show how Hollywood could take the seed money it used from The Birth of a Nation and transmute it into something that helps others instead of harm. 

The El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, CA when Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was the latest blockbuster of the day. The Star Wars franchise is one of many IPs that has catapulted Disney even higher in the billion-dollar club. (Photo by Matteo Stroppaghetti on Unsplash)
The El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, CA when Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was the latest blockbuster of the day. The Star Wars franchise is one of many IPs that has catapulted Disney even higher in the billion-dollar club. (Photo by Matteo Stroppaghetti on Unsplash)

Of course, throwing money at the problem isn’t the only way to increase diversity in Hollywood. Probably just as important as increasing access to money is eliminating the aforementioned “white boys club”–the rules, regulations, and business partnerships that favor white men over others who are just as capable. 

I’m also not saying my reparations idea is foolproof–just like with the various initiatives created after 2020, it might be difficult to track just how the money gets used and if it actually gets to the communities who need it. There would need to be some other systems in place to make sure that Hollywood companies actually put reparations to use and not just create yet another way to move money around for tax write-off purposes. Furthermore, $2 billion isn’t all Hollywood needs to cough up–like the appreciation in value you might expect from the $20 million Tulsa over 100 years if that money stayed in circulation, the $2 billion from The Birth of a Nation has allowed Hollywood to make hundreds of billions each year. The amount of money needed for absolute reparations in Hollywood might be lower than the amount the entire country needs to pay back to its Black citizens, but it’s still a lot.

But one thing is for sure–keeping reparations as a thought exercise instead of implementing a plan is a surefire way to keep money from underserved communities. Hollywood has a debt to pay to Black and other POC viewers, demographics who routinely buoy the industry with theatrical attendance and social media discussion. The industry has to meet that debt with a multi-pronged fashion. Why not let one of those prongs utilize the money that proliferated racist ideology to write some of the industry’s wrongs?

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By Monique