Speaking out and standing up to racism was the theme of a recent SAG-AFTRA panel on “Race & Storytelling.” Moderator Jason George recalled a paint-down incident while filming the 2002 movie The Climb, in which he portrayed a mountain climber on a rescue mission.
“I walked into the trailer and saw there a Caucasian man, wearing my wardrobe, my costume, and they were putting makeup on him to darken his skin so that he could be my stunt double,” he said. “In the stunt world, they call that a paint-down.” A once-common practice, it’s rare but not unheard of these days.
But George wasn’t having any of it. “This isn’t going to stand,” he told the producers, insisting that they hire a hire a black stuntman to double for him. They agreed and hired one of the world’s top black mountain climbers. “When you go looking for the talent, you can find jewels,” George said.
George, who stars on ABC’s Station 19, said that the incident motivated him to become an activist in the union’s efforts to secure contract language to prohibit paint-downs and other discriminatory practices, rising to chair the SAG-AFTRA Diversity Advisory Committee.
“Race & Storytelling,” the first panel in a series on racial biases and inequities in the entertainment industry, is full of such moments. The panelists – SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris; national executive director David White; former DGA president Paris Barclay; famed casting director Robi Reed, and actors Sterling K. Brown, Yvette Nicole Brown and Michelle Hurd – each spoke of their own encounters with, and standing up to, racism in Hollywood – both micro and macro. And in some cases, almost every day.
You can watch the 90-minute panel presented by the SAG-AFTRA President’s Task Force on Education, Outreach & Engagement above.
In 1991, Carteris appeared on CBS’ Circus of the Stars, performing a high-wire act with actor Alfonso Ribeiro, who at one point in the show had to carry her on his shoulders. “It was a very, very challenging act – a lot of tricks,” she recalled. Carteris, who now is the union’s president, said that when they finished their run-through for network executives, she gave Ribeiro, who is black, a big hug.
“And they came up to me later and they said, ‘Gabrielle, that was an amazing show. That was wonderful. But when we go live tomorrow, just make sure you don’t hug Alfonso.’”
“And I said, ‘Why?’”
“And they said, ‘Well, Middle America, they just won’t like that.’”
She went straight to Ribeiro and told him what had happened. “You won’t believe what they just said to me. They don’t want me to hug you. So I just want you to know, when we go out there live tomorrow, I’m gonna hug you.”
The next day, they did the show. “I hugged him and gave him a kiss. And for me, it was an important moment. There are so many times in this industry when we’re told what to do and we just know it’s not the right thing to do. It was not organically correct. It wasn’t just, and it wasn’t fair. And I couldn’t say it to them because they would have just found another way to block it or cut it out. So I agreed and then just did what I wanted to do. And I will never regret that moment.”
George, a longtime friend of Carteris’ who had asked her to tell the Circus of the Stars story, said. “It’s important to hear that there’s a role for allies to play” and for people of good will to step up and do the right thing or “be a bystander and say nothing – and therefore be complicit in maintaining that implicit bias.”
Former DGA president Barclay, an executive producer and director of Station 19, recalled an incident some years ago when he drove onto the Warner Bros. lot to direct an episode of ER. The security guard at the booth looked at his ID and said, “What are you dropping off?”
“I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘What are you delivering?’ And I said, ‘I’m delivering my services to ER as a director.’” The guy eventually let him through, but Barclay complained to John Wells, the venerable show’s executive producer, who wrote a scathing three-page letter to the studio, resulting in “sensitivity training” for all the guards.
On the macro side, Barclay said that even today, those making casting decisions sometimes still have to be reminded to avoid stereotypical casting. “Micro-aggression becomes macro-aggression just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. He noted, however, the he sees less of the macro these days “because people that I choose to work with are already at least halfway woke, and some are totally.”
Reed described how in the early days of her career, after casting Spike Lee’s School Daze, she was then only asked to cast black-themed shows. “And from that point on, I only got offered projects that had predominantly African-American casts. And I was like: ‘I’m a casting director. I know talent. Consider me for all things.’ And every studio, every network, they wanted to work with me, but when those ‘mainstream projects’ came along, they were never given to me. For a long time I fought that. And then, after a while, accepted the blessing that I had for being the casting director for African American projects.”
She is currently VP Talent and Casting for Original Programming at BET.
Said Yvette Nicole Brown, host of Disney+ game show The Big Fib: “You can’t be just a black actress. You also have to be a black hairstylist and a black makeup artist. We have been fighting this fight as long as I’ve been in the industry to make sure that the people in the makeup and hair trailer actually know how to do black hair and black faces. I did not say they have to be black people; I just said they have to have a proficiency for doing black hair and black faces. Because that does not exist for the most part in our industry, and because the ones that do have that proficiency are always working. Every black actress that has worked in this industry has had to do her own hair and makeup at some point in her career. And that is a black tax, a black toll that is added to our day. We have to get up an extra two hours to make sure that we look presentable to the camera.
“I feel that we are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers,” Brown said, noting that she routinely reaches out to emerging black actresses to share her experiences about acting-while-black in Hollywood.
Hurd, with a head of admittedly “curly crazy hair,” recalled an incident several years ago on a popular TV series that she didn’t name. After the first day’s shoot, she got a call from the producers. “We love your hair,” they said. “It’s so pretty. But what we’ve done is, we’ve done some research, and we found out that in our research, a woman of color can’t own a business unless she has straightened hair.”
“They actually said this to me,” she said, trying not cuss but doing so anyway. “That is some bullshit!” And the impact on her as an artist was profound. “When you go to work the next day, you know that there’s been a discussion from producers, writers, networks, studios that this is a problem,” she said, holding her hair up with both hands. “That,” the Star Trek: Picard actress said, “we can no longer stand for. We all have such organic, innate beauty; we don’t need to be homogenized into one type of beauty.”
“Amen,” chimed in Sterling K. Brown. “The medium can be used in a couple of different ways. We can hold a mirror up to society to show it as it is, and then we can also point it in the direction it needs to go.”
Brown, who won an Emmy for playing prosecutor Christopher Darden in the FX limited series The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, recalled an incidentof micro-aggression some years ago on Lifetime’s Army Wives, in which he played the civilian spouse of a soldier. When he asked one day why his photo was never included on posters the network’s marketing department released every year depicting the wives, he said he was told by the head of marketing and advertising, “What would it look like if we put a black man on a poster with four white women?”
“That’s what came out of his mouth,” he said, laughing as he recounted the story.
“I’ve had micro-aggressions against me,” said David White, SAG-AFTRA’s chief executive. “As an example, going to a closed event with a series of other executives, and someone there introducing me there to a large group of people and introducing me and talking to me believing I was Isaiah Washington, or someone else who is black who is front-and-center in their minds.”
“You get that too?” Brown asked knowingly.
“We all get that,” George laughed.
“By the way,” White said incredulously, pointing to his face. “Me, Isaiah Washington?”
“Take the win, David. Take the win,” George laughed.
“But what I get mostly is structural racismy,” White continued, “I am frequently the only black executive in a room. Now, in Hollywood, unlike in some other places where I’ve worked, people tend to see themselves as progressives. They tend to see themselves as liberal. So in those rooms, there are many efforts to avoid the micro-aggressions. What you hit are the macro-aggressions. The only black executive yesterday; the only black exec today. When there’s a conversation that seems, to the room, that it does not have a racial component, my responsibility then is to raise the racial component. So that can be as easy as … oh, we’re in a Pension Plan meeting and we’re talking about our investment advisers. So who are we bringing in to interview? Whether or not they’re going to be our investment adviser. Do we have black candidates? Do we have diverse candidates?
“You know,” he mused, “we have talked about this being about race and people of color, but in this moment, when we are focusing on Black Lives Matter, I just want to emphasize that for me, there are always at least two components: It’s always I’m not going to dilute what’s going on with black people; the black people and the black community have a very unique relationship to the state, here in the United States. But there is also another conversation about people of color; there is also a conversation about diverse groups, etc. So long as that conversation doesn’t dilute the moments when we need to focus on what it means to be black Americans, I’m good with that. I’m always sort of working on that level. But those are the moments where I find it doesn’t matter how articulate I become in explaining the need to add an additional element – to bring in someone who is either black or someone who is of color or a woman, etc. – it always eventually runs into very nice, neutralized ‘No.’ And every time it doesn’t run into that, that’s considered a real victory.”
Carteris said at the start of the pane: “I actually believe that we are at a crossroads,” And finally, I hope, we are at a point where we can make lasting change. But change, you know, is not something that’s given. It’s something we have to fight for: sometimes incrementally; sometimes globally; sometimes on the streets; sometimes on social media; sometimes in board rooms and on sets.”