Beyond Homophobia in Black Hollywood
Not long after he won the Oscar for Milk, Dustin Lance Black spoke at Harvard University where he recounted a story about casting the film. He recalled how it was important for director Gus Van Sant and himself to hire gay actors in the main gay roles. To do so they asked casting agents to seek them out.
Why, then, were Sean Penn, James Franco and Emile Hirsch cast in the three lead gay roles?
"It was almost impossible," he explained as to what happened. "We got a lot of great people from the theater world in New York and we cast them... but for the most part in Hollywood for like the Cleve Jones role, the young role, almost nobody."
Hollywood remains, as Black explained, a place where homophobia remains a not-so-hidden agenda. Take for instance, for the young gay actor who wants to be out.
"There’s an intense amount of pressure from the agencies and the management companies not to come out if they find out you’re gay," Black explained. "(It’s) a filtration process. When they are looking for young, new talent they’re, like, we may as well go the easier route with the straight actor and bring that one on."
Anti-gay prejudice, he concluded, remains "a problem in Hollywood. We are waiting for that Jackie Robinson moment almost when we have the A list actor who can green light a film who comes out of the closet and people still accept him or her as the leading man or woman who can be believed in a heterosexual love scene. When that happens, I believe it will change quickly, but it hasn’t happened yet."
Put simply, as progressive as our world may appear at times, homophobia remains an issue in the LA-based entertainment industry.
Now add race into the mix and things get even more complicated. How does the out African-American gay actor, writer or director make it in today’s Hollywood?
Last week a group of industry professionals gathered in Los Angeles to discuss the effects of homophobia in terms of black Hollywood and to see what can be done to combat it. The goal of a joint event by the Gay & Lesbian Writers Committee and the Committee of Black Writers (both of the Writers Guild of America, West) was to get this often-silenced conversation out in the open. EDGE’s Jim Halterman was there and filed this report.
Conversation long overdue
During the course of the Flipping The Script: Beyond Homophobia in Black Hollywood panel, a long overdue conversation ensued before a standing room only audience at the WGA’s Los Angeles offices. During the nearly two-hour conversation, not only were a variety of opinions on homophobia -- both inside and outside of the black community -- discussed, but also some panelists offered up solutions to end the silence.
Organized by WGA writer/director Demetrius Bady, the night included eight panelists who, as writers, directors, producers and actors, each play different parts in the Hollywood machine that is responsible for the portrayal (or lack thereof) of black LGBT portrayals in television and film.
Actress/writer/director Sheryl Lee Ralph moderated. Dressed in a sharp red pantsuit and exhibiting (at times) an even sharper tongue, she cut to the chase with her first question: "Why do you think we’re not having the conversation about homophobia?"
One panelist thought the conversation was not being had for broader reasons within the African American community. "African Americans in general don’t like to talk about our challenges in public," said Maurice Jamal, a writer-director-actor with credits including Chappelle’s Show. "We don’t like to air our ’dirty laundry’ for people to see. We’ve always been that way whether it’s been racism, whether it is domestic violence in the home, even when it comes to issues of poverty."
Jamal also said that another generality is the code of silence in the African American community regarding homosexuality.
"In the African American community, being gay has been seen as a challenge," he said. "(And) as a problem, so it’s not something that we’re talking about in the general sense. It’s certainly not something we’re talking about because we want to keep it quiet and kept away."
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Watch this clip from the documentary Nothing Personal.