February 04, 2010

Indians hold steady at 0.3%

Native Americans Still at the Bottom in Hollywood

By Roscoe PondThe "screen actors guild" (SAG) diversity "report card" has been around for ten years (1998-2008). The last report was October of 2009. It tracks the shared acting roles for theatrical films and television. Caucasians have dominated all roles from 79.1% in 1998 to 72.5% in 2008. African American roles went from 13.4% to 13.3%. Native Americans shared fewer supporting roles plus background extra work from 0.20% to 0.30%. They peaked in 2005 to 0.40%. By the end of 2008 SAG reported that, "American Indians held steady at 0.3% of all roles for each of the last two years. While the feature film, low budget and episodic television categories all dropped in proportion to total roles."

Those statistics are not good. It is now 2010 and still there are no lead acting roles for native men or women on primetime television. The same can be said of no lead characters in major studio films.

Movie executives care only about money and top box office receipts. Network TV cares only about top ratings. Where would the Native American fit in on all of this? They don't. They have never had a chance to be "tested" in any lead roles on TV. Sponsors would never buy advertising of a TV show with a lead native actor or actress. The reason is clear. The public only wants to see Native Americans in "buckskins" and "loincloths." That's why the mini-series, "Into the West" (2005) and "Comanche Moon" (2008) produced good TV ratings. Both are westerns.
Comment:  Natives make up 1-1.5% of the US population but get only 0.3% of the roles. That means they're getting about a fourth of the roles they should be getting.

I think Pond's analysis is correct as far as it goes. But let's discuss it further.

If movie executives care only about money, why aren't they rushing to do movies with Native themes or actors? The biggest hits of the last year are Avatar and New Moon. Why isn't some exec saying, "Let's combine Avatar and New Moon! A wolfish Native soldier fights blue-skinned alien vampires...it's a guaranteed hit!"

Answer: Because Hollywood, like much of America, is culturally conservative. Which is another way of saying it's prejudiced against minorities. Minorities such as, say, Barack Obama, whom a significant number of Americans believe is a Kenyan and a Muslim.

As Pond said, people want to see stereotypical Indians. (Or think they do until movies like Avatar and New Moon prove them wrong.) Indians like the ones in countless old Westerns, sports logos, statues and paintings, and on and on.

They get angry when someone tells them the reality contradicts their fantasies. That Indians are doctors, lawyers, and teachers, not half-naked warriors on horseback. They insist they're "honoring" Indians by asserting their stupid and stereotypical beliefs are more important than the facts.

So Hollywood cares only about money, but ignores the fact that Natives make money when given half a chance. So money can't be what's holding Native actors back. What's holding them back is the racist attitudes shared by studio execs and other Americans.

Racism, not profits

No other explanation makes sense. And why would anyone even look for another explanation? Studio execs come from the same population that worships stereotypical mascots and gets angry at modern museums. They love their racist beliefs about Indians.

These Americans aren't championing stereotypes because it's profitable. They're championing stereotypes because they've been brainwashed since childhood to believe our foundational myth. Columbus, Pilgrims, and Founding Fathers good! Indians, blacks, and immigrants bad! Taming the wild frontier! Progress and civilization! God bless America!

With that cultural mindset, the idea of a movie or TV show starring modern-day Indians causes cognitive dissonance. Most executives can't imagine it, and they can't imagine audiences imagining it. So they trot out their money-making excuses--e.g., the fallacy of the big-name actor--to avoid greenlighting Native projects. So no Twilight until Stephenie Meyer forces the issue and no Avatar until James Cameron forces the issue.

Translating from Hollywood-speak to English, what these execs are really saying is, "When I grew up, Indians were savages. My parents and teachers believed it, I believe it, and everyone I know believes it. Therefore, we won't make a movie with Native themes or actors unless it's a Western. No one would believe in modern-day Indians as soldiers, astronauts, or vampire fighters. The movie would fail and I'd be unemployed like some lazy, drunken wretch of an Indian."

In short, it's all about Hollywood's racism, not its quest for profits. Get it now?

For more on the subject, see Roscoe Pond or a Big-Name Actor? and Producer Says No to Pond. For more on the subject in general, see The Best Indian Movies and TV Shows Featuring Indians.

Below:  The only acceptable Indians (from Comanche Moon).


Anonymous said...


Like you, I would like to think the general public equates Avatar's indigenous "beings" story to the plight of Native Americans and the "conquest" of the West by Euro settlers but the reality is I doubt many do.

I think most people who see it think of blue aliens and lots of explosions and cool CG 3d effects.

Indians are "red" not "blue", remember?

Many comments I've read online about Avatar actually chastise people for "putting too much thought" behind a film's theme or "it's just a movie"...You know what I'm talking about.

My biggest concern with Native Americans being portrayed in the media is this:

Stereotypes abound in the media for all ethnic backgrounds, (except for "whites" of course) but the big exception is this:

Every other ethnic background EXCEPT Native Americans also have a counter-balance representation that shows another "modern" or realistic portrayal of that ethnic group in the media. Some ethnic groups even have their own national network.

I think "George Lopez", or the "Cosby Show." are two such mainstream examples.

When (and if) we see Native Americans in shows or the media it is usually to poke fun of their casinos or perhaps on the History Channel in a historical retrospect (that reinforces the beliefs that Native American don't exist in modern day America...)

It has been more than ten years since "Smoke Signals" made the "art house" theater circuit and wowed the crowds at Sundance...I don't think I've ever even seen it on regular TV.

I don't think anyone should hold their breath that Hollywood is going to equate the success of Avatar with a story about Native Americans. Not gonna happen.

I've said this before, so I apologize in advance.

Until the Native community gets behind "viable," "Native Themed" films financially, only then will there be greater opportunities for Native Americans not only to have a presence in cinema but also an opportunity to portray themselves as the incredibly rich contemporary culture they are.

There's a lot of work to do, are you counting on Hollywood to do it?

I'm not.

Keep the faith Rob,



Rob said...

I'm not counting on Hollywood to change, but I'm hoping it will. It's come a long way since the racist portrayals of the 1940s and 1950s, so that proves it can change.

In fact, I bet the producers of that era claimed they had to portray Indians as savages to make money. That argument seemed true until Westerns started losing money, when it became false.

I suspect Hollywood will change if Natives make movies that succeed. Or if thousands of people read my blog and join me in protesting. Or both. ;-)

Rob said...

Someone asked why I didn't quote the rest of Pond's article, starting with his claim that Native-themed movies lose money. Answer: The rest of his arguments go off the rails a bit.

He gives Apocalypto as an example of a movie that failed because of Natives. Huh? It cost $40 million to make and has earned $51 million domestic and another $70 million foreign. (Source: BoxOfficeMojo.com.) Apocalypto demonstrates that Native-themed movies can succeed, not that they can't.

Apocalypto is exactly the type of mid-range, no-name Native movies studios should make. It shows that such movies can and do earn money.

dmarks said...

"It has been more than ten years since "Smoke Signals" made the "art house" theater circuit and wowed the crowds at Sundance...I don't think I've ever even seen it on regular TV."

True. I would have watched it had it been on TV.

As it is, it finally made it to a screen in my town a few weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

Hollywood knows that the public at-large wants films with NDNS, but only stereotypical representations. Just think of the amount of projects currently in production. For example: Jonah Hex, Cowboys and Aliens, The Lone Ranger, Twilight: Eclipse, etc.

I also think it is important to point out that I know many NDNs that tend to love films that are incredibly stereotypical. Perhaps it is merely a matter of recognition that makes NDNs frequent films with NDNs and buy the dvds, since there a severe lack of an alternative.

Anonymous said...

Taylor Lautner to star as 'Stretch Armstrong:
Taylor Lautner has signed on to star in “Stretch Armstrong,” Universal’s movie based on the Hasbro toy.
The studio is also making the movie in 3D, which will push back the release date of the movie from May 15, 2011 to some time in 2012.
The story developed for the movie, being produced by Imagine and Hasbro, sees an uptight spy who stumbles across a stretching formula, which he takes and must now adjust to in everyday life and when fighting crime.
“In the past two years, Taylor has emerged as a real star at the global boxoffice. He brings the perfect balance of energy and athleticism to the role of an unlikely super hero with a fantastic super power,” said Universal co-chairman Donna Langley.
More so than Rob Pattinson, who seems content to work in indie movies, Taylor has emerged as the mainstream star from the “Twilight” movies, signing on to major tentpoles such as “Max Steel” or action vehicles such as “Cancun.” The actor, repped by WME and Management 360, has shown charisma and physical prowess on screen beyond the “Twilight” movies (a recent “Saturday Night Live” appearance is an example) and Lautner is being positioned to be this decade’s action star.
So I wonder if a "real" Native had been cast in Twilight, would this opportunity been given to him and could this have been the breakthrough role to get more Natives on the screen in leading roles? The producers of Twilight are confident in their choice of Lautner...as is his agent.