Among the many topics on which Hollywood has a special sensitivity (read that hot button or sore spot), any assertion of discrimination or barring creative people from their craft makes for a giant industry cringe. So in a town haunted ever-still by its 1950s blacklists, its recent ageism litigation, the persistent howling about political bias, well, what to make about a new legal action that asserts that Tinsel Town mistreats African Americans?
Social Hollywood Magazine reports that aspiring screenwriter Justin Samuels has filed an $8 million dollar lawsuit against WME and CAA, accusing them of discriminating against him because he is black. Samuels, a Cornell graduate, asserts he sent hundreds of queries to WME and CAA over nine years but was rejected because the agencies do not accept unsolicited communications. Samuels argues that these restrictive policies disproportionately lock out non-whites and women screenwriters because the only way to get work looked at and advanced by powerful agencies is through the support and referral of the industry’s white-male inner circle.
But is this ban by major agencies on unsolicited communication a practice that is, as the agencies assert, rooted in the hectic, ultra-competitive nature of the business and a move to protect against other kinds of litigation over rights and ownership claims? Or it it nepotism and racism, as Samuels suggests.
Ask Hollywood agents and they will argue the former. A literary agent at one of the majors offers this anonymous commentary: “This is absolutely absurd. In fact, I’m looking for unique voices such as female and different racial-minority perspectives, more than anything else. We work in entertainment and the arts where creativity is king. What’s even more crazy is that we get query letters, how am I supposed to know the color of the person’s skin who sent it!”
History suggests Hollywood deflects discrimination claims too readily — and at its own legal peril. In January, 2010, seven agencies and 17 television networks paid out a $70 million settlement for a class action suit brought by television writers, alleging unintentional age discrimination in selection and representation. ICM paid $4.5 million in a similar settlement in 2008; Endeavor settled a messy sexual harassment suit in 2002.
Recent news reports say that minorities fill theater seats but are underrepresented onscreen, while the industry’s own numbers regarding representation of women and people of color remain dismal. And even as Hollywood gets lambasted for its political liberalism and accused of anti-conservative discrimination, the persistent specter of racism and sexism in the industry can’t help but trouble.