Hollywood is struggling to respond to the furor over the all-white slate of actors nominated for the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is changing its rules, stars are boycotting the awards show and the protest hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is burning through Twitter for the second year in a row. But this goes much further back than 2015.
Clifford Alexander put Hollywood in the hot seat back in 1969.
As the first African American chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Alexander called a hearing in Los Angeles to investigate and expose discriminatory hiring practices in the film industry. Minorities, he found, were being shut out.
“And the real story was that they never received the kind of opportunities that they should according to their skills and talent,” Alexander told Reveal as part of our recent investigation into hiring discrimination in the temp industry.
“It was a tap-dancing image of black people that was conveyed by the movie industry.”
After the 1969 hearing, the commission called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into what it called “clear evidence of a pattern or practice of discrimination.”
But agitating for change also helped cost Alexander his job.
After a lobbying effort by the film industry, Alexander went before a U.S. Senate subcommittee where the powerful Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen accused him of harassing businesses. Dirksen, R-Ill., even threatened his position, saying, “I’ll go to the highest authority in this government to get someone fired.” The next day, the Nixon White House said Alexander would be replaced as commission chairman.
Alexander quit before he was fired, questioning Nixon’s commitment to ending job discrimination. He was 35 at the time.
Now, decades later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating gender discrimination among the ranks of female directors in Hollywood.
And the continuing diversity problem is not lost on Alexander, now 82. In an extensive interview, Reveal host Al Letson brought up the dearth of black actors nominated for the Academy Awards. Alexander agreed with him, saying: “It is, as you say, ridiculous. And, again, this is what creates the image of us.”