Abstract: Hollywood Studios and the Demand for Racial Equality in the Motion Picture Industry, 1963-1974

Andrew Dawson


In the late 1950s Hollywood studios were virtually lilywhite but by the early 1970s African Americans had entered a range of motion-picture occupations. This paper looks at racial change in the movie industry and the activities of the studios and their executives. The paper makes two broad arguments. First, in order to answer the question how and why the racial order shifted we need to remember employers' responsibilities for the social organization of the workplace. Relatively little attention is paid to the employers' role in determining workplace racial hierarchies. While some historians emphasize white working-class racism—"the wages of whiteness" thesis—business and labor history also needs to explore an alternative perspective, the "profits of prejudice." The studios had conflicting commercial, political, and industrial interests that account for their complex response to civil rights. Second, how existing racial patterns unravelled is, in part, determined by their prior historical construction. In other words, how the movie industry's racial order disintegrated in the mid-1960s is profoundly influenced by the way it was assembled in the Los Angeles of the early twentieth century. Hollywood's old racial order collapsed unevenly. In responding to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the demands of the federal government, executives negotiated a set of alliances with studio unions and guilds each of which had their own agendas and varying commitment to civil rights. The studios joined with the Screen Actors Guild in exploring ways to increase black on-screen roles, while at the same time forming a common front with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) to maintain the industry experience roster—a system that restricted African American entry to off-camera jobs—in the face of pressure from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.