|Studio Labour, Civil Rights, and the Collapse of Hollywood's Racial Order, 1963-1974|
|In the 1950s Hollywood studios were virtually lilywhite but by the 1970s African Americans had entered several motion-picture occupations. This paper looks at the racial transformation of the movie industry – echoing, as it does, many of the changes going on in industrial America as a result of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which forbad discrimination in employment.
Hollywood’s old racial order collapsed unevenly: black actors made gains while most of the organised resistance to change came from craft and technical workers. Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and others, met Martin Luther King in Los Angeles, and many actors took part in the 1963 Civil Rights demonstration in Washington DC. In contrast, studio locals of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) tried to restrict black entry for a number of years.
This paper looks beyond simplistic and misleading comparisons between the supposed ‘liberalism’ of the talent guilds – actors, musicians, screenwriters, and directors -- and the ‘unthinking racism’ of blue-collar workers in explaining the differing responses to African-American demands for jobs in the industry.
The paper makes two broad arguments. Firstly, that in order to answer the question how and why the racial order collapsed we need to remember employers’ responsibility for the social organisation of the workplace. We hear a good deal about the working class buying in to racism – “the wages of whiteness” thesis – but labour history has lost sight of what we might call the ‘profits of prejudice.’ Secondly, how the existing racial pattern unravelled is, in large measure, determined by its 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. Attention will focus on such issues as the movie moguls’ role in the development of a racial hierarchy, black culture as a commodity, the impact of the Hollywood Blacklist, the seniority system and the post-war decline in employment, and the strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
School of Humanities
University of Greenwich