I saw a movie a few years ago, in 1993 actually. It was a major studio release by Columbia, and starred one of my favorite actors, Robert Duvall. The movie was Geronimo-An American Legend. Some of you may have seen it. Duvall played a Western character, and in a part of the movie not significantly related to the main theme, he had a run-in with a group of scruffy Texans. After the Texans had departed, Duvall announced to his associates that "Texans are the lowest form of human life".
Now, I ask you, was that funny or offensive? What if the movie was a different movie about a character who said "African-Americans are the lowest form of human life? Would that be funny or offensive? What about another movie in which the character said "Asian-Americans" are the lowest form of human life, funny or offensive? And, what if the movie character said "Jews" are the lowest form of human life? Funny or offensive? What about women, Latinos, Christians, Arabs, Italian-Americans, gays/lesbians, Whites from the South?
Do your feelings differ depending upon which group is being defamed? Should they? Would your feelings differ if you knew, for example, that White folks from Texas and the American South are among at least five distinct populations in our diverse society that have been consistently portrayed in Hollywood movies in a negative or stereotypical manner for the last several decades? Would your feelings differ if you realized that those biased Hollywood movie portrayals included those of Arabs and Arab Americans, Latinos, Asians and Asian-Americans and Christians, along with Whites from the American South, and that other groups including African-Americans and women have also been victimized by Hollywood portrayals over the years, although less so in more recent movies?
Would your feelings differ if you realized that feature films are much more than mere entertainment (what many Hollywood spin doctors have repeatedly told us and want us to believe), when the truth is that our U.S. Supreme Court has actually declared that the motion picture is a significant medium for the communication of ideas, and on that basis has extended the constitutional right of free speech to films? Would your feelings differ if you realized that ideas have always and will always be important factors in influencing human thinking and behavior? And, would your feelings differ if you realized that millions of the people who go into these darkened theatres and view these powerful movie images are young, not very sophisticated, and in some cases, not well educated or even mentally balanced individuals? After all, no one stands at the theatre door trying to determine who can effectively separate reality from fantasy in movies, do they?
If someone like those individuals I've just described, repeatedly saw a particular group of people consistently portrayed in a negative or stereotypical manner over the years in a significant number of Hollywood movies, what are the chances that such portrayals would influence the attitudes of those moviegoers with respect to those negatively or stereotypically portrayed populations? Probably, pretty good, wouldn't you say?
And, would you feel any different if I told you that my studies of what's really going on in Hollywood demonstrate that movies, to a large extent, tend to mirror the values, interests, cultural perspectives and prejudices of their makers. And further, that the Hollywood-based U.S. film industry is today and has been for its nearly 100-year history dominated by a small, narrowly-defined group of individuals with very similar backgrounds. In other words, there is and has been very little diversity at the top in Hollywood, in those positions with the power to determine whether a given motion picture is produced or released for viewing by American and worldwide audiences. And, that lack of diversity at the top in Hollywood produces these patterns of bias in motion picture content.
As a significant medium for the communication of ideas, there can be no doubt that it is absolutely essential to the preservation of our democracy and the underlying free marketplace of ideas (upon which our democracy is based), to recognize that our national movie industry has an affirmative obligation to offer us a more balanced view of the real world and of all important matters communicated through film. The industry also has an affirmative obligation to make the control positions at the dominant film companies available to a more diverse group of executive decision-makers, so that movies can mirror the values, interests, cultural perspectives and prejudices of a more representative group of Americans. Diversity is the key. It is in your interest and our national interest.