Actresses of color make equal-pay quest a group effort

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox recorded “Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves” in 1985, the Queen of Soul tried out a pointed ad lib for the empowerment anthem.

“’Equal pay, that’s what we say!’” she exclaimed in one take, as recounted by Lennox at a gathering of female filmmakers last fall. “And I said, ‘She gets the message. She knows what this is about.’”

Actresses, especially women of color, are getting the message as well: In seeking the roles and money that their talent warrants, they’re putting sisterhood to work.

Giving colleagues a peek at their paychecks, speaking out about economic disparity and using hard-won success to boost others are among the measures slowly gaining traction in an industry where most actors are hunting for their next job and women of color face entrenched barriers.

“One of the first things we say is, ‘Find out what the people around you are making,’” said entertainment lawyer Nina Shaw, a founding member of Times Up, the organization created in 2018 to fight sexual misconduct and workplace inequality. “And more and more, we’re finding that people are willing to talk to each other.”

Without knowledge of what other actors with a similar track record are getting for equivalent work, “you are way behind the eight ball,” said Gabrielle Union (“Think Like a Man,” ‘’Being Mary Jane”).

Changing entrenched behavior takes time, Union said, but “little by little we’re communicating, and women of color, specifically black women, are like, ‘Oh, hell nah.’ We are so woefully underpaid, under-appreciated, disrespected.”

Ana de la Reguera (“Power,” upcoming movie “Army of the Dead”) saw the value of networking as part of “Latinas Who Lunch,” an informal group started by Eva Longoria. Actresses, as well as writers and directors, gathered to share their experiences and job and career building tips.

“We were actually encouraging each other to, say, shadow (observe) a director, ask to direct an episode, ask to be the executive producer,” de la Reguera said. The #MeToo movement consumed their attention, but she continues advising women one-on-one as they learn to navigate Hollywood’s intricate system, which she said is more challenging than the still-growing industry in her native Mexico.

What performers earn is difficult to verify, say researchers who track film and TV employment. Privacy concerns are one obvious reason, as are the complex deals that include compensation for acting and other work (as with HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” which Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman starred in and produced). The actors guild, SAGAFTRA, does not publish specific salaries.

But there is research adding weight to complaints of disparity. In the latest San Diego State University analysis of TV’s broadcast, cable and streaming programs, women had 40 percent of speaking roles while men had 60 percent in 2017-18, despite the genders being evenly split in the population. Further limiting opportunities for women of color: 67 percent of all female roles went to white actresses, according to the findings of the school’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film’s study . That exceeds the approximately 60 percent they represent among U.S. women.

Movies are proving more resistant to inclusiveness. In a study of the top 100 films of 2017, a third had an actress in a starring or a co-starring role, with just four of them an underrepresented ethnicity, according to research by the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative .

Fewer jobs mean fewer chances for an actress to build a resume and the fan base that leads to more and better roles. Yet box-office receipts and TV ratings show that audiences embrace projects with multiethnic casts, according to an annual Hollywood diversity report from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Asked if industry racism is at play, Union, who won a contract dispute with media giant Viacom-owned BET over her series “Being Mary Jane,” had a ready reply.

“Based on the numbers that I know that black women, Latinas, Asian women, indigenous actors are making, there is no other logical reason why we are paid what we are paid versus what our contemporaries are paid who are lacking melanin,” she said.

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