Chris Rock is right – Hollywood has a race problem. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for BET
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Why Hollywood needs to listen to Chris Rock about its race problems

On screen and off, Hollywood is terrible at giving opportunities to anyone who isn’t white, and one of the US’s biggest stars is calling them out on it.

In a scathing editorial in the Hollywood Reporter, Chris Rock has confronted some issues that though obvious, are being blatantly ignored. He quite rightly points out that Hollywood is an exclusive, white industry that is terrible at giving opportunities to black and Latino people other than as the janitor. You only have to open your eyes to see this, but nobody, whether it be studio executives, producers, directors, other actors or critics, has been proactive in changing things. It’s OK to say it – Hollywood doesn’t care about black people.

In Rock’s piece, he references a scene that was cut out of his upcoming film Top Five. The line goes “I'm the only black agent here. They never invite me to anything, and these people are liberals. This isn't the Klan.” It cuts to the heart of the bullshit that is liberalism – they don’t think they’re racist just because they don’t wear white hoods and call themselves “Grand Wizard”. You can count on one hand the number of black actors who are currently genuine stars in Hollywood: Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Samuel L Jackson. Halle Berry got relegated to television, Eddie Murphy’s career imploded, Jamie Foxx isn’t quite “it”, Tyler Perry’s an embarrassment and the likes of Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kerry Washington, Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie are mostly kept to supporting roles which wouldn’t be the case if they were white.

As Rock states, you can go for weeks without seeing a significant black character on screen. Change doesn’t happen on its own – it has to be pushed and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t know what the solution is or even if there is one aside from making it mandatory for you to have a certain amount of speaking roles for minorities in films. But I do know that nobody apart from racists would care if Batman was played by Idris Elba or if Seth Rogen’s loveable sidekick was Kevin Hart, even though black actors never even get considered for these roles. Every man and woman in the western hemisphere was under consideration for the two leading roles in Fifty Shades of Grey, except for black actors and actresses. What would be the difference if Christian Grey was black? There wouldn’t be one. What they’re saying is that people don’t find black people sexy, but as Rock puts it: “More women want to fuck Tyrese than Jamie Dornan, and it’s not even close. It’s not a contest. Even Jamie would go, ‘OK, you got it’.” It’s so absurd it’s almost impossible to comprehend.

The key decision-makers in Hollywood are all white: every studio head is white, all the significant producers are white. Only Will Packer, responsible for things like Think Like a Man, Ride Along, No Good Deed and Takers is a notable black producer working on mainstream projects. All black talent needs is an opportunity and it’s not really getting one. Steve McQueen gave Chiwetel Ejiofor the leading role in 12 Years a Slave, which resulted in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Ejiofor  has been waiting his entire career for a leading role and he proved all those people wrong who thought he “didn’t quite fit the part”, and would do so again if he ever gets another one.

Chris Rock, probably the leading stand-up comedian of the last twenty years and second only to Richard Pryor at his craft, is right. Nobody wants to admit it, but he is. Race has always been integral to his stand-up act but he hasn’t attacked the medium he works in quite like he did in this editorial.  An optimist would suggest that because such a high-profile figure has attacked the industry, change will follow, but I’m not an optimist and the fact is Hollywood is a white industry that doesn’t even pretend to care about black people. Of course, the irony is that Hollywood’s ignorance and discrimination is costing them millions – they’re alienating a massive demographic that could have helped out the worst US box-office in over a decade. You listen to Chris Rock and you’ll usually be in hysterics, but for once, he is being entirely serious. He’s speaking the truth that Hollywood doesn’t want to hear.

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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