SCENE NOT HEARD

Racial Disparities in the Film Industry Need Another Look
A grayscale illustration of a dark-skinned person with no facial features looking to the right of the frame. Their face is shaded using dot work. Their hair is in a short afro and they’re wearing white dangling earrings. The background is black, and there’s a ray of white that resembles a spotlight coming from the top right corner. This spotlight is also shaded with dot work, but it’s much lighter. Illustration by Ruth Mascelli.

Prologue

I started working in the entertainment industry in New Orleans, costume department, in late 2017. As a production assistant (PA), my days were consumed with filing and delivering paperwork, fulfilling lunch orders, and returning garments to stores. At this level there was very little physical handling of wardrobe. After an accumulated 90 days of on-set costuming, I was inducted into the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 478 union officially as a set costumer. The starting rate of a set costumer is exceptionally higher than for a PA, and this position allows more creative input to the overall project. I felt being in the union would serve as a professional badge of acceptance and job security. As I’ve approached this point of my career, I have yet to feel as accepted and secure as my predominantly white colleagues. (For the sake of anonymity I will not be directly referring to anyone by name in this article.)

I’ve worked on at least six shows where I am among very few Black women, or the only one in the entire crew. Only once have I worked on a show where the crew was predominantly Black; and even still in the wardrobe department, out of 10 Black women only two of us were department heads. As white-washed as this industry is on a macro-scale, this is reflected just as heavily interdepartmentally. The costume department (particularly in New Orleans) is heavily saturated with white women. Considering the hiring process is mostly about “who you know,” it continues to be as such. I’m fairly new in the costume world, though with 33 years of experience being Black (and working about 17 of those) I can easily detect when I’m being racially discriminated against in the workplace.

Since childhood, I’ve had countless experiences where being a brown-skinned girl was deemed a disadvantage. Honestly, the majority of those experiences involved white women. I can recall times in grade school where I was picked over by crushes that preferred white and fairer-skinned girls because of their proximity to white beauty standards, or at summer camp being the only Black girl, constantly teased and isolated by the white girls I wanted to befriend. As an adult, in nearly every professional work environment I’ve experienced, there’s been at least one white female co-worker who decided they did not like me. Many of those women used their privilege to jeopardize my position via microaggressions, false accusations, questioning my competence to do my job, or making conscious efforts to intimidate me. I am not here to attack white women. I’m only acknowledging that theoretically and historically there is a pattern of victimization and abuse of privilege when it comes to white women, and more often than not, Black women are the collateral damage.


A supervisor went out of their way to make sure I never worked in town again, giving me bad recommendations, when to my knowledge we never had a problem while working together. The following season I was not rehired, but replaced with a white woman with less qualifications.” —Anonymous Black Costumer


Over the years I’ve managed to establish healthy relationships with a small percentage of white women where I feel seen and supported in my Black existence. I’m grateful for those friendships and accountability, while understanding that white women overall still have some work to do. Among well-meaning white allies, many still utilize the advantages they have, whether consciously or subconsciously. We live in an era where white women were among 53% of voters that got 45 elected into presidency. Their power and influence impacts millions, whereas Black women are fighting every day just to be seen, heard, and respected. I could go on about the many jobs I’ve worked where I went “From Office Pet to Office Threat” (as writer Erika Stallings puts it), but I’ll say that I’ve been challenged the most working in the film industry. There are tactics white women use to keep their Black colleagues positioned beneath them—a knee to the neck, so to speak. Very few have taken the time to actually teach, encourage, or uplift me.

Black women are expected to show up polished and on point with our performance in order, as proof that we do indeed deserve to be there. Any inadequacy is a reflection of how we (Black women) just aren’t talented enough, or don’t have what it takes to thrive in this industry. The toll this can take on one’s morale has often left me feeling discouraged and invisible.


“ [A popular locally-filmed] Black show, now has almost an entirely white costume team because all of the Black women were deemed trouble in one way or another. And in lieu of [being] promoted from within, [these supervisors] hired white women from outside in leadership roles. There is one Black costumer left on this show and that’s because she ‘falls in line’ and seeks no advancement.” —Anonymous Black Costumer


Act I: Stepping on the Scene

My first show was an unpaid internship on a weeklong shoot for a pilot series. The designer and assistant designer (both white women) were awesome. They made that week fun and educational for me. The department consisted of us three, one set costumer, and the costume coordinator, who I would be working closely with (all white women). The coordinator position was just above mine. Though it wasn’t the head of the department, it was high enough for her to feel she had the leverage to boss me around. Quite frankly, she lacked basic common sense and wasn’t very good at her job. This woman antagonized me from the second she met me to the end of that long work week: starting petty arguments, dismissing me, and once told me to ride on the tail bed of the utility truck because she didn’t want me to ride in her car. The tension came to a head when she proceeded to call the designer over the phone (in front of me), alleging that I was yelling at her. The reality was that she was overwhelmed by her job and couldn’t handle having to coach me on the task at hand. I could also tell that she didn’t respond well to my assertive personality. She claimed that I was causing her to start “shaking” and she “had never been spoken to this way.” I never even raised my voice at this woman. She just didn’t like that I challenged her ability to perform, simply by asking questions that she apparently didn’t know the answers to. I was ready to leave that job without any second thought, but thankfully the designer saw through her act, apologized for the coordinator’s actions, and asked me to stay on. I stayed but kept my distance. I have so many stories similar to this one.

Act II: Behind the Smoke, Mirrors, and Wardrobe

I was hired to work on a television show as a full-time set costumer. It was well-known that I had very little experience on this level prior to being hired, but the assistant designer (a white ally) insisted and believed enough in me to persuade the costume designer to hire me. It is well-known across the film industry that this particular (white female) costume designer has a notoriously problematic reputation. While on the show there had been whispers of a “situation” with her and a Black female production assistant, presumably regarding racial discrimination. This led to security being called and the PA losing her job, putting her reputation on thin ice. In hindsight, that situation should have been the first red flag. However, an opportunity like this would have been crazy for me to pass on, and the pay rate was far beyond what I’d made thus far in the industry.

Seemingly, the wardrobe team was pretty diverse, consisting of mostly Black women, one woman of Asian descent, and three white men (one of whom was my set partner). Initially, my relationship with the designer was affirming. She would often praise even the smallest progress I’d make, rant about how “cute” I was, brag about me to other crew members, and boast to me that the principal actors and other crew members really liked me. As far as I knew, I was doing a great job. There were many challenges and many more hiccups, but I felt supported and was catching on pretty fast.

There were conversations the designer would have with me about her professional experience and personal opinions about inclusion in the Southern film union and how she deemed herself responsible for the increase in hiring Black women in wardrobe. Eighty percent of our conversations were one-sided, considering she liked to talk a lot about herself and had this notorious “white savior” mentality. She would share how she worked on many Black shows like Martin and In Living Color and how in those environments she was the only white lesbian woman. She insisted that she could relate to feeling excluded and unwelcomed, and thus used her success to offer job opportunities to other marginalized groups. She had an affinity for urban wear and would pride herself on the knowledge she had of Black culture and fashion. I couldn’t help but feel like she was overcompensating or trying to earn some kind of credit with me for being “down” (my word usage, not hers). I’d seen how she spoke down to most people and arrogantly imposed herself upon other department heads: stepping on toes, aggressively asserting herself upon other crew members in dramatic fashion. At this point, I was keeping my head down, doing my best, and learning along the way while working in a high-stress environment.

Act III: Horror, Harm, and Hell

It was four months into this eight-month show before the two of us had an issue. I’d made a relatively large mistake of bringing the wrong wardrobe change to set for one of our principal actors. I took full accountability for this; however, it should not have fallen solely on me. There were other team members involved, but I was the only one heavily reprimanded for it. Arriving to set after a series of angry text messages, the designer firmly invited me into a conference room at the location where we were filming (a functioning law firm) for a conversation. She immediately began yelling at me, initially about how I’d embarrassed her in front of executives with the mistake I’d made. She went on to accuse me of gossiping about her with other crew members, “looking at her” a particular way, and having an attitude with her. She called me “ungrateful” after “all she’d done for me.” She said my confidence was getting to my head and that I wasn’t doing my job well. She claimed that everyone on the team had complained about me and that I was not helpful to my set partner. I was basically accused of being the weakest person on the team. Not only was there no evidence of any of these accusations, but not once had there been any conversation or coaching regarding these alleged mistakes I’d been making leading up to this moment. All she had were praises for me up until a few days prior. In my attempt to have dialogue with her about it, she quickly interjected, screaming that this was “my time to listen.” My younger, less professional self’s natural response to folks yelling in my face would have been to match that energy. The mature, more professional Christine sat there silently looking away. I was already triggered, and if I had looked her in the eye, I know I would’ve said or done something that I’d later regret. Even then, this woman loudly demanded that I “look at her when she spoke to me.” Keep in mind that the rest of the crew was still filming and there were people actually working in this office that could hear all of this happening.

I held back tears until she left the room, privately vented my frustrations, but also knew I needed to get right back to work. I wasn’t able to shake off the uneasy nerves of anger and humiliation. I somehow managed to get through the rest of that work day. Following this altercation, there was no acknowledgement of it. The next time, she spoke to me as if nothing happened. She even attempted a light-hearted, non-work related conversation with me.

To this day, I have not received an apology or formal follow-up on this altercation. I felt the need to consult the production’s HR director. After our first phone conversation, I was transparent about the fact that I felt like I was being targeted and my job was at stake. The representative and I agreed that the next steps would be to have the producer of the show have a conversation with the designer to address “an anonymous” crew member’s concerns about her character and management style. In no way did I feel there was a way to do this without her connecting the dots to me; however, I trusted that by me addressing this early on, there would be an opportunity to turn everything around. Unfortunately, not so much.

I was notified when the conversation happened, but there were no details shared with me regarding how the exchange went over. After a week, I started to notice the costume designer dramatically overreacting to things I did on set and challenging every move I made. I was being accused of actions that I was clearly not responsible for. To her advantage, she’d recently hired a new wardrobe supervisor that had no knowledge of her manipulative ways and convinced her that my performance was poor. She would start petty arguments with me on set in front of other crew members and actors that I worked closely with, screaming loudly and conspiring exchanges to make me appear incompetent to my actors and peers.

I was ultimately terminated based on my “performance.” I continued consulting with HR and  Compliance, challenging my termination under the claim of discrimination and retaliation. After several months of closing, reopening, and again closing my case, I was left with no redemption or justice for how I was treated. I’d presented emails, text messages, even names of witnesses. However, that was apparently not enough evidence to hold against her. I am now left sifting through resentment. As a crew member, I felt the appropriate channel to address the matter was HR. This situation left me feeling that it is the employers and department heads who are granted protection and it is my job as a subordinate to take the abuse and get over it. I was unfairly released from my job and am still processing the residual trauma. It is disheartening to know that this form of work culture will continue, given that it is difficult to physically prove microaggressions in the workplace. I had good intentions when I initially raised concern; however, it appears now that I could’ve avoided this outcome had I remained silent.


“To my white friends/work colleagues… I know you mean well, but the fact that you witnessed this happening to me… you saw the injustice, the harassment and said nothing… THAT is a privilege. The fact that you could watch from the sidelines, while witnessing clear injustice where someone’s job is at stake should not sit well with you. And if it doesn’t matter to you, you are a part of the problem.” —Anonymous Black Costumer


Epilogue

How do we change this vicious cut-throat cycle? How can microaggressions be proven in HR claims? I can’t help but believe that if I were a white woman, there never would’ve been an issue. That designer would have acknowledged the drive and passion I had for my job. I could have finished working on the show, potentially been hired on another show with her in L.A., and advanced further in my career. How am I supposed to feel motivated or hopeful that I will be hired based on my ability and talent, when there are so many people in my industry that can’t fathom seeing a young Black woman thrive or be in the same pool as them? I wrote this piece as a means to heal, though I am still very deflated and discouraged. I see so many things for myself and future in this industry, but when I think about all that it takes to reach those heights, I have to choose my peace. I know that I will always be successful in achieving my goals. I know that I am talented. I know that I have a very unique style and story to share with the world. I do not need the entertainment industry to define me. I only wish for the opportunity to thrive in peace.


illustrations by Ruth Mascelli