Will Smith, Spike Lee, Samuel L.Jackson & Benicio Del Toro Discuss Racism & Aging In Hollywood


If you’ve read any of our articles focused on Hollywood, you will probably notice one thing missing: the men. We mostly focus on the discrimination women often face including ageism and sexism. While there are certainly a number of ways men are more advantaged, after all it has been a male-dominated and male-run industry for quite some time, it is interesting to hear how they feel discriminated against.

The Hollywood Reporter held an actors round table session with a handful of leading men, as part of their focus leading up to the awards season, and asked them their thoughts on a number of topics which included racism and aging. The men present were Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Benicio Del Toro, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine and Joel Edgerton.

Each of the men, from different generations, countries and ethnicities shared about how they got started in the biz and talked about the current movies they are all promoting.

One of the early questions thrown out to the table starts with the issue surrounding how Will Smith was initially asked by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino to be in ‘Django Unchained’ but he said no as he wanted it to be a love story, not a story based on violence. After that, the two never spoke again, and Quentin cast Jamie Foxx instead.

Samuel L. Jackson was then asked what he thought about the fact that the N-word is used quite liberally throughout most Tarantino movies and whether it bothers him.

“No more than life. It’s a movie. But, I mean, life is what life is, and in my world, it’s a pretty common word,” he responded which was somewhat of an interesting set up to the way race and class issues are discussed throughout the interview.


Will Smith’s new movie ‘Concussion’ follows the real life story of a Nigerian doctor who discovered a critical link between football related injuries and brain trauma, which the NFL tried to cover up after his findings were published. Will says playing that role made him realize how lucky he is to have the opportunities to play incredible roles like this.

“It was a story about an immigrant, it was a story about American values, and it was things that I really believe in. America is the only place on Earth that I could exist. No other country on Earth is producing people that look like me and allowing them to have a global [impact],” he says, which is most certainly true. Hollywood IS supposed to be seen as this bastion of liberalism and creative arts, yet there are still ways discrimination can creep in to balance out the pioneering aspects.

British actor Michael Caine, the oldest of the group, talks about being the “outsider” in a different way, not necessarily because of his skin color, but his socio-economic status. He compared this to what some men and women of color face in the industry today.

“Idris Elba could be James Bond, for Pete’s sake, so he’s not exactly squashed back because of his color. When I started, I was the “black” actor. We didn’t have black people; we had working-class people. And so what your experience was when you were growing up was the same for me. My career started, not because of any talent on my part, but because of timing. English theater never did anything about the working class. Everybody talked what we call ‘posh.’ And I always said that Cockneys were the first blacks in England, so I understand your position very well because I lived through it,” he says of his journey into film.

Benicio Del Toro shares his own experience of being made to feel like he didn’t fit in, and it sounds like a familiar story to a few other Latina women in the industry like Salma Hayek and Sofia Vergara.


“All you’ve got to do is read the history. If you read the history of the United States, you know that there’s prejudice, and it’s evolving. But I have definitely felt it. One of the first things that they said to me when I came here was, ‘Change your name’,” he said.

Salma Hayek talks with an unapologetic Latina accent and today she is one of the most recognizable stars in the industry, as well as a powerful advocate for women and girls. When she first moved to Hollywood she was told to conform to the standards but instead she chose to be herself and has become a powerful representative for Latina women in the industry. ‘Modern Family’ actress Sofia Vergara hails form Colombia and her signature thick accent has allowed her to become the highest paid actress on TV. Not bad for someone who also chose not to conform or change to suit someone else!

So why does this matter for men? Because prejudice is prejudice, and although they experience in different ways, it exists for almost everyone. At the actors round table, it is an eye-opener to hear it from a male perspective because more than anything it shows that both men and women need to support one another to fight against it. And as Will Smith points out, actors in Hollywood are in a prime position to send a very loud message to the world given how popular their movies are.

“As actors we have the ultimate power. Historically, story combined with imagery moves humanity forward. What we do — not that it’s a responsibility, but it is the ultimate forum for changing people’s hearts and minds. So when I’m choosing a movie, I understand the global power of being able to send imagery around the world. A large part of the way that America is viewed globally is from the historical imagery that we have sent around the world through cinema,” he said.

While he says he hasn’t personally felt the sting of racism from a perspective where he is made to feel inferior to another ethnicity, Will touches on the current culture of race and prejudice that have become mainstay topics in pop culture right now with the focus on police brutality toward black men and women, and the divisive political discussions about the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement spawned from these incidents.


“Everybody is prejudiced. Everybody has their life experiences that make them prefer one thing over another — it makes them prefer blond hair over a brunette; if you see somebody with dark skin walking down the street, you have a different reaction than you have [with] someone who is 5-foot-1 and white. But there is a connotation with racism of superiority: You feel that your race generally is superior. And I have to say, I live with constant prejudice, but racism is actually rare — someone who thinks their race is superior. I don’t want to work for them. I don’t want to work at that company,” he said.

Is the Hollywood landscape better for men and women of color who are not actors, per se? Well sure, 2015 finally saw the first black female director being nominated for the prestigious Best Director Award at the Oscars (Ava DuVernay for ‘Selma’) but even she has talked about the misconception that the offers are coming in thick and fast. At a recent Elle Magazine Women In Hollywood event she talked about the greater need for diversity so that one day the word doesn’t constantly carry a sort of “other” connotation with it.

“There’s more to do particularly in Hollywood, so we have to be vigilant…we all belong to film. We all belong to television. We all belong to what this is. We look at Shondas and the Jills and the Oprahs and the Kathryns and all the women doing work behind the camera…So, I just want us to think about belonging. Think about who belongs,” she said.

Another filmmaker of color who has certainly enjoyed plenty of mainstream attention while also courting plenty of criticism for the topics included on screen is Spike Lee, whose current film ‘Chi-Raq‘ haw drawn controversy for the way it is portraying gang violence in Chicago.


Nevertheless, at the recent Governors Awards ceremony in Los Angeles where he accepted an award he used the opportunity to speak about the need for more diversity in Hollywood as a way to combat the common “isms” that are still very present.

“This industry is so far behind sports, it’s ridiculous. It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be head of a studio. Honest. We can talk, you know, yabba, yabba, yabba, but we need to have some serious discussion about diversity, and get some flave up in this!” he said to the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

It should be noted that after the 2015 Oscars which cause a lot anger for its “whitewashing” in the most popular nomination categories which spurned the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, it seems the Academy has taken the criticism on board, somewhat. The AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced at the same Governors Awards that they are launching a 5 year diversity plan called A2020 which seeks to broaden the demographics of the group’s membership, staff and governing board, which will hopefully ensure a more inclusive round of nominees going forward.

Like Spike Lee said, it is going to take more than just talk, we need action. Clearly men and women have faced plenty of discrimination, and many still do. While part of the solution is for filmmakers to create their own content, utilizing the many democratic methods now available to hack their way into the industry (crowd-funding, film festivals, and social media for example), we also need to see change happen from the very top. The world is an incredible diverse and eclectic place, and everyone has a story. This is what needs to be reflected more in Hollywood.

Thank you to the men of Hollywood who are standing alongside the many women already fighting against discrimination. We need your voices!



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