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Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Jim Crow

***The staff of the Jim Crow Museum receives dozens of letters and emails. Some of these communiques offer insight into race relations -- historically and in the present. While some are hateful, we have decided to share some of these letters and emails with our Internet visitors.***

Good day,

I'm a young adult pursuing acting in Hollywood, with my only connection to Ferris State University being that my father is an alum and that I was probably conceived somewhere near campus. I'm going to go by a fake name here--as in "Kevin"--due to what I risk as a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) member in a sea of Hollywood politics, as I relay to you the connection between “Jim Crow” and modern-day Hollywood behind-the-scenes.

Hollywood isn't just about "casting" actors, but is also about desperate artists having to survive within the "caste" system, or hierarchy, of a multi-billion dollar visual story-producing machine. Within Hollywood's "caste system"--with your caste-for-the-day as an actor being dependent upon the type of contract you are on, be it principal, stunt, stand-in, or background-actor (or "extra"), just to name a few--over the years of working many of these kinds of contracts, I am more and more burdened by observing the behavior towards and treatment of those working "background acting," or "extra," contracts. The only parallel to it I can think of are the Jim Crow laws and the American South before the Civil Rights Movement. And this is why I am writing you:

If "background" were to be nicknamed "backs"--which they aren't, but you'll see my point, as it's so close to sounding like "blacks"--then this is what you could expect to witness in 21st-Century Hollywood:

SAG says that union background (not non-union background, which is a whole other story) are entitled to the same food as the crew, but it’s quite fascinating how the powers that be will do all that they can to creatively ensure there’s a public display of an illusionary, discriminatory caste system, working against background. If Production doesn’t have enough money to ensure a segregated lunch set-up for background is set up away from cast and crew, background will be clocked out at the same time as the crew while being kept away from the plentiful buffet until all 80-150 crew people go through the line, with “backs” getting what scraps are left over. If Production has enough money to have separate “Craft Service” (snack) areas, the crew will get a somewhat gourmet selection of healthy and non-healthy treats, while “backs” are given donuts and apples On one movie set, an entire room of background had their snack area down to one apple only to be shared between all of them. If Production provides everyone with a light meal and they are able to segregate the background from the cast and crew--like I saw on set recently--the crew will get hamburgers, hot dogs, sweet potato fries, and regular fries, while the background will be provided only hot dogs and the regular fries, with Production only on a technicality abiding by SAG rules of union background getting the same union food as the rest of the crew.

Having largely grown up outside of a culture of racial bigotry, hatred, discrimination, and segregation, I’m rather amazed at the psychological effects of this behavior I’ve witnessed in Hollywood, based on the “color” of a contract instead of the color of one’s skin. When the crew ensures those on background contracts are given less and/or given last, when the “backs” speak up about the equal treatment that they are entitled to, the crew complains about how unprofessional the background are and how they won’t stay in their place, even to the point of having the loudest one or two fired and sent home without pay. When a well-known principal actress is rumored to have called background “cockroaches,” it both angers “backs” but also communicates to their conscious and subconscious minds that they really aren’t valued, don’t have significance, and don’t have to put as much effort into their jobs, which in turn has a negative effect on what they produce and, therefore, their future reputation.  And the downward spiral begins.

With many background actors aspiring to do principal acting work, these “backs” are crippled even more when they are told after a scene that they are “bad actors,” after having been put into a scene where they were given no direction and no rundown of what the scene was even about.; In other words, how unfair it is for an employer to publicly declare that their “back” employees do a bad job when they are not given the proper tools to do a good job.

I present this Jim Crow parallel in modern-day USA to you for this reason: As much as I’d like to write an article about this while comparing it to Jim Crow to try and change Hollywood for the better, I know my experience and knowledge surrounding Jim Crow laws and the pre-civil rights movement within the American South is dreadfully little. I’m asking those at your museum and/or any interested students to take on this “Project: Jim Show” (a Hollywood version of Jim Crow) in either one of two ways. Either send someone to Hollywood and have him (instead of her, since ladies are treated sometimes quite differently for the sexual intentions of crew members, which would be more a reflection of gender studies instead of a “Jim Show” study) spend a couple weeks working as a background actor (while being paid minimum wage doing it)...or else see if someone on your end wouldn’t mind putting their head together with mine to co-write an article comparing Jim Crow to Jim Show. Or do both

Most sincerely,
-- February 16, 2015