According to vox.com, Actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park recently left hit US TV show Hawaii Five-0 over a contract dispute involving salaries. Apparently the final CBS offer the pair received was 10-15% less than fellow co-stars Alex O’ Loughlin and Scott Caan.
Both Kim and Park are actors of Asian ethnicity. In a post to Facebook fans, Kim encouraged his followers “to look beyond the disappointment of this moment to the bigger picture,” noting “the path to equality is rarely easy.”
We won’t know the true reasons behind the contract dispute, but it does shed some light on the issue of the criteria behind the level of star salaries.
The 2016 Oscars host, Chris Rock made a point when he told The New Yorker-
“You hear Jennifer Lawrence complaining about getting paid less because she’s a woman—if she was black, she’d really have something to complain about.”
Is this true? Let’s look for a moment at the top-earning actors of 2016 according to Forbes. At the top is black comedian/actor Kevin Hart. Granted, much of his income was through his stand-up shows, but he has had major film hits with Ride Along 2 and Central Intelligence.
In second place is Dwayne Johnson of Samoan descent. He co-starred in Central Intelligence with Hart and has a hit TV show in Ballers and the recent movie Baywatch. In third place is Jackie Chan who is originally from Hong Kong.
The rest of the list contains Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan of India, Jennifer Lopez, (an American with Hispanic roots) and Sofia Vergara of Columbia. Perhaps like Rock said; Black actors on average may make less than their white counterparts, but these statistics make the general racial inequality argument a little too simplistic. What is more telling is that of the top 16 places, only 4 of those are women. So maybe Jennifer Lawrence has a right to complain.
If you examine the list closer however, Khan made his millions in Bollywood productions so race is not an issue there. Chan’s earnings are based on voiceover roles (Kung Fu Panda 3) and work done on Chinese American productions such as Skiptrace and Dragonblade. Hart and Johnson’s earnings are all in Hollywood however.
Viola Davis made an interesting Emmy acceptance speech in 2015 when she won Best Actress for TV series How to Get Away with Murder.
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” she said during her acceptance speech. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
She has a valid point. When in direct comparison, it’s inevitable that white actors are more likely to get better roles and higher pay than actors of colour because the majority of parts are white characters. There simply aren’t as many roles in Hollywood for actors of ethnicity. The likes of Hart and Johnson have overcome this obstacle by creating vehicles for themselves through their unique charisma and appeal. In terms of run-of-the-mill characters however, these are more likely to be white. So the prejudice doesn’t simply lie in the casting but the writing and producing as well.
How can this be overcome? Is it necessarily correct to pay an actor of colour as much as the next white person (or vice versa) just to have a politically correct box ticked? The salary specifications should be down to the importance of the part, (be it lead or supporting) and the track record the actor has in terms of box office appeal. Hart and Johnson have generated mass appeal through their unique history in comedy and wrestling respectively. Colour isn’t and shouldn’t be a factor.
So Chris rock is generalising a bit in his remarks about black actors. Lets not forget that his comedy is based on the racism of American society, so let’s take his opinions with a pinch of salt.
Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park may have had a justifiable reason to leave Hawaii Five-0, and if so they should be respected for standing by their principles. That however doesn’t mean that all actors of colour are necessarily at a disadvantage in Hollywood based on their ethnicity. They simply have to be more innovative in shaping their marketability. And it can and has been done.