Gina Belafonte addresses the issue of race in entertainment media

Actor and producer Gina Belafonte spoke to students, faculty and community members about the issues of racial diversity in entertainment media at the Newhouse School on Wednesday.

Actress and producer Gina Belafonte entertained a crowd at the Newhouse School Wednesday night in a discussion about her career, race in the entertainment industry and her father’s legacy.

Belafonte, the daughter of singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte, also talked about "Sing Your Song," a documentary about her father that she co-produced. It was selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2011.

Hosted by Professor of Practice Richard Dubin, Belafonte’s appearance was part of the 12th Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media. Professor Dubin created the series 12 years ago.

Belafonte began the conversation by describing her journey through the entertainment industry. Growing up in New York City, she knew she wanted to be an actress.

“I just loved it,” she said. “I was a drama queen.”

She then attended the High School of Performing Arts, where her life changed.

“I seemed to be thriving in my community because I was doing what I wanted to do,” Belafonte said.

After graduating from State University of New York at Purchase, she took on many roles in acting, producing and behind the scenes work in television and theater, both in New York and in Hollywood. She even toured with the National Shakespeare Company and played the title role in Romeo and Juliet.

But there were bumps along the road. Belafonte highlighted her struggles in entertainment media as a woman of mixed race. Other people often asked her, “What are you?” and when asked about her race at auditions, she always checked the “other” box.

“I was quickly confronted with the dilemma of my identity in public,” Belafonte said.

She told many anecdotes about the role of skin color and race in her career. For example, when she acted briefly on the sitcom “Friends,” Belafonte noticed the lack of racial diversity on set.

“I was fascinated that there…were no people of color,” she said.

Ten years later, Belafonte still thinks television isn’t doing enough to address these issues.

“There isn’t real content that is hitting the real issues about race or socioeconomic disparity,” she said.

This is what Belafonte cares about. In 2005, she co-founded The Gathering for Justice, a non-profit organization that addresses social issues like youth incarceration.

Much like Gina, Harry Belafonte, her father, was active on issues he cared about. She spoke about his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement and non-violent protests, as well as his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. Harry Belafonte used his influence in the entertainment industry to bring actors and friends who were white to the movement.

“He was bigger than life, in some ways,” Belafonte said. “There’s no one like my father.”

She also mentioned his work with proposing the Peace Corps to President Kennedy. Her father even helped fund several students from Kenya to study in America, one of whom was President Obama’s father, she said.

One audience member asked if Belafonte thought the election of a black president will spur a second civil rights movement.

“Unless the people start it, there will be no movement,” Belafonte replied.

But she said she does believe that the conversation about race in entertainment will change.

“For me, it’s no longer a black-white issue,” Belafonte said. “The issue of race, the issue of culture has shifted. It’s less about race and more about socioeconomic [and black incarceration].”

Afterward, she offered advice to students in the audience. She encouraged them to be proactive with new medium in the media.

“If you sit and wait for the business to answer your call, you're going to be waiting a long time,” Belafonte said. She recommended students to start developing content of their own to carve a space for themselves.

Dan Grave, a television, radio, film sophomore said he found the conversation insightful. Although he came for his TRF screenwriting class, he said he got a lot out of the dialogue, particularly the discussion about building your own industry.

Kelvin Sherman, a TRF junior and a Newhouse ambassador, had the opportunity to have dinner with Gina Belafonte. He said he was intrigued by her focus on her multicultural identity.

“The people who control communications are white men,” Sherman said.

Belafonte encouraged people to change the perception of people of color in the entertainment industry.

When a student in the audience asked what we should do to change that perception, Belafonte replied, “Boycott the networks and make them give you the content you want to see.”



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