Russell Simmons: Fixing Hollywood diversity means leaving your ‘comfort zone’

After a second consecutive year of #OscarsSoWhite—in which, once again, no performers of color were nominated for Academy Awards—Russell Simmons set out to make a difference with the All Def Movie Awards, which celebrate black artists and black audiences. ADMA (which will air 7 p.m. Sunday on Fusion) took place in Los Angeles on Wednesday, with beloved stars like Ice Cube, Amber Rose, and Snoop Dogg walking the black carpet.

We caught up with Simmons, the Def Jam cofounder and all-around media magnate, over the phone on Thursday.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Can you tell me about the inspiration for the All Def Movie Awards?

Well, it was pretty obvious that there was a vacuum, and a lot of movies had been overlooked. It’s a subjective thing, but it seemed like there’s a whole cultural element that was left out and needed to be celebrated.

This whole discussion is about promoting harmony and a route towards making a better Hollywood. It’s not a snub on the Oscars. The Oscars are what they are. They’re an old institution, with older guys making choices. Half the country doesn’t look like them. They might miss out on cultural nuances—everybody recognizes when a good story is told, but we may not understand why something is so meaningful. Art is a capsule of the time and place in which you live, so if you miss that, you miss a lot.

Russell Simmons and host Tony Rock at the ADMAs on Wednesday.Getty Images

Producer Russell Simmons and host Tony Rock at the ADMAs on Wednesday.

You’re a veteran of virtually every side of the entertainment industry. What’s unique about Hollywood’s problems with diversity and inclusion?

It’s hard to push your way through the ranks without any support from the gatekeepers. There’s not an African-American even close to running a studio.

There’s no gatekeepers in music. The street picks the people. You put a record out. It gets big. Mainstream America buys it. It crosses over. I have movies on the shelf right now that I’m pissed off I can’t make, that I know are great and that I know will sell. I’m not pissed off at anybody in particular, but I’m just saying I can go to an executive, and I can talk to him till I’m blue in the face, and he’ll say, “Yeah, sounds OK,” but I can’t convince him to make it.

I’m thrilled at every success of everybody who worked hard to get somewhere. Key and Peele are great. I think Key and Peele are brilliant, but the black community didn’t choose them. There’s like 50 black comedians who are waiting in line, who have never really gotten a fair shake in Hollywood.

Black Hollywood lives in a vacuum. Those comedy nights where all black people play and all black people go—they’re segregated beyond belief. And what’s bad about them is that there’s nobody in the room with any power, since there’s not one black agent in Hollywood who can really press any buttons.

Forget the Oscars—without the senior ranks of Hollywood changing, we’re going to miss out on a lot of talent, and Hollywood will miss out on a lot of money. A lot of artists will miss out on the opportunity to express themselves in front of larger numbers of people. That is the tragedy.

What needs to change?

It’s about friendships. It’s about communication. If you’re white, you have to ask yourself, “How many black people were in your wedding?” For all of the senior executives in Hollywood, it’s probably none, unless it was Eddie Murphy.

I know that the Academy is working very hard to promote diversity. I know that everybody has a diversity department, but it hasn’t yielded a lot of fruit. And the executives whose job it is, they really have to go outside their comfort zone. They’ve got to go to that black comedy club and look at those black movies. Because there’s so much segregation, to unsegregate it, you have to reach into these separate worlds.

We have an obligation to bring people together, not only because it makes Hollywood more money, but because it changes the world. I have a lot of hope and optimism regarding Hollywood’s future. This is what Hollywood does: It tells a beautiful story about some struggle, some group of people who have been wronged or not included.