Last month, as part of an ongoing effort to bring about the promised “transformational change”, Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., The group behind the Golden Globes, hired Neil Phillips as its first director of diversity.
Phillips, an Entrepreneurship in Education Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a member of the first Echoing Green / Open Society Foundation for Black Men’s Achievement, joined the organization after months of criticism from the HFPA and calls for reform following a Times investigation that found there were no blacks in the association. members and detailed allegations of financial and ethical omissions within the group.
Phillips’ appointment comes after the HFPA formed a five-year partnership with the NAACP. But he also emerged after a string of violent incidents for the group, including a leaked email that former HFPA president Phil Burke sent to the group in April, in which he called Black Lives Matter a “racist hate movement.” The association’s first diversity advisor, University of Southern California professor Sean Harper, resigned shortly thereafter.
Phillips told The Times about the recent firestorm surrounding the group and how he plans to address diversity and fairness issues in the future, both internally and across the entertainment industry.
The HFPA faced heavy criticism earlier this year for its lack of black members, and the diversity and inclusion adviser they hired in March left after six weeks. Given the history, what prompted you to take on this role?
I became familiar with the problems that HFPA faces from a distance. It seemed to me then, as now, when I am even more familiar with her, that the criticism was well deserved – that this organization was underrepresented from the point of view of its black journalists. And it needed to be addressed, and I was very pleased and impressed with what I learned as the organization’s response to this criticism.
When you look at the problems of underrepresentation – far beyond HFPA, far beyond film, television and the entertainment industry … there are usually structural problems that lead to them within the organization. So when I found out that the HFPA is very deeply and comprehensively examining not only the numbers and figures that need to be verified, but how it functions – things like the eligibility requirements and the certification process – and makes significant changes to those policies and procedures that told me that this organization is doing everything right … thoughtfully and purposefully.
Since I became even more familiar with the leadership of the organization, and [President] Helen [Hoehne] in particular, when I realized that their efforts were not only about getting out of the crisis, not about weathering the storm, but about the long-term modeling, practice and advocacy of truly deeply rooted diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, it was an organization what I wanted to be a part of.
This is a new position for the organization. Can you discuss how you assess your role in HFPA?
Am I really looking at what this HFPA role should be? What is clear to me is that the HFPA needs this role to ensure that issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are handled with the care they deserve, and that considerations of diversity, equity and inclusion are always at the forefront of any organizational considerations. Sometimes they will be the core, sometimes the secondary, depending on the problem being solved. But my role will be to ensure that issues of diversity, equity and inclusion are always considered and taken into account in a way that benefits the organization and, as a result, benefits the industry.
I can tell you what the role is No… The role is not, “How can we help HFPA weather the storm or get out of the crisis?” That’s not what this role is about. This role has much higher goals.
In October, the HFPA invited its largest class of new members, including six black journalists. In your opinion, has this taken the problem of lack of black members off the table, or is there a longer term goal that you think HFPA should be in terms of group composition?
The short answer is no, it doesn’t take the problem off the table. We need more black journalists to become HFPA members, and this will happen.
These are not just numbers. One of the things being mindful of diversity does is improve organization. Extended membership affects the way an organization functions and the impact it has on the industry.
So you don’t have a specific goal for how many black members you would like to see in HFPA?
I don’t mean that number at all, except to know that we are striving for more.
Last year, the HFPA rejected the idea of bringing in a diversity and equality consultant, with many members arguing that the group was already diverse as its members came from all over the world. How does this affect the work you do with the organization and its ability to understand the importance of this issue in the future?
I cannot say much about the positions that people have taken in the past. … I have no point of view on this. What I can say is that this position exists now and I am focused on what I can do in the present and future to ensure that this role helps the organization expand the way it thinks about its members and the way it thinks. … about its impact on the industry.
I had the opportunity to reach out to the members, and although all the participants were not present, most of them were there. [and] a significant amount on Zoom. They heard from me: “Look, I understand that it was a very difficult time. I think the criticism of the HFPA was well deserved and I was really impressed with the organization’s response and its commitment to continue to respond. ”
Most of all, they heard optimism. It is an organization that has had a significant impact over 78 years in an industry that has had a significant impact around the world. Often we focus on negativity, criticism, negative reaction – and this is all real, so I understand. But I focus on the opportunity and optimism of what happens when an organization develops and transforms.
In October, the HFPA announced a five-year partnership with the NAACP. What do you hope for from this partnership?
I can’t tell you how excited I am about this partnership. We will continue to encourage and support internships, fellowships and mentoring opportunities. We’re going to work with them to restore some of the older black films and some of the films that chronicle the history of the NAACP. We’re going to create opportunities for color creatives to get into film festivals around the world where the path has been more limited.
Earlier this year, the organization faced criticism from some influential figures in Hollywood, including Ava Duvernay and Shonda Rhimes, as well as organizations such as Time’s Up and Color of Change, for historically ignoring black-led projects. Have you had any conversations with any of them or with any of the publicist coalition that spearheaded the HFPA boycott of these issues?
I have not spoken to any of the people you mentioned. But I really want these conversations, and I really hope that I have the privilege of spending time with some of the people you named and others who have criticized HFPA who have points of view and ideas. This will help me understand a fuller picture of the story that will form the basis for my work to promote HFPA.
Some at the HFPA have declined, saying some of their critics have their own problems when it comes to inclusion. Do you think this is a compelling counterargument?
I just don’t think it helps a lot at this point. I just think I need to focus on my work. This is work that will bring the results that we want to see, and nothing but work. So I have no time at all to go back and forth like that – it just doesn’t seem to me that the time was well spent.
Another argument put forward by some HFPA members is that not many Black Entertainment journalists work for foreign media. Do you agree with this assessment, and if so, what would you like to see to expand the circle of potential color applicants?
You often hear, “Well, we can’t find enough women to advance to leadership positions,” or “We can’t find enough black men to fill the list of candidates at this particular college.” I just won’t buy it.
You have to look at how your organization is performing – your eligibility criteria, your habitual reach – and that’s what HFPA has done. They made changes to policies and procedures. They expanded their coverage mechanisms. They eliminated certain requirements that narrowed the path rather than widened it.
I want to emphasize that there is no quick fix here. Some of these changes that have taken place are truly significant and meaningful. But we must continue to work for a certain period of time in order to get the results that are needed and I think are really achievable.