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Black, gay comedian Sampson battles racism, homophobia in Hollywood

Sampson McCormick is a gay stand-up comedian surviving in Hollywood
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Sampson McCormick is a gay stand-up comedian who has experienced many things. Most of them great, but he still has to step over the litter of what should already be a bygone era.

He talked to San Diego Gay and Lesbian News about the racial and homophobic hurdles which dominate the industry, and admittedly he is not one to stand by silently, so he had a lot to say.  

His new documentary A Tough Act to Follow, is a short film filled with stories from actors and other comics about being black, being gay, and being human in comedy clubs and Tinseltown, "That's a battle that a lot of minority artists, and I know especially comics had to fight all of our careers, and it really hurts," he says in the film. 

Hollywood has come under fire for not being as open to people of color as it thinks it is. This also holds true in the world of stand-up comedy.

Compound that with being gay and it would seem the entertainment industry only gives the best opportunities to certain groups of people: the white and straight (acting) kind.  

The outspoken Sampson is not under-appreciative of all the things he has accomplished and the success he has achieved, yet he still questions the practices of Hollywood execs, even ones who are African American themselves.

I talked with Sampson about his film and what why he thinks a town that seems so liberal can be so marginalizing.

He said it goes deeper than just bias or judgment.

 “I think for some, there are good intentions,” he told me. “But when series are being created and scripts are being made about black folks, or any other minority group, and none of those people you're writing about are present in the room during the creative process, then that's an issue. Some want to tell these stories, and that's cool, but they totally don't go about it the right way.

Others, simply don't relate period, although racism, etc. definitely exists in Hollywood and in show business, I think there is a cultural disconnect, which is why amazing stories that are actually created by and about minorities are often overlooked.”

He believes that over 90-percent of Oscar voters are white and over the age of 50. His concern is the structure of that demographic is built upon knowing nothing about how to make a film which delves into true black heritage and honest experience.

“What would they know about a Straight Outta Compton, or Color Purple or any of those kinds of films. I do notice when films are written like The Help or 12 Years A Slave they tell stories about things that black people have experienced, but there is almost like a ‘savior’ in the those stories, who is usually white and that draws everyone else in.

“I think some intentions are good,” he adds. “But there is an expression that says ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions, I think that expression fits this type of scenario. The fact that people don't want to have honest conversations about the issue doesn't improve it or change the status quo though. It's time to do better, for all stories that involve whoever we are, black, gay, disabled, transgender, immigrant, whoever. Time to start getting it right.”

Sampson has said some pretty powerful stuff. These are things that he has experienced first-hand, also nothing I could relate to myself on his level.

I wanted to know exactly what it feels like to be in an industry where under-handed and sometimes blatant judgements are a part of the occupational hazard.

“At one time, it was completely heartbreaking,” he said. “It still can be, but over the years, I have learned how to look at it for what it is, which is mostly lack of understanding and education and not taking the time to deal with it and do better. It is highly frustrating, it has caused lots of anxiety, anger, depression. Sometimes, it's easier to deal with than other times, but I've made the resolve to continue doing great work, showing up, looking good, being my best and giving shows that are funny as hell. That's all you can do. Greatness cannot be refuted. “

That sentiment is a wonderful weapon to have. Having to constantly battle the thoughts of knowing you might be rejected, not for your talent, but for the color of your skin and sexuality. These fears are probably not as profound, or transparent in any other type of job interview.

I asked him if it’s so bad, how can a gay, African American comedian, actor hope to succeed in such an environment without totally giving in and risking integrity or worse.

He says figuring that out is an on-going process. With fifteen years in the business doors aren’t really opening for black gay men in entertainment unless they are committed to playing the stereotype.

“We still have yet to see, educated, non-stereotypical black gay men getting opportunities,” he said “Thankfully, we have my friend, Jussie Smollett on Empire, representing. But I'm trying to think of other black gay men getting exposure and opportunities and none come to mind.”

He explains that behind the glitzy façade of the Hollywood machine, there are plenty of gay people of color doing their best to propel it to success, but seldom do they get the chance to be in the spotlight.  That is unless they perform in life as they are expected to perform in film.

“Overall though, from my experiences, I've been told that we are not marketable, which is funny, because mainstream culture steals everything from the gays, lingo, style, you name it,” he laughs. “As far as success, I mean, I'm still doing what I do, and that alone is success, but honestly, it seems like for a black, gay entertainer to really succeed in Hollywood, they have to put some base in their voice, turn the Beyonce down, and stay in the closet.”   

Grasping the reality that if you are black or gay, or both and have a dream of eventually starring in a truthful, authentic depiction of a culture steeped in diversity, it’s a testament to the strength it must take to attempt it.

Being at the mercy of the box office is just another cog in the clockworks of big studio projects that seem to turn slower for those not near the center. I asked the comedian if he thinks it will ever change. 

He says that change will come, but it will take a while.

“It's gotten better since I was a kid, back in the 80's and early 90's, there were NO openly gay, black people on television, maybe some Sylvester, and then RuPaul,” he said. “Overall, the only gay folks I can remember at all being on TV were Richard Simmons and Bert and Ernie (you know they had something going on, two men puppets, been roommates for 40 years? Come on now.  

But you look at TV now, and there are a few more, we've even had a TV series, Noah's Arc, and there was LA Complex with black, gay characters in the story line, there are a few more movies, a couple of athletes, but there is no serious visibility that isn't on a token level and that's not cool.”

He says it’s only going to take a few people who feel as he does to get an opportunity and knock it out of the park. Gay athletes who become heroes in the NBA, or NFL.  

“Sadly, we have to show up and be two times better than everybody else, because we are judged harder, and you don't know when that opportunity may come around again. It's going to take a ton of work, and those of us who get the opportunities to make serious statements,” he told me.

Sampson is currently touring the country with his documentary titled A Tough Act To Follow, and the comedian is steadily reclaiming his creative bug after slowing down  little. He says he can't go too long without getting back on stage to make people laugh.

"This Summer, I will be super busy," he said. "I think almost every weekend, I am not complaining. I also have a new book that will be out early this Spring, which is probably one of my most honest and personal. I also plan to release a new comedy album, maybe in the Fall. I have a few things in the pot."

A Tough Act to Follow premieres at Reel Affirmations on Friday April, 22.