About a decade ago, Samantha Ofole-Prince got a message from a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Ofole-Prince, who is Black, grew up in the United Kingdom, and had been writing entertainment stories from Los Angeles for publications in the U.K., Africa and the Caribbean.
The HFPA member — whom Ofole-Prince declined to identify in order to protect her from controversy — wanted to meet. At the meeting, the woman said the group was looking to recruit Black members, and asked Ofole-Prince if she would be interested in joining.
“How many do you have?” Ofole-Prince asked.
“We don’t have any at the moment, unfortunately,” the member replied. “It’s very embarrassing for us.”
The organization’s failure to recruit Black members now threatens its existence. A coalition of publicists has organized a boycott campaign, and Netflix, WarnerMedia, Amazon, and other entertainment companies are refusing to work with the group. Earlier this week, NBC — which was initially supportive of the group’s proposed reforms — announced it would not broadcast the Golden Globes in 2022. Both inside and outside the group, there is uncertainty about whether the awards show will return in 2023.
Ofole-Prince’s story — which she has never shared publicly before — provides a glimpse of a road not taken. Had she been allowed to join in 2013, the HFPA might have been on a path to become more diverse, and possibly would not be in as much trouble as it is now. But after being invited to apply, Ofole-Prince was rejected.
The HFPA has blamed her rejection on a problem with the magazine clips submitted with her application. But according to Ofole-Prince, her candidacy ran into resistance from members who feared she would compete on their turf.
She provided an email exchange with a member from South Africa who wanted assurances that Ofole-Prince would not work for South African outlets. Whether that issue ultimately killed her nomination is hard to say with certainty. But Ofole-Prince believes that was the reason, and said she bases that conclusion on her conversations with her supporters in the group.
The 80-plus members of the HFPA are mostly journalists who freelance for international publications. Their membership — and the ability to vote on the Golden Globes — gives them clout and access to interviews and press conferences which are not afforded to outsiders. But they do fear competition from within.
According to a lawsuit filed last August, the members claim various territories, and agree not to work in each others’ domains. A Norwegian journalist, Kjersti Flaa, alleged in the suit that she had been rejected because two Scandinavian members feared that she would compete with them for assignments from Scandinavian outlets. Her attorneys submitted sworn declarations from several other foreign journalists who said that they, too, had been denied admission due to competitive concerns.
Ofole-Prince did not know any of this when she was being introduced around at HFPA events. Several members agreed to sponsor her, and she submitted an application. But she soon heard there was a problem. In an email, the member she had met initially alerted her to a concern raised by Margaret Gardiner, a South African member who was crowned Miss Universe in 1978.
“Could she please have a formal assurance from you that, if elected, you will undertake to avoid publishing anything in South Africa?” the member wrote.
Ofole-Prince typically worked for publications in West Africa, and had not worked for any outlets in South Africa. She replied that she would accept the condition. Gardiner wrote to Ofole-Prince a few minutes later:
“It would be great if you could let me know which territories you cover in Africa and give me the assurance that (the member) has outlined,” Gardiner wrote.
Ofole-Prince responded: “The territories in Africa are Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, Benin, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Per (the member’s) email below, if elected to join the HFPA, you have my absolute word that I will not publish any articles in South Africa.”
Gardiner followed up again, seeking to expand her jurisdiction: “Thanks Samantha. That goes for its neighboring territories too. As there is an overlap in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and the former Mozambique.”
Ofole-Prince did not reply to that email.
She said she had also heard a similar concern from another member who was also concerned that Ofole-Prince might compete in her territory.
Ofole-Prince also heard concerns that she had written for tabloids such as the Star and the National Enquirer. That could cause problems for publicists who make their clients available to HFPA members, but who do not want to see the resulting stories on display at a supermarket checkout stand. She said she didn’t work for the tabloids any more, and would not in the future. She was also told that if she wrote for any U.S. outlets, she could not use material from HFPA press conferences.
“Every day it was something,” Ofole-Prince said. “It felt like they were dictating to me who I should write for. Well, you invited me to join. So you can’t dictate the terms to me.”
Nevertheless, she felt motivated to join the organization. She writes a lot about Nigerian and Caribbean cinema, and wanted to bring that perspective to the table.
“I felt this would be a way to share these movies with them,” she said.
The vote on her application was held on May 15, 2013. She was told later that there was heated debate, but that only 33 of the organization’s members voted for her.
“I was told a small group of members blocked my application,” she said, saying she understood that the territorial issues were key to her defeat.
In an email to Variety, Gardiner denied sinking the nomination.
“I never campaigned against Samantha,” she wrote.
Judy Solomon, a member of more than six decades, told Variety this week that Ofole-Prince was rejected because she did not submit a sufficient number of clips. Solomon gave the same explanation in a story that appeared the day after the vote in The Wrap. The story also quoted an insider who blamed the defeat on “Jim Crow-style” insinuations that Ofole-Prince was not qualified. Ofole-Prince’s supporters were angered that the group had rejected a well qualified candidate who would have been its only Black member.
When the Wrap article appeared, Ofole-Prince said she was glad to see a public airing of the group’s diversity issues.
“I thought, ‘Oh great, at least they will do something about it because it’s out there,’” Ofole-Prince said. “But they haven’t. That’s a really glaring problem, and that shows you they don’t care, or they don’t care enough.”
Some members are admitted only after being rejected multiple times, and Ofole-Prince was asked if she wanted to apply again. Ofole-Prince said she was not interested.
“Unfortunately, the experience I had with the organization left me with a very bitter taste,” she told them. “I’m not interested in joining the organization in the form that it is now.”
In May 2014, Gardiner sent an email to Ofole-Prince, which Gardiner also provided to Variety this week.
“I was sorry to hear you would not be joining us,” Gardiner wrote at the time. “Plz. Know that I assured everyone there was no conflict between us.”
Ofole-Prince was not convinced. “That’s very convenient,” she said.
Ofole-Prince continues to write about entertainment, and only occasionally sees some of the HFPA members at events. She did not give her experience with the organization much further thought until Flaa filed her lawsuit last year. Until that point, she had not realized that others were also denied because they could be perceived as competitive threats.
“It made me feel a little more angry,” Ofole-Prince said. “This is an organization that’s a bully.”
She spoke to Flaa, and offered to assist in her lawsuit if need be. (The suit has been dismissed twice and is now on appeal.)
The HFPA said in a statement that it does not endorse the practice of territorial protection. In 2018, the board declared that any previous non-competition agreements were unenforceable, and that no new ones should be solicited.
“To be clear, the HFPA has never condoned the practice of ‘assurance letters’ or agreements not to write in certain countries,” the organization said. “Years back, the Board unequivocally advised the membership that any such letters are void and unenforceable and violate HFPA policy.”
The Los Angeles Times again reported on the group’s lack of Black members in February, and this time the HFPA faced a severe backlash. Under intense pressure, the organization agreed to increase its membership by 50% over the next 18 months, with a focus on recruiting from underrepresented groups.
“We are focused on implementing our comprehensive reform plan, which was overwhelmingly approved by the membership last week,” the HFPA said Friday. “Among other critical tasks, the Board is actively working with Ropes & Gray to reform the HFPA’s membership and accreditation criteria, which will apply equally to all existing and future members.”
Ofole-Prince said that some people messaged her after the controversy exploded, telling her that now she was sure to get in. Her response was “What makes you think I’d want to join?”
“There’s an ugly side to the HFPA,” she said. “They’ve had decades to address the diversity issues. Unfortunately, they’ve chosen not to… I don’t think it’s salvageable.”