Thursday, January 28, 2016

DIVERSITY IN HOLLYWOOD - BEYOND BLACK & WHITE

Photo credit: LA Times
I typically stay away from these conversations. I think it's partially generational (I'm considered a cusper. I'm either an infant Gen X'er ...or ancient Millennial) and partially because I'm originally from the Midwest. It's highly frowned upon in the Midwest to discuss certain things publicly, such as salary, race, politics, or religion. These are private conversations you have with friends or family. Imagine my surprise that not only will I be talking about race, but I will also be discussing gender (in an upcoming post). As I grow older I have come to believe that we can discuss almost anything as long as we do so with respect to others and with a listening heart.  So here goes...breaking the norm, coming out of my comfort zone.

#OscarsSoWhite

There has been a lot of talk about the Oscars this year--not for positive reasons, but for negative ones. The #OscarSoWhite twitter campaign has been in full gear this month. The controversy began when the Academy Award nominations revealed that every single person in the acting categories was white. Wonderful films like 'Creed,' 'Beasts of No Nation,' and 'Straight Out of Compton' were left off the list, as were many other films. Believing this snub was racially insensitive, Will and Jada Smith and Spike Lee decided to boycott the Oscars because of the lack of color amongst the nominees. 
In the midst of this boycott, the media (who loves watching people fight) has been gleefully publishing sound bites from other artists in order create more controversy. People like Charlotte Rampling, Michael Caine, Stacy Dash, Michael Moore, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Jonathan Demme, and Mark Ruffalo, have all weighed in on the topic. Some of them have received their own backlash.

Getting back to Will and Jada's point-- it's true 95% of all of the Oscar nominees are white. This is not reflective of society at large (at least American society). America has a minority population of 37.4% as of 2012, which will be 57% of the population in 2060. However, this problem originates long before awards season. Thankfully a voice of reason has emerged. The lovely Viola Davis said...
THE OSCARS ARE NOT REALLY THE ISSUE.
IT'S A SYMPTOM OF A MUCH
GREATER DISEASE. 
-Viola Davis

Truer words have not been spoken on this issue. The Oscars are too far down the supply chain. The real problem begins much earlier in the filmmaking process. Perhaps most importantly--the issue goes far beyond black and white. I say this as a multiracial person of African American, Mohawk, Blackfoot Native American, Irish, and French heritage.

Beyond Black and White

One point I'd like to make is that African Americans are not the only ones who are being discriminated against. Other people of color such as Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans, etc. are also being excluded. Hollywood's prejudice also affects women. Women only have 30% of speaking roles in films and comprise 4.6% of film directors, despite being 50% of the film school graduates. Prejudice in Hollywood also affects the LGBTQ community. I cannot think of any reason (other than prejudice) that Matt Boomer is not a major film star? Boomer is a fantastic actor and IMO the sexiest man alive (he shares this title with Idris Elba). My point is that it's not just a black and white problem.
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Likewise, Idris Elba recently noted that diversity is not just a Hollywood problem either. In order for Elba to get recognized in the UK he had to come to America to become a film star. This gives me hope that despite the prejudices on display here, there is still opportunity. Which leads me to my other point. I'm going to quote Viola Davis again when she won an Emmy last year because Viola is just awesome. She just is. Viola Davis is my new role model.
The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.  --Viola Davis
The Academy cannot nominate people for roles that do not exist. As soon as I think Hollywood has learned its lesson from films like 'Aloha' or 'Exodus: Gods and Kings,' it immediately turns around and does it again. 'Gods of Egypt' comes out on February 28th. Scarlett Johansson will play Major Motoko Kusanagi in 'Ghost in the Shell' in 2017. That's right. She will play a character named MOTOKO KUSANAGI. Johansson is likely my favorite actress. I would love to see her in more action films, but I'm disappointed that she's playing an iconic Japanese character. Why not give this role to a Japanese or an Asian actress? That is the main point of this post. In order for there to be more inclusion there has to be more roles for people of color.

Quid Pro Quo

This leads me to my next series of points. I have seen several discussions on social media excusing the lack of diversity in Hollywood. See my responses to each statement below.

1.) Hollywood is just showing what people want to see.

According to Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), 44% of domestic tickets are purchased by people of color. Twenty-Six percent of ticket sales alone are purchased by Hispanics, which makes Hispanics "the most underrepresented group on screen."

Speaking of which, I love this quote from Gina Rodriguez. Yes, the same Gina Rodriguez that the the Golden Globes (and my favorite awards show) confused with America Ferrera. Gina Rodriguez spoke about Hollywood's portrayal of Hispanic women and she's right. I see plenty of Hispanic women cast as maids and sex kittens, but I rarely see a Hispanic investment banker.
I have two older sisters. One's an investment banker. The other is a doctor and I never saw us being played as investment bankers. And I realized how limiting that was. I would look at the screen and think, 'Well, there's no way I can do it, because I'm not there.' And it's like as soon as you follow your dreams, you give other people the allowance to follow theirs. -- Gina Rodriguez
2.) It's not personal, it's just business. 

I have heard this phrase more times than I can count. I have even heard this phrase from a dear friend of mine who tried to explain away the lack of diversity on 'The Bachelor.' Not that I care for that show. If you watch 'The Bachelor' please don't tell me. If there was a worst show on the entire planet--IMHO 'The Bachelor' would be it... for various reasons. But in response to the "it's not personal, it's just business," I will use my favorite line from one of my favorite films, 'You've Got Mail.'
All that means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me. It's *personal* to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal, anyway? -- Kathleen Kelly
3.) Hollywood just wants to make money.

My "favorite" argument against diversity is that it won't sell tickets. As I noted 44% of domestic ticket sales are from people of color. Let's discuss some examples of recent films with known diversity problems: 'The Lone Ranger,' 'Aloha,' 'Pan,' and 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' were box office bombs. The casting made no difference. If you make a good movie regardless of the cast, people will go see it. There is increasing evidence that films no longer depend on a named actor to carry it.

mathematician came up with a theory that only three named actors and one actress have the ability to increase box office ticket sales. Four people... just four people in the entire Hollywood machine have the ability to make or break a film. The rest of the acting populous does little to make a blockbuster. Cracked.com also wrote a great article on the inner workings of the film industry. I personally will see any film in which Liam Neeson punches people in the head. It doesn't matter how bad the film is, I will see it. Liam Neeson is my personal bias.

4.) They're hiring the best people for the job. 

I don't necessarily believe that. There are of course some actors who are so incredible that they should be given the job no matter what, but I think that is likely an exception, not the rule. Even if that were the case how would anyone be able to prove that. Unless I'm in the casting chair I wouldn't know and neither would anyone else. I have certainly seen my share of actors who were average at best, mediocre at worst. Meaning-- the best person for the job isn't always the one hired.

Let's Talk Star Trek
Putting that aside for a moment, let's talk about 'Star Trek.' This is a science fiction blog after all. Gene Roddenberry did not have to cast Nichelle Nichols as Uhura or George Takei as Sulu. In fact, NBC discouraged him from doing so. NBC was so against Nichols' casting that they refused to make Nichols a full cast member and paid her via contract. Financially it worked out for Nichols because she was paid more, but she almost quit the show due to continual mistreatment. It was civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who convinced Nichols to stay. He convinced her that what she was doing was important.
Roddenberry and King had the foresight to know that one day another little girl of color (perhaps me and millions of others) would see Nichols and also see themselves. 
So the argument that Hollywood should just show what people want to see or what makes money, is not only not accurate, but it's not right (in the moral sense). The media has a lot of power. More power than it realizes. Writers and producers have some limited social responsibility to their fellow human beings to try to improve society. Because of Roddenberry and others like him, people want to see Viola Davis and America Ferrera on television, but imagine if Roddenberry had the attitude that "Hollywood just wants to make money."

Constructive Conversations

Lastly, I'm also going to hammer home another point. Shouting to the rafters that Hollywood is racist! will not help our cause. I'm not saying that Hollywood isn't racist, or sexist, or ageist (to women), or homophobic, because it is, but there has to be a more constructive way in which to bring about change. There has to be a better way to have this conversation rather than through anger and frustration.

Not attending an awards show will not help our cause. Angry twitter hashtags may bring the issue to everyone's attention, but I don't know if it will help the cause either. Here is what will help our cause-- I will put my money where my mouth is. I will no longer buy tickets to see certain films, nor will I waste my energy reviewing certain films. If everyone did that then perhaps things would truly change.

I would also like to see Will and Jada Smith and other A-listers create their own films with diverse casts. I believe the Smiths already have a production company. Of course it's incredibly difficult and complicated for indie production companies to get movies to the market. Admittedly, it's a sad state of affairs that it's come to this, but women like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Sandra Bullock have had to take matters in their own hands with their own production companies. As women over 35 in Hollywood they no longer exist, so they literally have to create their own roles.
Long story short, I will not be seeing a film like 'Gods of Egypt.' A film that falsely portrays ancient Egyptians. Egypt was a multicultural society. However the majority of Egyptians had dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin. To my knowledge the Greek Ptolemy's didn't rule Egypt until after Alexander the Great died in 323 BC. Films like 'Gods of Egypt' and 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' are set about 1,000+ years before Alexander the Great's time. So portraying an ancient Egyptian god in the form of Gerard Butler is just silly. I had a similar problem with 'Exodus: Gods and Kings.' I'm not certain why the lovely Oded Fehr never receives a phone call to play these roles? He would be perfectly cast.

However films set in certain environments, like Victorian England should be representative of their respective populations. One would not expect to see much diversity in those films because it would not be authentic to the period. However, for films in which it is appropriate then I expect to see casting that is representative of the story, time, and location it's set in.
Long story short, I will be culling my movie viewing list of films that misrepresent women and people of color. I will not contribute to this problem. I hope you will join me.

24 comments:

  1. A lack of roles, a lack of quality roles, and a lack of hiring the right people for those roles. That's what it comes down to.
    What's ironic is they say in fifty years, whites will be the minority. But it won't be blacks who are the majority - it will be Hispanics. Wonder what the film industry will look like then?

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    1. I totally agree. Yes, I was actually surprised to learn during my research that Hispanics were the most underrepresented group in film. Hopefully I'll be around in 50 years to see what film looks like then!

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  2. Fantastic post! I agree with literally 100% of all of this. I've been trying so long to put exactly all this into words, and you've done it so well! Good call on not going to see movies that misrepresent women/race. I've also been trying to support films that do give proper representation (Creed, as an example). We should be aiming to both build up and support films that provide great diversity, and also strongly not support those that don't. Maybe then Hollywood will finally get the message! Great post!

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    1. Hi Heather! Thank you so much for your kinds words. I am primarily culling films that overtly misrepresent the population the story is about like 'Aloha,' or 'Gods of Egypt.' I still plan to see a lot of movies. I will just be a little choosier. :)

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  3. This is, hands down, the BEST post I've seen written on the subject. Bravo work here and so many nailed points.

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    1. Thank you! That's such a lovely compliment! I appreciate it.

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  4. I agree with Andrew that this is the best post I've seen on the subject. Extremely insightful and level-headed. Great job.

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    1. Thanks Wendell!! I appreciate that. I tried very hard to be level-headed when writing the post. It's such a hot topic and people are very very sensitive these days. I tried to be as fair as I could.

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  5. Repeating everyone here, wonderful post! It is difficult to to cover such issues but your insights are spot on and your solution commendable.

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    1. Hi Yolanda! Thank you so much. I hope that my solution works! It's the only way I know how to solve the problem.

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  6. Wonderful and such a well written post. The Smiths actually having a production company and Smtih himself being two time nominee who lost twice to a fellow black actor and yet them opening their mouths and bitching is almost funny.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, I wish they were more constructive in their comments. I don't think a boycott will have the effect they intend.

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  7. Great post! I agree 100% and appreciate your inclusiveness that women and Hispanics are minorities as well. Will Smith said during the Hollywood Reporter roundtable (I believe) that film is the most powerful medium because story mixed with imagery moves humanity forward. It says a lot that not just the Oscars lacks diversity but films as a whole doesn't adequately represent our real world. When people of all races and genders aren't being hired or used to tell their stories, to represent something different than the norm, we are not moving forward and it's a sad reflection of our society. Perhaps with time and change, we'll see true growth.

    Sorry, I didn't mean for this to be a novel. I guess it could've been its own post. lol

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    1. Thank you! Yes, I think it's such a big problem that affects so many different people. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I would love to see your post on this topic!

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  8. Fantastic post! It was very insightful and well-written, could not agree more with your points.

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    1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate your kind words.

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  9. This is a great post. I love the way you attacked and defended certain points without resorting to 'dirty' tactics. I think boycotts would work well but it needs to be a coordinated effort with thousands even millions taking up the baton. I think people need to stop treating Hollywood like it's some wizard behind a curtain and realise that Hollywood is what we allow it to be. Jason Segel says one of the reasons he's a writer is so that he can make work for himself. Love him or hate him, Tyler Perry is doing the same thing. Perry is also doing a lot to challenge traditional ideas of black people in menial jobs. I think addressing this issue needs a multifactorial stance. Fans need to avoid things, actors need to create and the people who sign the paycheques need to wake up and listen. Once again, great post. Look forward to reading more

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    1. Hi Kgothatjo! Thank you for your kind words. You make so many great points. I completely agree. Hollywood is what we make it. I wish I would have also wrote that we need to start contacting producers, writers, and directors via twitter and telling them what we want to see. It really is just about giving everyone an opportunity.

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  10. This may be the best post I've seen on this issue. It presents the facts, interleaved with personal touches and observations. Most importantly, it actually presents a way to address it that is constructive. Very well done.

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    1. Chip, thank you for your kind words! I hope so! I love movies so much so I want to be constructive. At least that's my plan this year!

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  11. There's so much good stuff in this article I can't write it all down. The lack of diversity is glaringly obvious when you look at overall talent, ticket sales and marketing. I'm not going to boycott, but I will shine the light on the movies that under-represent the majority of fans.

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    1. Thanks Maurice! That means so much coming from you! I feel like we're on the same page. I will do the same!

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  12. Just found this post, hope you don't mind that I'm sharing it - every point brought up I completely agree with! I've already started putting my money where my mouth is - with movies and books. It's so important to represent diversity.. after all, the world is a diverse place!

    Also, it annoys me to NO end when films set in a historical, non-white society feature white characters. I mean, come on. White-washing, much? Ugh.

    - Madilyn Quinn @ NovelBrews

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    1. Hi Madilyn! Thank you so much for you kind words. Yes, please share. I just hope to see fair representation one day. I really hope that happens one day!

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