How 2018 Could Be A Turning Point For Diversity In Film

When “Black Panther” was released into theaters earlier this year and a significant amount of my money released from my wallet as a result of my frequent trips to the multiplex to see it, there was also a considerable – albeit slightly unexpected – level of backlash regarding the cast. At least it was unexpected to me. The questions that were raised: Why is the cast all black? Where are the Latino superheroes? Where are the Asian superheroes? Some critics went so far as to say they would not see the movie being praised for increasing the diversity of the movie landscape because it wasn’t diverse enough. Similar arguments against “Crazy Rich Asians” have been made in addition to those due to the cast including actors and actresses who are not of the exact ethnicity as the characters in the novel. Oh, boy. Let’s get into this, shall we?

 Copyright Walt Disney Studios

Copyright Walt Disney Studios

 Copyright Warner Bros. & Color Force

Copyright Warner Bros. & Color Force

For years, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California has released reports examining inequality in 100 of the most popular films of the previous year and years prior; the most recent published just last month. I first became aware of this report while attending a networking event for the North Hollywood Cinefest in March of 2017 during which time many questions aimed at the production and writing guest panelists were geared toward diversity. And my gods did one of these panelists come prepared. A document was produced from her handbag with some rather startling statistics. It was only during a visit to USC the following day that I was able to see them for myself. I’ll save you the drive and link to both the 2016 and 2017 reports – and for the sake of this post, I’ll limit myself to highlighting several points focused on racial diversity.

Despite the number of films examined being increased from 900 to 1100 for the newest report and an increased percentage in the number of films including underrepresented characters from Black, Latino, or Asian backgrounds, the number of films that did not include any Black or African American speaking characters decreased by only 5 films. When this data is tightened specifically to the female characters, the numbers are even worse with Black or African American females absent from 43 films, Hispanic/Latina female characters missing from 64 movies, and 65 movies excluded any Asian or Asian American female characters. When comparing these percentages to the actual population of the United States where most of these films are green-lit, there is a considerable disparity and as a result, we have issues such as #OscarsSoWhite when really – #HollywoodSoWhite.

Number of films with underrepresented characters absent in 2016. Source: https://bit.ly/2C1GfQX

Number of films with underrepresented characters absent in 2017. Source: https://bit.ly/2vpuwt4

But that’s not to say those efforts are not being made to change that. “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” are making headlines for being the first all-Black leading cast for a Marvel superhero film and the first all-Asian cast in a mainstream feature since the “Joy Luck Club” in 1993, respectively. Both include a more balanced male to female cast ratio with strong female characters. Both features’ casts are dominated by a particular race, not for the sake of exclusion of any and all others but to tell a story true to the source material. Perhaps the aforementioned critics of the casting choices failed to remember that. Now, I’m not saying that changes to the source material for the sake of creative licensing cannot be made because they are. However, this usually occurs in the direction of exclusion or whitewashing whether intended or unintended rather than inclusion of underrepresented communities. The only examples to the contrary that I have seen as of late are a biopic, “Mary, Queen of Scots”, which portrays people of color in supporting roles during a period of history when black men would certainly not have been welcome in Parliament, and "Aquaman" due out in December that has Jason Momoa in the title role instead of the blonde-hair blue-eyed Aquaman of the comics. 

Percentage of Black/African American and Asian/Asian-American directors in 2017. Source: https://bit.ly/2vpuwt4

Taking creative license in casting in the way that “Mary, Queen of Scots” and "Aquaman" have done is not as it might sound, a casting decision, but a production and sometimes directorial decision. After all, producers are the ones that find the funding for the whole shebang. Their hope is to get a positive return on investment which is why we have “Ghost In The Shell” situations. Scarlett Johansson is a big name and was expected to get people into seats to sell out screenings, not to cause a whitewashing uproar. And when it comes to directors calling the shots, well, there aren’t a whole lot of directors of color getting a chance to call them. “Black Panther” was indeed helmed by Ryan Coogler who is African American while Jon M. Chu (Director, "Crazy Rich Asians") and James Wan (Director, "Aquaman") are both of Chinese descent, but out of 1100 films examined, according to the most recent report only 5.2% of directors were Black or African American and only 3.1% were Asian or Asian American for films released in 2017. Yikes. Producer and writer statistics were not available in the report but I hardly imagine they were anything far and away from similar numbers.

 Copyright Anchor Books

Copyright Anchor Books

Which brings me to another point: the original material. “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” could not have become movies if someone had not written the scripts and if someone had not written the comics or novels, there would be nothing to adapt. Every single feature film that makes it onto the silver screen starts on a page. Before any of you start digging graves for the dreams of Latino superhero or Asian superhero movies you hope to see, I encourage you to put down the shovel and pick up a pen or at least pick up a book. When support of these projects in their original form is substantial, producers have greater confidence in the ROI of a feature film adaptation and we, as people of color, get to see more positive portrayals of our respective cultures. Furthermore, when we ourselves as members of the minority communities in question are the ones to write the screenplays and/or books on which they are based, we can ensure those portrayals are accurate and respectful thus limiting the stereotypes that so often make us upset or at the very least make us cringe.

Progress toward equal representation has been immensely slow-going and as pointed out in the study, in some years has even taken steps backward. But the only way we change that is by including ourselves in the conversation where money talks. Rather than turning our noses up at movies like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” for not being diverse or accurate enough, we should be turning out in droves for the steps to a more diverse Hollywood that they are creating for us. For when films such as these are successful – say, enough to make it into the top 100 films of their year to be added to the Annenberg annual report – those mountains we must face to have our stories told to get a little easier to climb.