2020 has brought a lot of changes, good and bad. One of the best things from this dumpster fire of a year is that the spotlight was seriously put on Hollywood to improve something that has been lacking since day one: Diversity.
It’s hard to improve diversity when films basically aren’t being made right now, but as the world slowly starts to open up, people are asking – no, demanding – Hollywood to diversify casts and improve staffing issues.
Let’s take a look at some of those attempts… and discuss why this is apparently such a struggle for Hollywood.
Don’t be fooled: it’s an actual issue
Some people are going to tell you that diversity isn’t an issue in Hollywood. “The best actors/writers/directors/performers get the roles,” They’ll say. “If they happen to be white, so be it.” That isn’t just a toxic mindset – it’s pretty darn racist, too.
Consider the makeup of the United States for just a minute. The US Census recognizes five major racial categories, only one of which is white, obviously. As of the 2016 Census, 18% of the United States is Hispanic and Latino-American. 13.4% is Black or African-American.
Just 61% of the United States is classified as white, non-Hispanic or Latino. 61%.
If Hollywood is attempting to portray a valid picture of America or the world, why would they cast only white folks? Yes, white Americans might be the ‘majority’, but only just. Bringing in main and supporting cast members from other races isn’t just the ‘cool, politically correct’ thing to do right now… it’s more realistic.
It’s not just about the color of your skin
Diversity isn’t just about the color of your skin, either. Yes, it’s absolutely important to show a variety of skin colors and ethnic backgrounds – because, you know, that is how life works – but it’s also important to show people with a variety of disabilities.
Not everyone has blonde hair, blue eyes, and wears a size two. Some people have a limp. Huntingtons. Some are in a wheelchair, or missing a finger. Their bodies don’t form to the Hollywood ‘standard’.
What makes this so hard for Hollywood to get?
It’s so rare to see anyone in Hollywood with a disability or deformity of any kind, that it makes major news. Take Gaten Matarazzo, or ‘the kid from Stranger Things’. You might not know his name, but you’re probably aware that he suffers from cleidocranial dysostosis (CCD), a birth defect that affects bones and teeth growth and development.
Gaten has been very open about his condition, going as far as to document a surgery he had to remove teeth on his Instagram account.
Lady Gaga made huge news when she announced that she had fibromyalgia, a difficult but virtually invisible condition.
But do you know a star that has a missing arm? Who is in a wheelchair? Who suffers from visible conditions? Probably not, despite knowing someone like that in your life at one point or another.
It isn’t just about representation of your skin pigment, it’s about proper representation overall.
Is it the law that’s making this hard?
In 2015 the Washington Post ran an article, written by columnist Alyssa Rosenberg, which suggests the reason Hollywood struggles with diversity, in part, is because of the laws that are there to help encourage and promote diversity.
Yeah, we’re not buying that, either – but let’s take a deeper dive before we completely dismiss this idea.
Rosenberg points out that while networks can set quotas they want to meet for hiring standards, like 20% women, or 50% POC, they can’t legally use these quotas for hiring.
She points out that you can’t hire someone just because of their race. In fact, it’s illegal during a hiring process to ask these questions, and hire because of the answers.
Say you’re trying to cast a 32-year-old Japanese man for a role. He should be Japanese – his character is from Japan. You can ask if the actor auditioning speaks Japanese. You can even make it a requirement, that’s legal. But you can’t ask them if they’re natively Japanese. You can’t require only actors from Japan to apply. That’s super illegal, which makes sense in other contexts.
After all, you can’t require your secretary to be a blonde, white woman from Russia. You can’t double-check that your new marketing intern is from Spain, not Mexico. I’m on board with this argument… to a point.
You can clearly see if the person you’re looking at is Black or not, though… so this argument only really makes sense when we’re talking about improper casting of races, like when you don’t hire a Native American actor to play a Native American role, or when your native-Chinese actor is actually from Korea.
But this doesn’t excuse the lack of Asian, Black, or Native American actors as a whole.
Rosenberg also brings up another point that many of us haven’t considered: many casting agencies are not offering Hollywood diverse enough choices. While the answer is obviously go with a different/better/new casting agency, that can be hard when these agencies also manage the biggest stars in the world, or have the largest selection of quality actors.
Terry Lopez, the director of diversity for the Writers Guild of America, spoke to Rosenberg about his experience with Hollywood and diversity. Lopez says he regularly gets called from showrunners asking for writers or talent outside of the ‘conventional’ expectations, like a 30-something African American man or a young Asian woman. Terry told Rosenburg this puzzled him.
“Do they [the agency] not have those clients? If you’ve got a lot of demand, you’re going to have a higher supply. The agencies probably feel they don’t need to have that … We don’t really know what they’re doing in terms of finding diverse writers.”
The full article from the Washington Post is here, if you’re interested in Rosenberg’s legal arguments for – and against – discriminatory laws. She makes some valid points, and it is an interesting viewpoint… but I don’t think it’s really the answer to the larger issue that Hollywood faces. It’s just a small piece of a much larger puzzle.
The biggest attempt we have seen has come from the Oscars, believe it or not. Hear me out for a minute.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shared new guidelines for movies that will qualify for an Oscar nomination. If you want the full deets, check out our full breakdown. But here are the most important parts.
In order to be eligible for Best Picture, a film must meet at least one of the following requirements:
- One of the lead actors or significant supporting actors is from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group
- At least 30% of all actors in the ensemble cast are women, minorities, LGBTQ+, or “people with cognitive or physical disabilities or who are deaf or hard of hearing”
- The main storyline is centered on an underrepresented group
You would genuinely be surprised at how few movies actually fall into this category already.
This isn’t going to force movie studios to change, of course – and yes, this could potentially spell the end for the Oscars. But this big move is actually brave, and really what people want to see. It’s still too early to know if this is a killing blow for the Oscars, or if it’s the push Hollywood needs to make a change.
CBS leading the network charge
In a move that came as shock to many, CBS announced this week that they created diversity goals for all unscripted programs. Unscripted programming is just a nice way of putting trashy reality TV shows, but let’s be honest, we’re all here for it.
Going forward, 50% of the cast of all reality shows that CBS puts on the air must be Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).
If that wasn’t enough, at least 25% of the network’s annual unscripted development budget must go to creators and producers that are BIPOC. This news followed an announcement earlier this summer, in which 25% of the scripted budget must go to BIPOC creators and producers.
In the 2021/2022 seasons, at least 40% of their writing staff will be BIPOC. By 2022/2023, the goal is 50%.
This is huge for CBS, who came under a lot of fire recently when the network, along with the CW, was called out for a lack of diversity on and off the camera. This is their attempt to self correct, and honestly? It’s a great step.
Does this make up for past mistakes – like when Julia Carter, a former contestant on CBS’s hit show Survivor, was called a racial slur on set? Absolutely not. But it shows the network is aware times are changing, and they need to change with it.
But Tyler Perry/Empire/Jordan Peele!
I say this with all disrespect – if you’re going to end this article saying that Hollywood doesn’t have a problem with diversity because the Tyler Perry movie empire exists, or because the hit TV show Empire does so well, or because Jordan Peele’s Get Out made so much money in the box office, you’re not acknowledging the reality of the situation. Or your privilege.
Tyler Perry movies are so wildly popular because they’re tapping into a demographic Hollywood forgot. Or, more likely, simply doesn’t care about at all. Tyler Perry needs to produce and fund his own movies – Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, if you’re unclear – in order to reach his audience.
In 2009, director Spike Lee heavily insinuated in an interview that Tyler Perry was pandering to his audience, creating “coonery buffonary”, and that it was “troubling”. Others said that Perry was parroting old stereotypes to people, and not putting forward a progressive message or offering anything new.
Perry, to his credit, said Lee’s comments were more than just insulting – and he could “go to hell”, for all his opinion mattered.
Jordan Peele has done some incredible things over the years. He’s one half of Key & Peele, a comic duo that had their own show for quite a while. Get Out, his directorial debut in 2017, grossed $255 million from a budget of just $4.5 million, which is incredible. Peele is also the first Black screenwriter to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Get Out isn’t just great because it’s a great horror movie – it is, and I encourage you go to watch it if you haven’t. It’s also great because it speaks to casual racism, the struggle of dating those outside your race, and how a small town deals with a big issue. Peele pulled from his own, very personal, experiences to make the movie great.
His path to wild success hasn’t been easy. While no one is handed fame and fortune, it’s easy to see that he – like many other BIPOC creators – fought harder and longer to get where he is.
So… what can be done?
Here’s the real question everyone is asking: what can be done to fix Hollywood, and how does real change happen?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that. Let’s be honest, Hollywood is essentially run by old, rich white guys who have been ‘in power’ forever. While the rest of us are ready for change, it’s going to take a lot to change the foundation of Hollywood. These changes legitimately might not come until some of the ‘old money’ power is out of Hollywood completely, and new, fresh blood gets put into place.
For now, the best thing we can do as a consumer is vote with our dollar. If you see a trailer for a movie that featured a main character, a lead writer, or a large supporting cast that is BIPOC, consider supporting their work by buying the movie, seeing it in theater (if theaters ever come back, that is), or streaming it legally.
Avoid movies and studios who are not as willing to make the ‘right’ choice. Those with poor casting decisions – think movies like Aloha with Emma Stone or Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson – should be avoided. Don’t give your money to studios or producers who are making blatantly poor and arguably racist decisions.
(Let’s be clear here – Ghost in the Shell is an anime, based on a manga. Both created in Japan, featuring a fictional Japanese city from the future with Japanese characters. Scarlett Johansson is a very talented actress… and absolutely the wrong casting choice for the main character.)
Truly, the biggest way we can push Hollywood to change is stop supporting bad directors, bad writers, and bad casting choices. When the money stops coming in, they will stop making these decisions. It’s as simple as that.
You can post online about how awful you think the lack of diversity is and how terrible Hollywood execs are… but if you’re not putting your money where your mouth is, this is just an empty complaint no one will take seriously.
Bonus: Movies with BIPOC writers/directors/actors
I’m not going to lie to you – this isn’t going to be a comprehensive list. A simple Google result can give you a million results, and they’re all excellent. But I’m going to go over some really amazing movies, as well as my personal favorites.
If you’re looking for a movie with a BIPOC director, I’ve got a few for you!
Fruitful Station (2013) is Ryan Coogler’s debut film, and it’s based on a real life event. This film also stars now-superstar Michael B. Jordan, who went on to star in Coogler’s better-known film, Black Panther. Honestly, though, all of Coogler’s films are worth seeing.
The Hate U Give (2018) is a moving and emotional story by director George Tillman Jr based on a book from the same name. It follows a young girl who witnesses a friend being killed by a white police officer, and her journey to justice. It’s… hard to watch, and will make you question a lot, especially in our current political climate.
Other great choices? Selma (2014), If Beale Street Could Talk (2019), 13th (2016), When They See Us (2019, mini series), BlacKkKlansman (2018), and Monsters And Men (2018).
If you’re looking for a movie or TV show with a BIPOC main character, well, a lot of the movies listed above will also qualify.
Check out Get Out (2017) or Us (2019) if you’re into horror. The Big Sick (2017) features Pakastani-born actor Kumail Nanjiani struggling with his heritage and falling in love with grad student Emily Gardner. It might be the most heartful rom-com I’ve ever seen.
Hidden Figures (2016) features a real story about a team of African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) is a little corny, but a lot of fun – and stars Dwayne The Rock Johnson as well as Kevin Hart.
Imperial Dreams (2016) is a moving drama about a young man who is a former gangster. After being released from prison, all he wants to do is live on the straight and narrow, and take care of his family – but it’s harder than it seems.
Other excellent choices include Wind River (2017), Sorry to Bother You (2018), Parasite (2018), Dope (2015), and Lion (2016).
It’s not hard to find amazing movies featuring BIPOC actors, directors, or writers. You might need to look a little harder, which is a shame… but isn’t that the whole point of this piece?