Ha ha, not really, it’s totally depressing.
The study, “Race/Ethnicity in 600 Popular Films: Examining On Screen Portrayals and Behind the Camera Diversity,” was released yesterday by the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Its researchers looked at the 100 top-grossing films over six years, from 2007-2010 and 2012-2013, to determine how well non-white characters were represented on-screen, and how present non-white filmmakers were off-screen. And you’d think this would be a good, cheerful time to produce wonderful, affirmative results — I mean, after all, 2013 was a big African-American renaissance year for film, thanks to 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, 42, and The Best Man Holiday, right?
Eh, not so much. In 2013, black characters only represented 14.1 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 films, a growth of exactly 1.1 percent since 2007. (Non-white characters combined only made up 25.9 percent of speaking roles last year.) And the percentages are even grimmer among directors: of the 107 filmmakers attached to those top 100 films, only 6.5 percent were black men (seven films, from five directors). That’s up an entire half-percent since 2007. Oh, and there were no black women among their ranks last year, and only two total across the six years of the study. I’m going to state that last figure again — two black women directors in six years — because Jesus Christ.
Also! If you think black characters have got it bad, don’t look at the numbers on Hispanic/Latino characters: that’d be 4.9 percent, rather a stark number for a people that comprise 16.3 percent of the U.S. population, to say nothing of 25 percent of ticket buyers.
There’s plenty to say about these disparities, but they certainly don’t exist independently of each other; there are so few black speaking roles because there are so few black filmmakers, and ditto Hispanics, and Asians, and so on. There should be more of them — but that doesn’t let white filmmakers off the hook. Just last week, one of the most frequent complaints about Woody Allen’s filmmaking bubbled up again: that he doesn’t hire black actors. Pressed on the matter in the New York Observer, he offered this:
We talk about the new generation of wonderful black actors like Viola Davis and wonder if they’ll ever be cast in a Woody Allen film. He doesn’t hesitate to respond: “Not unless I write a story that requires it. You don’t hire people based on race. You hire people based on who is correct for the part. The implication is that I’m deliberately not hiring black actors, which is stupid. I cast only what’s right for the part. Race, friendship means nothing to me except who is right for the part.”
It’s a puzzling answer — what exactly is “a story that requires it”? Elsewhere, he’s discussed his discomfort in writing black characters, because it’s not a world he’s familiar with, so perhaps that explains it, sort of? But what’s most confusing is how, back in 2005, he cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in a key role in Melinda and Melinda that would not seem, at all, a role where the story “required” a black actor; he just wrote a good, full role and cast a black actor in it. There’s a reference or two to his race, but nothing vital; it seems like the kind of thing that might’ve been accomplished with a quick rewrite (much like the kind he admits, in the same interview, to giving Midnight in Paris’ “Eastern intellectual” character for Owen Wilson).
Look, Woody Allen is pushing 80, and this kind of casual racism is the kind of thing you just end up shrugging off from people of his age around, say, the family dinner table. But the trouble is, too many of his much younger contemporaries make the same presumptions in casting: that the default mode is to cast a white actor, bringing in a splash of color only when the story “requires it,” when their explicitly stated race is “what’s right for the part.” This isn’t rocket science, dudes. The race doesn’t have to be the point of the character. It can just be a part of the character.
When looking over those grim directorial numbers, I recalled something I hadn’t thought of in a long while: the “Black New Wave” of 1991. Roger Ebert wrote about it at Cannes, that remarkable year when, in response to the breakthrough of Spike Lee and the tremendous profitability of low-budget black-themed films like House Party, something like 20 films by African-American directors hit American cinemas in one calendar year. Many were small, independent releases, like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn. But some were wide releases from major studios, such as Lee’s Jungle Fever, John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City.
The variety of stories told that year was breathtaking, but the more ambitious films on that slate — like Robert Townsend’s period musical The Five Heartbeats and Bill Duke’s crime comedy A Rage in Harlem — didn’t find a large audience, at least compared to pictures like Boyz and New Jack. And because everything boils down to the green in Hollywood, the Black New Wave of ’91 was less a renaissance than an anomaly; the lesson was to make more crime-infused “hood movies” like Boyz. Audiences would eventually grow tired of them, but when they disappeared, so did many noteworthy black filmmaking voices. There were some exceptions (the unsinkable Mr. Lee, for example), but most reasonable moviegoers know Tyler Perry hasn’t built an empire on his brilliant insights and unimpeachable dramatics — he’s made hits because he’s filling a void. And even last year, he and Malcolm D. Lee were pretty much the only filmmakers painting portraits of anything resembling the contemporary black experience.
So what’s the solution? Sadly, it’s the same fix as the one I put forward in response to the last depressing representation study: variety and diversity at the foundational level. Yes, there should be more people of color on-screen, but the situation is even more dire off-screen, and one problem solves the other. Back in 1991, a major studio like Columbia would invest $6.5 million in an inner-city drama by a first-time director like Boyz n the Hood, and Warner Brothers would put up $8 million for the similarly pedigreed New Jack City. They just don’t make those kinds of small investments anymore, even though they led to a pretty handsome return ($55 million and $47 million, respectively, plus decades of home video revenue). It’s all big bets on tentpole pictures and pricey prestige movies for the fall, shuttling off such comparatively small-budget pictures to the indies — distributors that can treat them with care, sure, but can’t give them the marketing muscle of the majors, or put them on 862 screens (as WB did for New Jack) or 829 screens (as Columbia did for Boyz) on opening weekend.
I realize I’m whistling into the wind here, and that the current studio model is the one we’re stuck with, at least until it implodes (and rest assured, it will; it’s looking more and more like the late ‘60s over there all the time). And these studies’ focus on the top grossers too often overlooks the contributions of independent filmmakers and studios to course-correct. But make no mistake: the studio releases are the movies that dominate the conversation, and the people who greenlight those films and make them are continuing to ghettoize non-white actors and filmmakers. It’s bad business, in every sense of the phrase — not just a monetary loss, but a cultural one as well.