From Patricia Arquette’s impassioned demand for equal pay for women at this year’s Oscars (You go Patsy!) to the many panels and discussions on equality, the conversation about diversity in Hollywood has been placed front and centre.
Ethnic diversity in Hollywood is pitiful as a short film series I recently came across demonstrates. In Every Single Word, actor and playwright Dylan Marron re-edits Hollywood films showing only dialogue spoken by people of colour. Wedding Crashers, Black Swan and Fault In our Stars all tap out at about 40 seconds. It’s pretty depressing viewing.
But why do we have this problem? Ethnic groups make up around 15% of society but are a fraction of that on screen. I believe it all comes down to finance. Unlike TV, Hollywood money comes from wealthy individuals and companies who are often part of an old, white establishment who have no real interest in supporting diversity. Subconsciously they’re predisposed to back stories that reflect themselves and so Hollywood is dominated by stories about white guys. Female talent is undervalued, black-led films are rare and become labor-of-love passion projects (such as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years A Slave and Selma - which, by the way, often go on to dominate during awards season).
All this started me wondering. If Hollywood’s money comes from this relatively small pool, how do we get them to take the diversity gap seriously.
Simple. They're business people. Hit them in the pocket. Every film is entitled to apply for tax credits and incentives from the local state or country they film in, some productions relying heavily on this ‘soft money’ as it’s called meaning that of the budget they spend, they might receive 20-30% of it back as a tax credit from the government provided they meet certain criteria like ensuring a certain number of the cast and crew are local. I say, let’s go a step further. Let’s make these tax incentives dependent on diversity. Let’s have every production have to provide evidence of diversity in front of and behind the camera be it gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or culturally.
No company would turn down the opportunity to recoup a percentage of their enormous budget if all they had to do is ensure women are fairly represented in the film or that there’s cultural diversity.
Furthermore, switching up diversity can only add depth to a movie. Place an LGBT character in a supporting role, just because, or make a character’s partner a person of colour - just because. Perhaps changing the lead from a woman to a man could introduce a new dynamic that you’d previously not thought of. Take the Alien franchise for example. Originally intended to be a man, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has become one the most iconic sci fi characters in film history.
Obviously the application of this is dependent on the film and when and where it’s set but many times films are set in major, diverse cities and yet somehow the cast are predominately white.
As shows such as Empire, Scandal and Being MaryJane clearly demonstrate, people of color can carry a show and importantly, audiences respond very favorably to that.
One thing we learned from the Sony email leaks is that some executives feel black talent-led films won’t sell as well in international territories. In this instance, surely you cast the actor, back black talent because if you want to break down stereotypes you don't panda to those groups, you show them how amazing the talent is and what the hell they're missing out on!
Of Denzel Washington in The Equalizer an unnamed producer wrote to Sony Chairman, Michael Lynton:
“I believe that the international motion picture audience is racist — in general pictures with an African American lead don’t play well overseas,”
The film made $191m worldwide (47% coming from the terribly racist international market).
Not every country has the same relationship with race but if America considers itself a developed country it has to operate by developed standards and be the leading edge on ensuring all groups are represented in films.
This is critical. We must not be naive and dismiss movies as simply entertainment. Through representation in film we are making a declaration about how we feel about ourselves and each other. When we delve into film archive of the thirties and forties we are peering through a window on that society and how they regarded women, people of color, people with disability and other social and cultural groups.
We are well overdue change but Hollywood may not come willingly. Personally, I’m tired of seeing women that look like me in a limited number and type of roles, with only a select few being permitted to break through. I want to feel I have a shot at any part because Hollywood realizes that all people can be all things - lovers, teachers, artists, police officers, spies, pilots, criminals, assassins, wizards and warlocks, angels, scientists… I mean it’s an endless list when the imagination is set free.