Ongoing Diversity Initiatives Within the Entertainment Industry

By Flo Mitchell-Brown  | 

Finally, some good news to come out of 2020. UCLA released its latest “Hollywood Diversity Report” this spring, and findings showed that more women and ethnic minorities got jobs as actors, writers and directors last year. In fact, people of color comprised nearly 40 percent of film leads in 2020, a marked improvement from 28 percent in 2019 and the shocking 10 percent of Black, Latino, Asian and Middle Eastern lead roles seen in 2011. What’s more, eight of the top 10 theatrical movie releases featured casts containing over 30 percent minorities, including Bad Boys for Life starring Will Smith and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Still, much work remains to be done. Women and minorities are currently more likely to direct low-budget films, while white directors typically get the big-buck $100-million finance packages. Yet there’s no question that following the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by George Floyd’s death plus protests in response to pandemic-related Asian hate crimes, Hollywood is experiencing a sea of change when it comes to diversity. Here’s what you need to know.

Sparking New Conversations
Among underrepresented voices, including ethnic minorities, members of the LGBTQ community and disabled people, the subject of inclusion has always been top-of-mind. Disney Television executives recently sought to take up that mantle during a panel entitled “Inclusion Is Not a Spectator Sport.” Discussions focused on real efforts being taken to level the playing field, increase equality on TV and behind the scenes and tell more nuanced stories about bias and oppression. Notably, most panelist members were white men—which wasn’t an accident. “Your Black colleagues are tired,” said Donna Michelle Anderson, director of Creative Talent Development & Inclusion. “People of color and women have been assigned to be the flagbearers of this conversation, and we deeply believe that is not the responsibility of the marginalized in this community.” Instead, it now falls on the members of the old guard to step up to the front lines and lead the conversation.

In a related effort, advertising agencies like GroupM are unveiling plans to support diversity in the entertainment industry. Their “Media Inclusion Initiative” pledges to serve Black and minority writers, producers, directors and creators via funding, distribution and marketing investments. “We don’t want to just share up the pie differently, we want the pie to grow,” said CEO Kirk McDonald. “We need to find a way to support more diverse media ownership, not just support what’s out there.”

Creative Offerings
When it comes to films and streaming shows, what’s currently available—and what’s coming—reflects efforts to reckon with the past while paving the way for a more equitable future. The Underground Railroad, a 10-episode Amazon Prime series directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame, tells the story of escaped Georgia slave Cora Randall. As she rides an actual subterranean train on her flight to freedom, viewers may mourn our country’s irredeemable past while acknowledging that in a present where Black people remain victims of police brutality and unjust voting laws, change must still occur.

Looking forward, filmmaker Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Magnificent Seven) has been slated to direct a film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Featuring an all-Black cast, this anticipated release will be based on the eponymous 2008 Broadway show that made history after selling out 19 straight weeks as the first all African-American production. And in TV land, The Wonder Years—a classic coming-of-age dramedy that ran from 1988 to 1993—is getting a reboot on ABC. Original star Fred Savage is set to direct the new offering’s pilot episode, which now focuses on a Black middle-class family living in Alabama during the turbulent 1960s. Acclaimed actor Don Cheadle will serve as the show’s iconic narrator, aka “Adult Dean,” reflecting in wonder on his formative years.

Where Work Remains
From smash hits to sobering realities, a new study from University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that Muslim characters were present in fewer than 10 percent of the 200 most recent popular films released in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand between 2017 and 2019. And when their characters did get rare speaking roles, they were stereotypically depicted as either dangerous or foreign. “The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” said actor Riz Ahmed, who’s English-Pakistani and Muslim.

In response, Ahmed and his production company, Left Handed Films, are partnering with the Pillars Fund to sponsor a $250,000 fellowship for Muslim artists working in the US and UK. Additional advances include shows like Hulu’s Ramy, which premiered in 2019 as the first major series to not only feature Muslim actors, but also speak in a real way about the Muslim-American experience. More recently, We Are Lady Parts debuted June 3rd on Peacock. Created by British-Pakistani writer-director Nida Manzoor, it shatters stereotypes by sharing the story of five English punk rock musicians who also happen to be Muslim.

Though talking about diversity may feel uncomfortable, there’s arguably no better forum from which to undertake such conversations. Film and television can serve as a powerful lens through which we may understand new cultures and embrace unknown communities. Hollywood is doing its part to get those stories told.

Flo Mitchell-Brown
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