The Stories Hollywood Doesn’t Tell – How the Structure of the Film Industry Marginalizes Narratives of Minorities & Women
By Jonathan Donald Jenner
The #oscarssowhite and #oscarsstillsowhite not just because the academy snubs the contributions of non-white actors, writers, and directors who have excelled in a particular year, but also because of the many films that are never made by minorities and women. Behind the film industry in Hollywood sits financial power whose whiteness, masculinity, and money is reflected both in the stories that are told and in those that are not told. Telling stories that are everyone’s stories requires thinking through and beyond the power structures which shape Hollywood. Here are some anecdotes, some facts, and some implications for building an inclusive cinema.
Oliver Law’s true hero life story reads like a made-for-Hollywood film synopsis:
Son of West Texas and Army veteran Oliver Law becomes radicalized in Depression era Chicago, and joins the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, quickly rising to become a battalion commander (the first African American to lead an integrated military unit), before being killed in Boadilla del Monte as the battle for Castille raged on, whose memory lived on as a martyr for the Spanish Republic.
This film does not exist, even though Paul Robeson attempted to make it. Robeson – actor, singer, polyglot, athlete, communist – was at the height of his celebrity and had come to learn of Oliver Law on a fundraising & morale boosting trip for the Spanish republican forces. He tried to make a film (that Ernest Hemmingway was to help co-write) that would broadcast Oliver Law’s heroism to the world in 1938.
Hollywood, though, was not interested, even with the star power of Robeson behind the film. Robeson famously remarked: “the same money interests that block every effort to help Spain, control the Motion Picture industry, and so refuse to allow such a story.” And today, Oliver Law and the Abraham Lincoln Brigades don’t reside in American collective memory[i].
We hardly even remember Paul Robeson. And seventy six years after Robeson tried and failed to make an Oliver Law film, Steve McQueen tried to make Paul Robeson film. After the widespread acclaim brought by 12 Years a Slave, director McQueen thought he’d be able to parlay his success into a biopic of Robeson: “his life and legacy was the film I wanted to make after Hunger, but I didn’t have the power, I didn’t have the juices,” said McQueen. But this film project (which has brought in Harry Belafonte), like many other biopics of black figures, is currently in limbo (see this list compiled by Tambay Obenson of Shadow & Act). While Obenson doesn’t name what’s holding up McQueen’s Robeson biopic (though he’s currently working on an HBO series “Codes of Conduct,”) he writes that for the majority of films on the list, their “hold-up is financial.” As it stands, McQueen can be christened a “boundless artist” by film critics, but cannot be given resources to pursue his long-held goal of a Paul Robeson biopic.
But just how bad is Hollywood’s diversity problem, on and behind the camera? And how does a lack of diversity in management translate into a lack of diversity on screens? In this section, I draw heavily from three reports, which are quite thorough and should be checked out in their own right:
- “2015 Hollywood Diversity Report: Flipping the Script” by Dr. Darnell Hunt & Dr. Ana-Christina Ramón from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.
- “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014,” by Stacy L. Smith et alia of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism (USC 2014 Report), and
- “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment,” by Stacy L Smith et alia of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism (USC 2015 Report).
The film industry is overwhelmingly white and male, from on-screen characters to studio heads. In 2014, for example, the heads of the 18 biggest film studios in Hollywood were 100% male and 94% white, compared to the United States, which is 50% male and 63% non-Hispanic white (UCLA Report). In 2015, there were 28.5 male directors for every 1 female director in film, and 5.6 to 1 across all visual platforms (USC 2015 Report). In 2014-15, out of 11,194 speaking characters with a discernible sexuality across movies, television shows, and streaming series, 2% were coded as Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual; 58% of the 114 LGBT characters in major motion pictures appeared in two films (Pride & Love Is Strange), and across all visual media, LGBT speaking characters were 72% white and 78% male (USC 2015 Report). These numbers go on and on, and the above reports should be checked out in their own right, but perhaps graphs can make these differences more clear than a litany of written numbers:
One defense (empty though it is) of this white, male centering of Hollywood is that the production of films follows the money, and audiences shun non-white, non-male centered films. Much of this argument follows the lazy ex-post facto reasoning of free market believers who posit that what exists through markets best reflects consumer preferences. But this claim is simply false: black and ‘diverse’ films do quite well both domestically and abroad (page 47 of the UCLA study breaks this down further). A more compelling story, taking into account the representation imbalances shown above, comes from the UCLA Study (p.54):
Part of Hollywood’s race and gender problem may lie in a latent conflict between individual and institutional interests. Industry employment can be incredibly lucrative for individuals privileged enough to have it. Because of the high risk associated with the typical project – most new television shows fail, most films underperform – individual stakeholders in the industry (typically white and male) look to surround themselves with other individuals with whom they feel comfortable, with whom they feel they have the best prospects for producing a successful project. These latter individuals, of course, tend to think and look like the former, thereby reproducing an industry culture that routinely devalues the talent of minorities and women.
As an example of this, Don Cheadle recently shared at the Berlin Film Festival that his film “Miles Ahead,” a film about Miles Davis, would have never happened financially without a white co-star. The script was rewritten to include Ewan McGregor as a Rolling Stone reporter, prompting Obenson to comment that the film turned into a “the film into something more akin to an interracial buddy-action-comedy flick, than something that would be truly worthy of Miles Davis.” Cheadle, at the press conference, said: “[This is] one of the realities of the business we are in…There is a lot of apocryphal, not proven evidence that black films don’t sell overseas… Having a white actor in this film turned out to actually be a financial imperative.”
Or when Ridley Scott, after casting a white lead (Christian Bale) as Moses in Exodus, defends this by saying that “I can’t mount a film of this budget…and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such…I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” The USC 2015 report rightly calls this financial decision making “mythologizing,” coming not from evidence of non-white films but from Hollywood decision makers who look like this:
And recently, FiveThirtyEight published research showing that non-white films, even when there is a decision to make them, do not receive the advertising that other films do, which makes the feedback loop of Hollywood’s diversity problem seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The film industry is particularly important in shaping our individual, social, and political lives, which brings an urgency to unsettling its domination by white men. Film helps create narratives which inform individual and social possibilities. On an individual level, for example, we can look at the inspiration that a young Mae Jemison took from reading Octavia Butler and watching Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) in Star Trek. The story of how Martin Luther King lobbied Nichelle Nichols to continue on with Star Trek is well documented. On a social level, there are deep ramifications to the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Here, per Maryann Erigha in the journal Sociology Compass:
With the underrepresentation of women and racial/ethnic minorities in Hollywood, White men exercise a cultural imperialism and hegemony with unilateral control over media images. In turn, these biased images can influence social behavior towards members of marginalized groups, impacting public perceptions of racial/ethnic minorities, women, and of race and gender relations. (informed by research from Glenn Cerise and Landra Cunningham).
Building an Inclusive Cinema
Films that reflect diversity are profitable, and they expand our universe of political possibilities. Yet their still not made in numbers that reflect our population’s diversity, and much of that problem owes to the lack of diversity in the financial and industry structure that sits behind Hollywood. In building an inclusive cinema, it’s important that diversity is reflected both in front of and behind the cinema, and that inclusion does not become tokenism. The pattern of exclusion has been repeating for scores of years, and in a private industry run by a financial structure consolidated by social power, we return us to a central dilemma of democratizing power: it’s hard to petition power to include those who sit beyond its walls, beyond tokenism. The historical precedent for this is slim, and almost non-existent without external pressure.
How then, do we work to build an inclusive cinema?
It’s multifacted and messy, but possible. Quoting again, from the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA:
Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet for Hollywood’s race and gender problem. It’s a multi-dimensional problem that requires innovative interventions on every front. It’s not a problem that will simply fix itself in the normal course of business…Flipping the script will require genuine commitment and considerable persistence.
Here, and as a way of ending, a suggestion of the multiple dimensions we might come to tell everyone’s stories in our films:
- Consume diverse media (even as we acknowledge the limits of consumer activism), paying attention to both quantity and quality of representation. Some shorthand ways to think about what narratives function for what ends: the Bechdel Test, the Mako Mori Test, and the DuVernay Test.
- Be aware that on camera diversity happens in concert with behind camera diversity, and work to hold the industry accountable to diversity. Per the 2015 USC report: “These strategies must involve more than simply “checking a box” when casting a film, series, or episode, or go beyond making a “diversity hire” behind the camera or in the executive suite.” The suggest target inclusion goals, inclusive consideration list, evidence-based financial decision-making, creating checks and balances against cognitive biases, among others.
- Find out where and how independent cinema is being produced, and support it. Here, Shadow & Act’s Ronald Simmon’s works through different ways to support black indie filmmakers.
- Expand our consideration of other structures which counter powered structure of Hollywood. Our own Anders Fremstad has written on the possibility of democratizing content production, via a publicly held Netflix-type operation. Such an operation would be capable of funding projects based on social values in concert with bottom-line concerns, and not based on the financial whims of white, male executives who choose narratives which match their own in seeking to make a profit.
[i] To help correct our collective lack of memory of Oliver Law & the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, some resources: “A Forgotten Man of Principle,” from The Gate; the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives; the documentary “Invisible Heroes: African Americans in the Spanish Civil War”; “Local Heroes” from the Chicago Reader; “Anatomy of an Anti-Communist Fabrication,” by Grover Furr.