Diversity Pictures Won't Fix Hollywood's Diversity Problem

Films like Straight Out of Compton, 12 Years a Slave, Selma, Milk, Letters from Iwo Jima are important stories to tell and do fantastic jobs of highlighting minorities. Yet these films that focus on minorities have a tendency to ghettoize and stereotype diverse actors.
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hollywood sign
hollywood sign

As a young kid, I wanted nothing more than to have career in Hollywood. I remember making films in my backyard and premiering them at school; I was even nicknamed a young Steven Spielberg in the 8th grade superlatives.

Perhaps the allure was the glamour or the willingness to tell stories that could sometimes seem taboo? Ultimately though I think it was that to me, as a gay kid in Tennessee, it all seemed like the liberal bastion of the U.S., where anyone could go and be accepted for who they were.

Fast-forward 20 years and alas I'm not in the entertainment industry, despite a few brief post-college flirtations. Hollywood wasn't meant to be and I found other passions.

Then a few weeks ago, prior even to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, I sat with my partner watching the Golden Globes and remarked "my god -- it's like I'm watching my high [white privileged private] school's prom; thank God I didn't go into it."

This observation, the renewed conversation about the Oscars' lack of ethnic diversity, and my current role advocating for LGBT workplace inclusion led me to wonder whether I had been duped as a kid or had Hollywood effectively jumped the shark as the progressive capital of America?

What Happened?

The honest answer is nothing -- Hollywood failed to change with the times. The U.S. population has grown increasingly diverse since the Hollywood Golden Age, and thereby effectively putting Hollywood's inclusion ratios out of whack.

African Americas currently constitute 12.6 percent of the American population versus 9.8 percent of the population in 1940; 10 percent of Oscar nominations since 2000 have gone to African Americans.

Asian Americans were .1 percent of the population in 1940, but have grown to roughly 5 percent of today's population; they have only claimed 1 percent of Oscar nominations since 2000.

The problem is perhaps most glaring with Latinos who made up 4 percent of population in 1970 (when they were first tracked by the census) but have grown to 16 percent of the U.S. population, yet have claimed only percent of Oscar nominations.

If we at other intersections of diversity at the Oscars, such as gender or LGBT, particularly in major 5 categories (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Director) the percentages get even worse.

The reality is that Hollywood's diversity & inclusion stats seem to have stayed frozen largely since the 1940s. It would be easy to say this is an Oscar-based problem and that the recent changes that the Academy has made to its voter base will help, but consider that 70 percent of members of the Screen Actor's Guild self-identify as white versus 63 percent of the U.S. population and numerous studies have found diverse talent is consistently underrepresented on film in particular.

It's somewhat shocking to state this, but in order to get its progressive mantle back it seems like Hollywood should take a page from Wall Street banks, tech and other less glamourous industries and bring in diversity & inclusion specialists for a turnaround.

Hollywood's diversity & inclusion problem is less to do about the Oscars and more to do with industry-wide hiring from executives to the casting. So with that in mind, I'd like to present two broad recommendations for the powers that be to consider:

Recommendation 1: Start at the Top & Highlight Any Diversity that Exists

If it wants to make a long-last change, the industry needs to looks to its leadership - which ultimately decides what types of projects are funded and produced. Right now all of the major film studios are run by white, ostensibly straight, cisgender men. Amy Pascal, the sole woman, was shoved out the door following her leaked e-mail scandal.

It doesn't get much better underneath them. According to a 2015 UCLA study, the senior management is 92 percent white and 83 percent male. It's no wonder there's no push for diversity in projects! This homogeny just further creates an environment of conformity and covering -- where black actors are asked to "be less black" and LGBT talent is told it will be detrimental to their careers to be out.

Just from my LGBT vantage point, it's so incredibly disappointing that with the exception of some talent-turned-activists like Dustin Lance Blank, Ian McKellen, or Ellen Page, Hollywood's LGBT power figures such as David Geffen, Bryan Lourde, and Scott Rudin among them did not lead the equality conversation but instead effectively hid in the corner. While I understand privacy is important, this silence never made sense to me as the stakes seemed so high and these figures have little to lose. Those I called out and others not mentioned are in the top echelons of industry wealth, have already reached astounding career milestones, and have no reason to worry about what the more fickle middle American audiences think about them personally.

Worse yet in these new days of increased LGBT acceptance when Tim Cook, arguably the most powerful business executive in the world, is frequently talking about the importance of equality, these "power gays" largely continue to stay silent and are doing nothing to inspire future generations of LGBT leaders in launch careers in their industry. This is such a lost opportunity and it applies to all aspects of diversity.

Hollywood should take a page for your peers in tech, which has started producing diversity progress reports, and highlight even the smallest pockets of diversity, particularly at the senior level, that the industry can find. One thing I've personally found within my organization is that when we want to bring more underrepresented people within the LGBT community to the table (e.g. women), we need to make those who are already with us more visible. Highlighting existing diversity sends the message that the industry at least wants to be inclusive and aspires to build upon a base and promote diverse leaders.

Recommendation #2: Don't just Greenlight Diversity Pictures -- Build It into Casting

Screen talent is effectively the visible front line to combat the lack of diversity.

Films like Straight Out of Compton, 12 Years a Slave, Selma, Milk, Letters from Iwo Jima are important stories to tell and do fantastic jobs of highlighting minorities. Yet these films that focus on minorities have a tendency to ghettoize and stereotype diverse actors. For example, of the six Oscar-winning black actresses, either leading or supporting, in the last 86 years, two of them were for maid roles, two for abusive mothers, one for playing a slave and one for being a con-woman. Perhaps it's time to think outside the casting stereotypes?

I personally believe there is room in the industry for a diversity casting firm to emerge and work with studios to question overall casting choices, particularly when we are talking about racial blind roles. Why is Bradley Cooper starring opposite Jennifer Lawrence instead of Idris Elba? Why are 5 of Pitch Perfect's 7 leading ladies white? Why wasn't Dr. Ryan Stone from Gravity played by a Latino actress?

These are two, admittedly simplistic, steps but if Hollywood wants to continue to be the place of children's' dreams regardless of their backgrounds, it needs to start innovate. Forms of entertainment can, and do become obsolete if they lose touch with the general populace (see: opera) and I'd hate to see that happen to the film industry.

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