If you were to judge Hollywood by those attending the PGA’s 8th annual Produced By Conference, you’d never know that the film and TV industry has a diversity problem. Men and women, in equal numbers, and people of all races were generously represented – not only in the audiences, but on many of the panels, as well.
But the numbers presented during a panel discussion on diversity don’t lie: Of the 100 top grossing films of 2014, only 21 had women in leading or co-leading roles, only three of whom were minority women, and none of whom were over 45 years old.
Dr. Stacy Smith, the number crunching guru who heads up the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the USC/Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, noted that of the 700 top grossing films released from 2007-14, only 4% were directed by women, and only three of the 700 were directed by female African Americans.
This “intersectionality” of race and gender shows that minority women get an even smaller share of key industry jobs than when minority men and women are counted together.
She also noted that of the 100 top grossing films of 2014, 17 had no speaking roles for African Americans, and that more than 40 of those films had no speaking roles for Asian-Americans.
But it was the youngest member of the panel who stole the show. Sixteen-year-old Yara Shahidi, who plays the eldest daughter on ABC’s Black-ish, wowed the audience and her fellow panelists with her own unique take on Hollywood’s racial divide.
Unable to find any roll-models in films or on TV shows who looked like her, the half-black and half-Iranian young actress said that she “turned to cartoons because they have no race. Cartoons have blue people, and I can do what blue people do.”
She said that children learn about Hollywood’s bias at an early age. Once, she recalled, while watching an action show with her eight-year-old brother, he commented: “Of course the black guy dies first.”
“He was only eight and it was already ingrained,” she laughed, before launching into an eloquent monologue about the importance of not only overcoming boundaries set by others, but those we set for ourselves.
“I want this child to run for president,” said Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer.
“I’ll be eligible in 2035,” the young actress shot back, bringing down the house.
Spencer wouldn’t say who she’s supporting in the current presidential contest, but gave a strong indication that it was Hillary Clinton. In any case, it certainly isn’t Trump.
Spencer said that the contributions of black women in history have been too long overlooked. When offered the role of a black woman in the upcoming film Hidden Heroes who played a key role in the early days of the American space program, she confessed that at first she thought it was a fictional account – only to learn that it was a true story.
The panel was kicked off with a 10-minute presentation by Judith Williams, global head of diversity at Dropbox, about unconscious bias, but director Paul Feig, the only male on the 8-member panel, summed up it up in 11 words. Describing the usual pitch, he said, “The default brain of Hollywood is: ‘It’s about a guy who…’”
Feig, known for his work with female leads, said he’s been “hit with some of the worst misogynistic stuff in the last two years” because of his decision to go with an all-female cast for the Ghostbusters reboot.”The onslaught was amazing.” New to Twitter, he said that viewing the hate-mail he received was like “someone coming from a liberal family and hearing right-wing radio for the first time. It’s like, my God, what’s happened? They’re monsters.” Feig’s comments echo those he made in March, saying at the time that “it wears you down… I’ve aged 10 years.”
As for unconscious bias, he said that everyone who writes about his Ghostbusters mentions that it has an all-female cast, but that nobody ever writes that The Expendables has an all-male cast.
Producer Lydia Dean Pilcher, noting that females make up half the movie-going audience and 85% of all consumer decisions, said that it’s time for the decision-makers in Hollywood “to line up with those realities.”
Moderator Lesley Chilcott noted that on average, films released in 2014 with female protagonists made 3.2% more at the box office than films with male leads.