Surprise! Representation of Not-White-Men in American Cinema Still Abysmal


Our friends over at The Dissolve — an excellent film site you should all be reading — point out a paper put out by the USC-Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism that tracks the mortifyingly bad representation of black people, and people of color generally, in film today. For example, the study found that between 2007 and 2012, only about 5.8% of the country’s top-grossing films had black directors. Only 10.8% of their speaking characters were black, 5% Asian, and 4.2% Hispanic. In other words, the showing is appalling, statistically speaking. Rinse, repeat, we will show film at 11 if we can manage to stay up that late.

There is some hope in the fact that statistics like these are now being regularly covered by film journalists, and indeed by cultural journalists generally. But what’s funny is that in spite of the drumbeat of, “Our culture is horrifically skewed towards whites, we must get better” that such statistics generate, the situation remains largely the same. As my colleague Lillian Ruiz has written here before, at most they seem to have generated giant hype about a supposed renaissance of African-American film. And the hype has eclipsed the stark fact that there have been few material gains. Same goes, as my other colleague Jason Bailey pointed out awhile ago, for the “Women in Film” frogmarching that attended the premiere of Bridesmaids almost three years ago.

Why no progress, you might ask? Well, call me cynical, but I think it’s because in many ways what the film industry has learned to use certain properties as evidence of its commitment to, you know, blacks and women and all that good stuff. Which every God-fearing white liberal guy wants to think he actually cares about. So, for example, they’ll trot out Bridesmaids as proof of their conviction that women can make pooping-in-the-street jokes every bit as good as your average juvenile comedian. Or, they’ll pick up the film of a genuine artist like Steve McQueen and screen it everywhere and let it be the one thing that stands as their contribution to “black cinema” or whatever for the year. And somehow this has actually exacerbated the problem, because the enormous cultural appetite for films like this, and the consequently outsized nature of the hype that surrounds them, give the film executives an outsized sense of personal accomplishment.

What’s worse is that it is hard to see how any of that will change. Increasingly, the interior lives, feelings, and dramas of white men are being sidelined in other parts of the culture. Narrative television is dominated by the likes of Scandal and American Horror Story; pop music is split between Taylor Swift and Kanye; and even in the high-flown realms of literary fiction, jokes about the likes of Roth and Updike are beginning to rival the traction of their uncritical, worshiping cults. Understand that this is not a slag on the imaginative powers of white men (though I could go with that if I were feeling associative) so much as it is an observation about where cultural appetites are.

There will always be more Justin Biebers, of course, but it’s just hard for them to get the same kind of traction in the hearts and mom’s basements of America that, say, the Ramones once did. They are not only losing their monopoly on cool, they’re losing any grip on it at all. And the reason that matters — because cool is just fashion, after all, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that it shouldn’t — is that these movies that speak to other appetites are going to get an outsized reaction, press-wise and audience-wise, every time. And that’s going to let the white men who are in charge of the money keep patting themselves on the back.

There will be a bottleneck somewhere, sometime, but it’s hard to say what or when it will be. My sense is that what it will take to get Hollywood to overhaul its attitudes is more than shame, anyway. It’s not a business that has ever been particularly susceptible to embarrassment. What will change its mind is money. Money from people who care about making other kinds of art than Michael Bay bust-’em-up star-stravaganzas. Money that goes to people like Ava DuVernay, or Ryan Coogler, or Nicole Holofcener, or any of the numerous not-Wes-Anderson filmmakers still trying to make good, meaningful, accessible movies today. Because if there’s one thing Hollywood understands, it’s always been the money. That’s the only thing, I think, that will change the game.