Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Dearth of Diversity in Hollywood Film

American films lack diverse characters and actors who portray them. Further, fixing it could come down to me. This is not as crazy as it sounds, but I will get to that in a minute. First, as Sgt. Joe Friday – that quintessential white male character – would say, “Just the facts.”

The Washington Post last Sunday reported on a study conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of the top grossing 100 films of 2013.The numbers do not look good.

Whites comprise 74 percent of actors cast in all films but only make up 63 percent of the population, which makes them overrepresented. On the other hand, blacks are 14 percent of the characters in film while making up 13 percent of the population, which makes their representation appear just about right. Except most of the black actors are cast in a few blockbuster productions like Fruitvale, The Butler, and Twelve Years a Slave. So they appear to be doing better than they actually are.

However, Hispanics are the most underrepresented group, with only 4.9 percent of film roles, though they comprise 17 percent of the population. Moreover, the minority actors often play stereotypes, especially portraying them all as sex objects. This is something that Rita Moreno has spoken and written about for years. Indeed, after winning an Oscar for her breakout role of Anita in West Side Story, she did not work again in Hollywood for seven years because she turned down roles she considered demeaning to Latinas. That was in the 60s and 70s. The problem has not gone away.

Seventeen percent of Hispanic actors wear tight fitting, revealing outfits in film roles. Thirty-eight percent of Hispanic actresses appear nude or partially nude. Only 32 percent of white actresses do and only 8 percent of white actors appear in sexy costumes. Of course, that begs the question: are white male actors inherently less sexy so nobody cares to see them in tight jeans?

Even more telling is the shortage of diversity behind the camera. Lack of diversity begins there. It could end there. Only 6 percent of directors are black. Black directors have a greater tendency to choose diverse casts for their films. This includes casting for secondary characters such as neighbors, lawyers, doctors, and other minor roles that could be race neutral.

As an aspiring novelist, I confess I could be part of the problem. I am not sure how much I have considered racially diverse characters for the novels I hope to write.

Oh, wait. I do have a racially diverse cast of characters on paper and in outline. In fact, race is a major theme in my future novels.

For a mystery/thriller series, my two main characters are a Jewish-Southern reporter, who comes from one of the original Jewish Confederate families in Richmond, and an African-American police lieutenant. In fact, the Jewish reporter is a direct descendant of Judah Benjamin, one of Jefferson Davis’ closest confidants and the Secretary of State for the Confederate States (yes, he is a legitimate historical character – one who actually had no descendants, which I’ll mention in a prologue so readers will know I’m taking poetic license). 

David Benjamin’s father and grandfather are prominent civil rights attorneys, and the family wrestles with their personal history as Jews who served the Confederacy. Lots of guilt there to explore.

David’s best friend is the black police lieutenant, Isaiah Grace, who is married and religious. Isaiah is fond of quoting the Bible. The two of them play together in a jazz band in their spare time. Isaiah is also one of David’s confidential news sources. Further, Isaiah, who is older than David is by about a decade, is a mentor to David, and keeps him grounded.

My second in the series of novels I have planned involves the murder of a Hispanic high-ranking politician from Miami who aspires to become Florida’s first female Hispanic governor.  The suspects will include her Latino husband, a successful import-export businessman, and several other Hispanic characters, as well as whites and blacks. Miami is a multi-cultural city and it would not be realistic to portray only white characters there.

Finally, there is the mystery many people have urged me not to write. Some background.

When I first began slugging, that unique hitchhiking tradition practiced among Northern Virginia professionals who commute to work in DC, I had the brilliant idea that it would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery. Who is killing off all the slugs (for my non-Virginia friends, those are the passengers)?  That cast would include an Asian-American scientist, several black professionals, Hispanics, and whites. Probably also some Middle Easterners. After all, this is NOVA and DC. How realistic would it be not to have diversity here? Besides, the clash of cultures is interesting to explore in books.

When I enthusiastically shared my idea with some of my more literary fellow slugs and those who picked us up, a few turned pale, got sick looks on their faces, and asked me not write it.  I quickly saw their point. Why give anybody any ideas while we all had to get in strangers’ cars every morning?

So the verdict is out on that last book. Of course, also, I have no idea if I have the talent to bring this to fruition. After all, many would be writers have great ideas. It is all in the execution.  There is a reason there are not more bestsellers, let alone more published novelists. It takes hard work, discipline, skill, and talent. 

But if ever I had an incentive, it’s now. This has become a social justice issue. If the world of fiction and maybe even major film is to become diverse, perhaps, I’d better get cracking. Furthermore, when I sell the film rights, I will insist upon an African American director who will be perceptive enough to choose a racially diverse cast that looks like America. And then again, I may just have delusions of grandeur.

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