2019 in Film: Change Remains Slow for People of Color in Hollywood
After a watershed 2018 for racial and ethnic diversity, progress is still inconsistent, with many questions still unanswered.
Last year was a watershed moment for diversity in the film industry: Ava DuVernay became the first black woman to direct a film that grossed over $100 million with “A Wrinkle in Time”; “Crazy Rich Asians” was a huge hit, grossing over $238 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade; and “Black Panther” grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide, shattering the belief that black films don’t sell overseas.
2019, however, yielded less promising results. According to IndieWire’s own research, out of the top 100 movies of 2019, 34 percent featured a lead or co-lead of color, compared to 27 percent in 2018. But the number directed by filmmakers of color fell from 26 percent in 2018 to 18 percent in 2019. Additionally, the majority of the films directed by directors of color, also feature lead actors of color, continuing a trend highlighted by the Annenberg report. Hiring directors of color primarily for films with leads of color often limits how often these filmmakers work.
White men still account for over 80 percent of film directors, even though they make up only a third of the U.S. population. That’s an alarming figure reflecting representation among senior executive positions in Hollywood. In a May 2019 Variety evaluation of top leadership at the major studios and talent agencies, the publication determined that the decision-makers within the country’s most powerful media organizations continue to be largely white men. Needless to say, if any lasting change does take place across the industry, it’s imperative that these institutions strive to make core leadership positions reflect the diversity within the country.
Meanwhile, the Disneyfication of the movie business looms large, and plays a crucial factor in the diversification of the industry. The first studio in history to surpass $10 billion in worldwide grosses owns the box office. Disney properties dominate multiplexes across the country. This means more pricey tentpoles based on known IPs, while increasingly relying on international markets for profitability. As 2019 comes to a close, it’s still unclear how Disney’s overall impact on the movie business, as well as Hollywood’s increasing reliance on international box office — coupled with the lingering belief that films led by people of color don’t sell overseas — will affect film industry diversity in the long run.
However, deep-pocketed streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon continue to rise, dramatically transforming the way audiences watch films. They are also providing the kinds of opportunities for creatives of color that are mostly unavailable to them, under traditional studio models, even if it’s primarily in television.
Over the summer, the New York Times surveyed a group of Hollywood power players on what the next decade for movies looks like. The consensus was decidedly glum: smaller and mid-sized films will be challenged. And it will be even worse for indies. Under those conditions, it’s possible that studio-backed originals by and starring people of color, including Jordan Peele’s “Us,” Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen and Slim,” and Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” all 2019 releases, will suffer more than others.
Yet, as four-quadrant bets increasingly dominate the marketplace, smaller companies like A24 and NEON are seemingly filling the void. For example, their combined 2019 slate of releases that solidly check the diversity box, include “Luce,” “The Last Black Man of San Francisco,” “Parasite,” “Waves,” “The Farewell,” “Clemency,” “Little Woods,” “Monos,” and more.
Independently-backed films like those rely in part on the inclusive efforts of gatekeepers like Sundance, whose willingness to scrutinize its own programming, as a foundation for creating an action plan to help it become more diverse, is an encouraging direction that other institutions should consider as a model.
The Sundance Institute partnered up with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to assess how their work reflects their values of inclusion, as curatorial decisions are made. The report, released in January, revealed that women and people of color were well represented across 2017 and 2018, especially in the Institute’s Lab programs. For example, more than half of the participants in the Directors Lab were women (55%) and people of color (60%).
Additionally, Sundance has taken critical steps to diversify the pool of film critics attending its festival. After a 2018 USC Annenberg study found that 82 percent of reviews in 2017 were written by white critics, Sundance partnered up with Rotten Tomatoes in an effort to include more critics from underrepresented communities.
The Toronto International Film Festival made a similar pledge — that at least 20 percent of its media passes would go to underrepresented journalists. It also created a mentorship program, aimed at increasing access for critics and reporters who fall under that umbrella. Efforts like these continued in 2019.
Rotten Tomatoes revealed in August of this year that it added 600 verified critics as part of an ongoing push to support underrepresented voices in film and TV criticism. The news came a year after the influential movie review aggregator said it would rethink its “Tomatometer” criteria to promote inclusion.
Elsewhere, broader initiatives that act as catalysts for more industry diversity, like the Inclusion Rider, the 4% Challenge, and 5050by2020, continue to be embraced by artists, as some studios sign on to meet each challenge.
And then there’s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has achieved its goal to double the number of people of color in its ranks by 2020. As of 2019’s invitees, the figure has indeed doubled up to 16 percent since the pledge was made in 2015.
However, despite all the optimistic news, racial and ethnic representation across every film industry metric — in front of and behind the camera, in executive suites, among film critics, and in the Academy — is still a long way from reflecting the diversity of the general population (40 percent people of color), which should be a base goal. Although, to be fair, it could be that the collective impact of all these new policy shifts and initiatives, intended to make the industry more racially and ethnically diverse, won’t be felt in its entirety for years to come.
But how long is too long to wait? The need to improve representation in Hollywood is a discussion that as old as Hollywood itself, and underrepresented groups continue to advocate for progress in an industry that has been slow to change. Refusing to settle for incremental change, trailblazers like Ava DuVernay continue to do what Hollywood apparently will not — in her case, hiring only women to direct episodes of her OWN television series “Queen Sugar.”
This strategy, which has since been adopted by Ryan Murphy as well, has already started to have an impact: many of the women tapped to direct episodes of “Queen Sugar” Season 1 (the majority of them first-time television directors, and of color) continue to be employed in that space. Meanwhile, in an era of “Peak TV,” more and more filmmakers (and performers) are finding greener, more inclusive pastures in television, where much of the bravest storytelling continues to happen.
It’s been well-established that diversity is good for business, and since the U.S. population will continue to become more diverse in the coming years, it only makes sense that Hollywood would want to cater to an increasingly diverse audience that demands it. But that future remains as decidedly uncertain as the recent past. In other words, the work is far from over: It’s crucial that sustained and consistent efforts to address representation across the industry continue into next year and beyond.