The Rise of Racial Diversity in Hollywood: Here to stay or fad?

In 2016, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign highlighted the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood by pointing out that for the second year in a row, all 20 actors nominated in the leading and supporting categories were white. Thus far in 2018, movies featuring racially-diverse casts such as Black Panther, Hidden Figures and Get Out are dominating the box office and awards shows and are at the forefront of cultural conversations.

What changed in two years? Changing racial norms, potentially. Market forces, such as a growing awareness of non-white movie goers and an increase of movies produced in independent studios, are also responsible for this shift. Moreover, racially diverse films perform better at the box office. The free market economy can be a powerful force for social change, as movies both reflect and influence cultural norms. However, statistics show that popular racially-diverse films are still outnumbered by films with less diverse casts, and that sustained progress for all of Hollywood will continue to be slow.

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign, spearheaded by activist April Reign, led to criticism of the 94 percent white membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who vote on the Oscars slate. In June 2017, the Academy responded by inviting 774 new voting members, 39 percent female and 39 percent non-white. However, racial homogeneity in Hollywood exists beyond the mainly-white voters who recognize mainly-white films.

Racial diversity among filmmakers is low. Ethnic and racial minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the US population, but 18 percent of directors, 12 percent of film writers, 6 percent of studio CEOs and chairmen, according to a study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. From 2016 to 2017, the Bunche Center found that the percentage of minorities receiving film writing and directing credits decreased by 2.7 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively.  Furthermore, talent agents, who negotiate contracts for actors, writers, directors, and producers, are 91 percent white. These positions held by majority white males in turn facilitate the promotion of other white men. This dynamic works to maintain the existing power structure.

Director of the Bunche Center Darnell Hunt told NPR that since movies are so expensive to create and distribute, executives are risk averse. “Gatekeepers and decision-makers, who are typically white men, want to keep their jobs,” said Hunt. “They want to succeed. And they feel that their best chance for success is by surrounding themselves with other white males."

The racial homogeneity of those in power behind-the-scenes results in a dearth of stories primarily about non-white characters being told on the big screen. “There just aren’t enough Latino executives,” Mary Beltrán, film and television professor at the University of Texas at Austin, tells The Verge. “While it doesn’t always take a Latino writer to create these characters, I think Latinx writers care more about it and want to change the depictions we constantly see.”

In accordance with this stagnation of diversity in behind-the-scenes roles, the proportion of minorities in leading roles in major Hollywood films has remained flat since 2013, measuring 13.6 percent in 2015, the latest year examined by the “2017 Hollywood Diversity Report” by UCLA.  In 2015, just 28.3 percent of speaking characters were non-white, according to a USC Annenberg study (NPR).

Although it is too soon to look at data for 2017 and 2018, the success of recent films about the African-American experience have seemed to indicate that major film studios are increasingly willing to produce films highlighting the stories of non-white characters in ways that were previously rare. Hidden Figures, Get Out, and Black Panther are all notable for portraying African-Americans as powerful, heroic, autonomous figures. These stories contrast with the six most recent Best Picture nominated films that were produced and directed by black people. Three of these films were about slavery (The Color Purple, Django Unchained, and 12 Years a Slave), two about violence against black women (Selma and Precious), and one about a white woman who “rescues” an African American teenager and turns him into a football star (The Blind Side).

Hidden Figures, Get Out, and Black Panther all transcend such stereotypes. Hidden Figures tells the story of black female mathematicians working at NASA during the space race. While there have been other movies starring black superheroes, Black Panther is unique for portraying its heroes not as monsters or outsiders, but as complex, multi-faceted characters who derive power from their racial and national identity. Jamil Smith in TIME argues that the film “may be the first mega-budget movie — not just about superheroes, but about anyone—to have an African-American director and a predominantly black cast.” Get Out used the genre of horror — known for often having black characters die first — to comment on today’s fraught race relations.

These films have received a high degree of success. Hidden Figures grossed $236 million worldwide and was nominated for three Academy awards. Black Panther’s opening weekend was the second-highest of all time, and set the record for largest debut by an African-American director. The film’s first month mirrored its opening weekend success; after just 26 days, “Black Panther” passed the $1 billion mark at global box offices. Get Out grossed $255 million worldwide against a $4.5 million production budget, and director Jordan Peele became the fifth black director ever nominated for an Oscar, the first to win three nominations (for original screenplay, best director, and best picture), and the first African-American to win the Oscar for best original screenplay.  

How have these films been able to achieve such great success despite the glaring lack of racial diversity in film production? Two emerging developments in the film business are responsible. First, minorities are becoming an increasingly larger presence in America, with minorities predicted to comprise a majority of the population by 2043. Although minorities account for almost 40 percent of the population, they buy movie tickets at a higher rate than white people, with people of color purchasing 45 percent of all movie tickets sold in the US in 2015, according to the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report. A study by the Creative Artists Agency found that there are financial benefits to increasing diversity in film. For the top 10 grossing movies in 2016, 47% of the opening weekend audience was non-white. At every level of budget, films with a diverse cast (at least 30 percent nonwhite) outperform films without diverse casts, grossing almost three times as much as films that don’t. Studio executives have clearly seen the writing on the wall: that racially-diverse films appeal to a large and powerful market.

The rise of independent film and smaller studios has also led to more diverse stories being told through film, in all senses of the word. Smaller studios are more willing to take risks on films, as they have less to lose, and pride themselves on innovation and pushing boundaries. Get Out was produced by Blumhouse Productions, which describes itself as “pioneering a new model of studio filmmaking by producing high-quality micro-budget films.” A USC analysis of independent films found that these films are more likely than major studio films to feature underrepresented minorities in charge.

Large American film studios also have international audiences to please. Large studios are dependent on international revenue, which is twice as large as domestic revenue, and international audiences do not respond well to racial diversity. In an analysis of over 800 films from between 2005 and 2012, The Conversation found that adding one non-white lead actor led to a 40 percent decrease in international revenue, but had no effect on domestic revenue. The studio concern over diversity was highlighted in a leaked email from the 2014 Sony email hacks, in which a producer wrote that, “I believe that the international motion-picture audience is racist – in general, pictures with an African-American lead don’t play well overseas… But Sony sometimes seems to disregard that a picture must work well internationally to both maximize returns and reduce risk, especially pictures with decent-size budgets.”

To continue, increased racial diversity in Hollywood must be prompted by financial incentives that can overcome these barriers to production. “Money follows money,” notes Princeton University professor Diana Fuss, whose teaching and research interests include film studies and who teaches a popular course on America Cinema. “Hollywood will certainly try to replicate its success with the terrific Black Panther, as well they should. Disney deserves credit for embracing a vibrant diversity more often associated with independent films. But if diversity really is here to stay then I think the big Hollywood studios need to resist welcoming indie creativity into the corporate fold only in order to implant their own brands and their own biases. Let’s hope that the brainwashing plot of Get Out does not prove in the end to be an allegory for what happens to diversity in Hollywood.”