In a recent article, we highlighted a cultural landscape in Hollywood that is less than pleasing in terms of diversity and equality despite some solid efforts. Solving diversity issues in any industry isn’t a simple task but lately, the Hollywood elite have been calling for action. A general consensus revolves around the importance of representation; the idea that diverse casts and stories are important for audiences to see for a wide range of reasons. The quick fix is to throw characters of different backgrounds on screen.
While diverse casts are important, actors are a small part of the industry. Efforts to diversify the people behind the camera are crucial but access to the education and materials needed to make a career in TV and film might be out of reach to a lot of the groups of people that are underrepresented. So, the answer to Hollywood’s diversity problem is simple: accessibility.
Diversity for diversity sake isn’t diversity
As is with any cheap knock-off, it’s easy to spot a fake. Forced diversity is no different. Poorly-written diverse characters lazily thrown into stories for the sake of “mixing” it up often end up perpetuating stereotypes.
Granted, some stories don’t always call for a diverse cast. A four-girl high school clique in rural Oklahoma may not be made up of a Pakistani immigrant, a bi-racial Spanish-speaker, a white girl, and their black, lesbian best friend. That’s okay!
TV shows with all white casts are no more a problem than shows with all-black or all-Asian casts. None of these shows are diverse, but when adding stories with predominantly minority casts to the collective, the industry changes. The key is to find the places and the stories where the Pakistani immigrants are, where the bi-racial Spanish speakers are, where the black lesbians are, and explore those spaces. It breeds authenticity to write about culturally diverse places if you want culturally diverse casts, not shoving a diverse cast into a setting that doesn’t make sense.
A recent example of this was the polarizing film Mary, Queen of Scots. Often, historical films catch flak for not including characters of color. Shows like Game of Thrones have received backlash because its only two minority characters occupy subservient roles. With fictional pieces like Game of Thrones, it may be a legitimate complaint. But the Saoirse Ronan-led period drama is a true story and portrays characters Lord Randolph and Bess of Hardwick (played by Adrian Lester and Gemma Chen respectively) as people of color, which they were not.
While this was done intentionally, (director Josie Rourke vowed she would “not direct an all-white period drama”), the issue here is still historical accuracy. It serves no purpose to race-bend these historic characters just for diversity sake. While the intention is noble, a real show of effort would have been to make a movie whose story included real people of color, of which history has plenty to offer.
Diversity isn’t just about race or sex
Race and sex often dominate the conversation surrounding diversity and equality but making the industry accessible to everyone doesn’t just account for racial and cultural minorities nor just women—it does so for everyone. You see the issue again crop up with disabled characters, in which Hollywood will sooner cast non-disabled talent as opposed to casting those with actual disabilities.
It’s a problem when studios spend thousands of dollars on location scouts, historians, and technical advisors but won’t add someone on the payroll to account for the real-life experiences of characters that may not have anything in common with the people who are writing, directing, or filming them.
It’s important to note that the same is true for almost any segment or group of people that fall outside the majority or “norm”. Our own Maggie Mancini explained how this concept applies the plus-size women in her examination of how Hulu’s new comedy Shrill succeeds with representation of women.
Breaking barriers between overlooked communities and the TV and film industry adds value to the work being produced. Apart from honest and authentic storytelling, movies with diverse casts make more money.
A diverse cast attracts a more diverse audience, and therefore a larger audience. So it stands to reason that when an investment is made in diverse filmmakers who then make movies with diverse storylines and characters, the movies then go on to make lots of money. When put into practice, the system works.
Let’s take a look at Netflix. The streaming giant has been making a huge push into more diverse content by partnering with a wide range of comedians, writers, producers, and directors to create content that attracts the largest audience possible. It’s an impressive model that has also allowed them to pump up a ridiculous amount of varied content.
As a part of its Strong Black Lead initiative alone, Netflix penned deals with heavyweights like Ava DuVernay, the Obamas, Lena Waithe, and Spike Lee. These efforts are a) solidifying Netflix’s position as the premiere streaming platform, and b) creating a more diverse offering of content while allowing diverse filmmakers and artists to have a major platform.
The future of film
Lectures aside, the point is that when everyone has access to the resources they need to tell their stories, they will. The concept isn’t revolutionary. Studies show that children in low-income areas aren’t less inclined to participate in school, they just don’t have the same materials, programs, and support as kids that attend schools in wealthier, suburban neighborhoods.
When given those same resources however, they thrive just as well. In relation to TV and film, schools that have A/V clubs, theatre, and science courses that integrate technology in their curriculum do a lot more to help students explore their aspirations in the entertainment industry but those aren’t luxuries all schools can invest in. Luckily, with technology, kids are starting to invest in those things themselves.
Quality audio and film equipment is expensive and there are few devices that work alone to service all the needs of someone interested in filmmaking, but with simple tools like smartphones, more individuals can become junior directors. The same way turn-tables and beat machines meant anyone could be a DJ or producer, iPhones have become the new trendy way to shoot movies. These films are no slouches either. People are buying tickets to see them in theaters. They’re being featured on Netflix. And just about anybody can make them.
Social media has become the new college for creatives. Apps like Snapchat and Vine helped channel user’s creativity by popularizing the idea of short videos. And platforms like YouTube, with its star-making quality, are graduating untraditional storytellers from amateur to professional. Just look at Issa Rae and Kid Fury.
In a day and age where ideas can go from Tumblr fan-fiction to big-budget movie deals over the course of a few years, previously unrepresented and underrepresented groups are finding ways to put their art into the world, and also making money from it. Studios and filmmakers that help the aforementioned trends and foster this accessibility may ultimately be the ones that come out on top.
Here’s to hoping some Hollywood bigshot starts their commitment to accessibility by picking up Morgan Cooper’s independently-filmed YouTube short Bel-Air, a dramatic reimagining of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that’s been making big waves.