A look back at the state of racial representation in Hollywood this year

A look back at the state of racial representation in Hollywood this year

2017 was a good time for racial representation in movies. From films like Hidden Figures to Coco, it seems that Hollywood is more invested than ever in telling stories with diverse leads. Not all of the news is good, however; the past year also saw two more whitewashing controversies thanks to the live-action Ghost in the Shelland Netflix’s Death Note, and people of color on the big screen still lag far behind their populations in real life. Although it’s difficult to square all these trends into one easily understood narrative, especially as no single report out there has all the numbers and data, we can still piece together a general idea of how this year stacked up against years prior.

Get Out, which premiered in February, explored the subtle and internal racism that pervades white America in a horror/comedy genre bender from comedian and director Jordan Peele. But what was most remarkable about Get Out wasn’t just that it was an excellent sendup of racial commentary, but that it was also hugely successful at the box office. Bringing in $253.8 million gross sales, or 50.8 times its $5 million production budget, Get Out proved with sheer numbers that non-white actors could lead lucrative, widely appealing movies — a lesson worth heeding in the face of Hollywood’s struggling financials.

Hidden Figures, which premiered in January, also helped usher in a year of diverse films. By highlighting the little-known lives of three black women who worked for NASA during the early years of the space program, the film emphasized the potential for historical stories about people of color who made important contributions without much credit. It demonstrated with ease that there can be diversity in period films and historical dramas, a genre of film that rarely focuses on people of color — the all-white casts of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled being two prime examples.

Although many Dunkirk boosters made the excuse that the film is supposed to be about French and British soldiers, there were also plenty of Algerian, Moroccan, and Indian soldiers who also served during World War II, largely because of European colonialism. Casablanca, a 1942 movie set in literally the same timeframe in Morocco, gave more speaking roles to a woman and a black man than Dunkirk. For her Civil War drama The Beguiled, Coppola defended her decision to nix the black characterwho had played a major part in the source novel by explaining she didn’t want to include a token slave character without properly fleshing the character out. “There wasn’t room to tell that whole story,” she said, though that story could have been a very interesting one indeed.

The responsibility to tell diverse and innovative stories doesn’t fall on solely on filmmakers like Coppola and Nolan, or any individual. Instead, it falls on all of Hollywood, where film studio executive boards still skew male. At Warner Bros., 35 percent of executives are women. For Sony and Paramount, the number is 45 percent, according to Variety. Part of this picture remains obscured, as Disney, Universal and Fox all declined to reveal their numbers.

While Variety’s report doesn’t include any data on race or LGBTQ members, it does gives us some idea of the structures of these Hollywood companies and how they impact film and TV production. In October, Insecure writer Amy Aniobi explained how she feels when she pitches a TV show to a room full of white male executives:

When I go into a room to pitch shows, I'm translating both of my ‘Others’: my femininity, and my blackness, to a room of white people. And so, it's hard! It's hard, you have to take them on a journey with you, and it's like, "C'mon down the road with me!" And it's so hard to tap dance to that. If I could just have someone on the other side of the table who vaguely resembles what I am. And I always try and connect. Like if some dude is like, my sister, and I'm like, oh, you have a sister! I have a brother, what's your relationship like? I'm trying so hard to connect and it can be really hard. If the heads of studio were of color, that’s really what’s going to change the industry.

The problem around diversity has many dimensions; while Latinos make up 17 percent of the US’s population, television representation of Latinos in 2017 lagged behind at a mere eight percent, the greatest racial disparity among minorities. For films in 2016, the percentage of Latinos on screen was even lower at 3.1 percent, according to a study from USC Annenberg. Mary Beltrán, professor of film and television at the University of Texas at Austin, tells The Verge that the problem lays inside film studios: “There just aren’t enough Latino executives. 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.”

These discussions themselves are reasons for optimism, as critics and viewers continue to point where Hollywood’s status quo continues to fall short. Li Lai, creator of Mediaversity Reviews, which rates film and TV based on diversity metrics, says that she’s encouraged by how many people have debated things. From her perspective, having this kind of open discourse is progress as it means we’re questioning things that ten years ago, we might have taken for granted. And some actors like Ed Skrein, who turned down a role in Hellboy out of sensitivity to the character’s half-Japanese background, are doing things right. “I’m just excited that we’re even having these conversations,” Lai tells me.

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