Hollywood received a deserved slap in the face during this year's Oscar season over its lack of diversity, leading to the second annual #OscarsSoWhite controversy as well as earning host Chris Rock's admonition.
The "2015 Hollywood Diversity Report" conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA reveals just how deeply entrenched racial and gender imbalances in film and television are both behind and in front of the camera.
Although women make up half the U.S. population, for instance, they received only 25% of lead roles and directed only 6% of theatrical films in 2013.
Nearly 40% of the U.S. population is made up of minorities, but you wouldn't know it looking at Hollywood, where a mere 17% of minorities played leading roles, 12% were writers, and a dismal 6% were broadcast T.V. show creators.
Although the findings are not surprising, the low numbers still leave you depressed over the talent, voices, life experiences and cultures excluded from Hollywood.
In the wake of this latest Hollywood scandal, I spoke with Mahyad Tousi, who seems to be defying this trend. Not only is he a minority who has broken into Hollywood to become an executive producer on the new ABC series Of Kings and Prophets -- a dramatic retelling of David's rise from shepherd to King, a central story of the Hebrew Bible -- but Mahyad also happens to be Muslim!
Q: Before we talk about Hollywood's lack of diversity, tell us a little about the series Of Kings and Prophets.
A: Of Kings and Prophets tells the tale of how a besieged and insignificant semitic tribe rises to become a kingdom whose name would last through the ages. The first season begins with a brewing conflict between Israel's first King (Saul) and the Prophet (Samuel) who anointed him, and the rise of the shepherd David who is destined to become the greatest of all of Israel's kings.
Q. This is an epic Biblical saga about David, so what drew you to this story when you're of Muslim background?
A: For me, it's that David is a true example of an Eastern hero motif - complex, conflicted and human - unlike most heroes we are used to seeing on screen, who are often modeled after the Greek mythological motifs: absolute in their resolve and super human. Even though he may have lived 3000 years ago, David is arguably one of the most contemporary figures in any mythology, religious or otherwise.
It's also worth noting that David is a rare religious figure revered by all three Abrahamic faiths. He is the central figure in the Hebrew Bible; his direct lineage to Jesus Christ is paramount in the New Testament; and he is celebrated as both a Prophet of God and a King of Israel in Islam.
Q: On the one hand, Hollywood excludes minorities and women and, on the other hand, it has a history of perpetuating stereotypes. Women are often shown as two-dimensional sex objects. Do the show's female characters defy this stereotype in any way?
A: Yes, absolutely. Our job as dramatists is to breathe life into all the characters. It's no secret that the Bible generally doesn't provide much in terms of character psychology or motivation for its women, with a few exceptions of course. So from the start in our conversations with Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (the show's creators) and subsequently with our showrunner Chris Brancato, we were in agreement that the women of Of Kings and Prophets must play a far more central role than they are provided with in the Bible. Personally, I operate from the perspective that even in the most patriarchal societies women have been key players, even when the history books don't reflect that. I believe this is also true of scripture.
Q: I think Chris Rock did a marvelous job of sharply criticizing Hollywood for its lack of diversity while also respecting his own role as the host of the Oscars. I want you to take on that role as well. As an executive producer on an ABC series, tell us what you think is happening in the studios to make Hollywood so disconnected with its diverse viewership, especially when the UCLA report confirms that diverse shows succeed more?
A: Hollywood, like politics, is adjusting to shifting demographics in the country, but I see the problem as two fold. First, there's a white male legacy problem: there is an inherent nepotism in the industry. It takes much longer for an outsider to get in the door. I think Chris Rock called this a "sorority" problem, but I'd personally call it a fraternity problem. The second is an inherent lack of cultural curiosity (some would call it laziness) for stories outside the dominant culture. This translates into less diversity and often a lack of authenticity when diversity is attempted. Ultimately, it takes a lot more effort to push something down a path less travelled, and in this audiences have a big role to play.
Q: Aside from putting aside the remote and engaging in social media, what tangible steps can women and minorities take to break into Hollywood?
A: I think women and minorities face different challenges. Women are not a minority. They are in fact a majority. They have strong support structures within their communities and their activism is proving quite effective as of late. We all have to do more to amplify the demand for authentic women's voices in Hollywood, but I am hopeful that the momentum is carrying us in the right direction now.
Minorities can take a page from women's activism by building much stronger support structures. They should actively support and celebrate their artists and storytellers far more than they are. In many ethnic communities, it's not uncommon for families/communities to push their children away from the arts. When artists have to constantly fight to win over the approval of their families and communities, they are significantly handicapped before they have to confront the inherent legacy problems in an already competitive industry.
Of Kings and Prophets premieres Tuesday, March 8th at 10pm.
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