Years ago, I worked as an extra on an independent horror movie. The scene was in a nightclub, and I recall the director asking for a “black face.” Although there were quite a few black extras on the set, the director only wanted one to sit at a table with five white people. The director could have easily balanced out the racial makeup of those around the table, but a choice was made to add only a drop of color to the mix.
That was my introduction to the movie industry, and since then, not much has changed. The film and television industry has become comfortable with its level of “diversity.” We don’t need diversity anymore. What we need is balance.
This argument could apply to any marginalized group in America, but as a black writer, actor and director, I am making this case for black people. Of the 362 movies that were released in U.S. theaters last year, only 14 had at least one black person in the lead role. Put another way, if one new film was released in theaters almost every single day of the year, the films with black leads would only take up two weeks.
A recent analysis of the top 100 films from 2007 to 2016 (excluding 2011) looked at how gender, race, ethnicity and other qualities were portrayed on film. While 13 percent of the characters in the 900-movie sample appeared to be black ― proportionate to census numbers ― the report found that only seven of the top 100 films in 2016 were helmed by a black character. Twenty-five of the top 100 films that year did not feature a single black character speaking on-screen.
The lack of black actors in these leading roles is reflected in awards season. The Oscar nominations are out, and of the 20 nominees in the acting categories, four are black. (For the past five years, the number has ranged from zero to six, the latter only coming after the #OscarsSoWhite backlash.) For the Screen Actors Guild Awards, presented last month, there were 76 nominees for both individual and ensemble performances. Of those, 11 were a black person or an ensemble with at least one black person in a lead role. One black man won: Sterling K. Brown, the first black person ever to win the award for outstanding male actor in a drama series. There should be no rejoicing that after being on the air for 24 years, SAG finally decided to award a black man in a dramatic TV role.
When Golden Globe nominations came out, I read one article titled “Not as diverse, but still representative.” How? Of 110 nominations (not including those for animation or musical composition), 10 went to black actors or a film with at least one black lead. In what equation is that representative? Again, Sterling K. Brown was the only black actor to win that night.
Presenting whitened versions of slavery or civil rights events seems to be the most popular way to bring black people to the screen.
Almost every story imaginable gets made about, for or using white people, while the industry ignores the fact that the viewing public is not all white. Black Americans made up 15 percent of frequent moviegoers in 2016, according to a report from the Motion Picture Association of America. A 2011 BET study found that black audiences saw movies 21 percent more often than the general market, and were 22 percent more likely to watch a movie multiple times.
Still, Hollywood usually attempts to tell a black story with a white voice. “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Django Unchained” and “Detroit” are some prime examples. Using white people to tell black stories is the way the industry controls the message. An old African proverb captures why this is a problem: Until the lion gets his own storyteller, the tale will always favor the hunter.
Presenting whitened versions of slavery or civil rights events seems to be the most popular way to bring black people to the screen. That, or watering down the great things black people have accomplished or pretending it would not have happened without the benevolence of some random white person (see: “Hidden Figures” or “12 Years a Slave”).
If we flip the script, why weren’t the ladies in “Hidden Figures” shown in the movie “Apollo 13”? Where is the variety of different black voices reflected? Why isn’t there a black “Lady Bird” or “Wonder”? Even better, why are the economical disparities not addressed in a movie like “Downsizing”? If you’re going to tell a story, tell all sides of it.
TV is no better. Taking a look at 10 popular networks and streaming services that produce their own programming, including ABC, NBC, CBS and Netflix, I found that of 200 shows, only eight were either represented by a majority black cast or had a black character in a lead role.
CBS executives last year responded to complaints about the lack of diversity in their new and returning shows by touting the network's “two shows with diverse leads this year that we didn’t have on the schedule last year” and boasting “every single drama on our air has at least one diverse regular character.”
What passes as diversity on TV and movies now is a single black cast member, usually the “funny” one. What about all the shows with no black cast members at all? What about the same type of black movies being made over and over again?
To begin balancing the scales, executives have to be welcoming to new voices. They need to support creativity instead of falling back on old movies and television shows. They need to open-mindedly read new material and support it financially. They need to look at scripts with an eye to casting them outside of the status quo. Colorblind casting can work.
It’s necessary to support black showrunners and creators like Shonda Rhimes, Kenya Barris and Lee Daniels, who in turn create new opportunities for people of color. Executives must also support up-and-coming black creators by accepting them into the film and television community.
Balance is a reflection of the community and the country, and that’s not what we see on the television or in the films coming out of Hollywood. There are black people ― and indigenous people, women, Latinos, Asians and members of the LGTBQ community ― who are lions. Let the lion tell his own story.
Carla Richardson is an author and playwright. Her latest release is Lambs Books of Life.