Why do most movies still fail to reflect U.S. diversity?

In a survey of the 100 top grossing films between 2007 and 2014, 30 percent of all speaking or named characters were women; less than 30 percent of such roles went to actors who were not white. Jeffrey Brown talks to Dylan Marron, blogger for "Every Spoken Word," and Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post about the widespread lack of diversity in Hollywood.

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    The past few years have brought growing attention to the lack of diversity among film actors and the creators of American movies.

    And a new report this week shows just how wide the gap remains, despite some high-profile successes.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.


    Special effects, action and suspense, big production films in recent years have provided plenty of what audiences have come to expect, including, according to various studies, a widespread lack of diversity.

    The latest research comes from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The survey of the annual 100 top grossing films between 2007 and 2014 found that just 30 percent of all speaking or named characters were women, while 73 percent of such roles went to whites.

    As to the filmmakers, only about 2 percent of the movies were directed by women. The Web site Every Single Word has made a mission of highlighting the lack of diversity in movies by compiling every line spoken by a person of color in any major film. This video, from the 2014 movie "Maleficent," lasted just 18 seconds.

    This creator of Every Single Word, Dylan Marron, joins us now. He's also an actor and writer. Also with us, Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday.

    Well, Dylan Marron, you have been documenting this for a long time. How does this new study sharpen the picture? What jumps out at you?

  • DYLAN MARRON, Every Single Word:

    I think a lot jumps out.

    One of the biggest things that jumped out for me is the correlation between black directors and putting black characters in their movie. And that speaks a lot to this conversation we have of we need more creators. The creators are already out there, but what we need do is we need to take those creators and we need to project their stories onto a bigger screen and they need to be distributed to a larger audience.

    And that way, there will be more accurate reflections of the populations that they're serving.


    You're an actor yourself, so you have seen this play out?


    I have seen this firsthand.

    Yes, I have seen it in meetings with agents. I have seen it in casting calls. And I have just seen it in general reception.


    So, Ann Hornaday, we have talked about this before. For both women and African-Americans, actors and directors, there have been some very successful and critically acclaimed films, especially in recent years. Do we see these as exceptions? What do you see when you look out there?

  • ANN HORNADAY, Film Critic, The Washington Post:

    Well, absolutely.

    You know, the last couple of years have really seen a flowering, and we have seen this wonderful renaissance in African-American filmmaking, from the likes of Dee Rees and Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler, and Gina Prince-Bythewood, of course, who has been around for a while, but has just been doing wonderful work.

    So there's been a lot to celebrate. And then this year, a number of the top 10 movies this year are female-centric, from things like ""Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Cinderella" to "Spy" and "Trainweck," also did very well this summer.

    And there are smaller movies that are featuring women, like "Ricki and the Flash" is coming out this weekend and "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." Things like this, studies like this, we get these statistics as sort of a steady drumbeat, and it's just a reminder that we should remember not to fall over ourselves with gratitude for crumbs, when the bigger picture, as you point out, is a lot more sobering.


    Well, Ann, one of the possible responses will be, this is what audiences want, this is what sells, it's a business, right? Is that true? Does that help explain what we see or not?



    Yes, you're right it's a business. I think this kind of lack of representation actually has three costs. And the first is absolutely financial. I mean, Hollywood is leaving money on the table when women and African-American audiences prove over and over again that they go see movies about themselves.

    And so, for studios to not cater to those audiences, women alone, women of all races buy 50 percent of the movie tickets, and they heavily influence the other 50 percent. The other big cost would be aesthetic in terms of just the actual stories that are being told and the grand diversity and sort of texture and depth of the stories that we're missing up on screen.

    And then maybe the most profound cost is really psychic, in terms of when — especially when young people are going to the movies and they see this sort of monolithic, monotone, monochromatic version of what it is to be human. That's what we're internalizing as the norm.


    So, Dylan Marron, what do you see as the causes? Why does it continue?


    I think this is largely structural, right?

    So, people are just so concerned about losing money. And you mentioned leaving money on the table. I think these financiers, everyone who is putting up money for these films, they are really operating on archaic and even imaginary statistics. They are so afraid that if they change up the formula, if they don't keep putting white people in the leads of these movies as these protagonist roles, that they are going to lose money.

    So, as we see with the "Fast and the Furious" and other big franchises that kind of branch out, this is just not true.


    And yet, Dylan, there is a growing awareness, right? Your site is popular, made a lot of in-way on social media. We see a lot of studies like this, so there is certainly more awareness at least.


    I think there's a lot of awareness. But what does that do?

    We just saw the trailer for the "Stonewall" movie come out. That's the new the Roland Emmerich film about the Stonewall Riots. And it's completely whitewashed, right? There is a black trans woman who actually was one of the leaders, and she's completely silenced. It's rewritten to include a white cis male lead.

    The whitewashing continues. People have been aware for so long. I'm continuing the tradition of awareness. I just presented it in a new way.


    So, Ann Hornaday, just you started to mention some films that are — I just want to give you a brief chance here for people that want to see films that portray this piece of American life that often is not portrayed. Where do they look?


    Well, you know, I think to Dylan's point, a big problem is the financing structure, and more and more the financings that are coming from international financiers or it is being oriented to international audiences.

    And there's this assumption that only certain stories and characters will sell overseas. But we are seeing some really encouraging work on the indie scale. I mentioned "Diary of a Teenage Girl," which is a wonderful depiction of a young woman coming of age.

    I would include a really interesting movie called "Tangerine" about two trans women in L.A. It's kind of this raucous, picaresque day in the life, very funny, very closely and intimately and compassionately observed.

    And then sort of midrange movies, like "Ricki and the Flash" with Meryl Streep, they are still getting made. And, generally, when they do get made, they do really well if they can hang on long enough and find an audience.


    All right, Ann Hornaday, Dylan Marron, thank you both very much.

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