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Shedding New Light on Race and the Movies

| January 8, 2014

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Stacy Smith.

Entertainment watchers lauded 2013’s breakthrough films with a black storyline as a sign of racial barriers being further eroded in Hollywood. But a study by a leading monitor of diversity in entertainment suggests that, whatever progress appears to be happening right now, black women still have farther to travel toward parity than black men in cinema.

While “Race/Ethnicity in 500 Popular Films,” an analysis of major releases between 2007 and 2012, counted 33 black directors among 565 directors of the top 500 money-making movies, just a fraction of those 33 were women.

“What is particularly compelling and what we’re not hearing in the popular press is that, of those thirty-three directors, only two were women,” the study’s main author, Stacy Smith, a University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communications & Journalism professor and culture critic, told the Women’s Media Center. “That was the finding that really hit me.”

A “representational roadblock,” as Smith calls it, remains when it comes to women in film, African American or otherwise.

Subtitled “Is the Key to Diversifying Cinematic Content Held in the

Hand of the Black Director?” the 2013 study examined who was behind and in front of the camera for 500 of the most profitable movies produced during the five years ending in 2012. The 500 movies yielded 20,000 roles for characters with speaking parts.

Broadly, the study of those white-male-director-dominated films found that all women, and men of color, had fewer roles with speaking parts and, for females, more roles shaped by sexual stereotypes.

Parsed further, the findings showed that:

  • Some of the directors worked on more than one film included in the study, which meant that even though 33 films had black directors, there were actually 22 black directors in total.
  • When films had a black director, 52.6 percent of speaking characters were black. When directors were not black, 9.9 percent of speaking characters were black.
  • In 40 percent of the 500 films, the number of black characters with speaking rolls hovered at 5 percent.
  • In 2012 alone, 10.8 percent of speaking roles went to blacks, 5 percent to Asians, and 4.2 percent to Hispanics.
  • Of women with speaking parts, 34.8 percent were Asian, 34.6 percent were black, 33.9 percent were Hispanic, 28.8 percent were white, and 16.1 percent were of some other ethnicity.
  • Of all female characters, Latinas were the most likely to be robed in sexually revealing clothes or be partially nude. Among Hispanic female characters, 41.1 percent were provocatively attired and 39.3 percent were partially naked. That compared to 31.8 percent and 30.5 percent, respectively, for black women; 32.8 percent and 32.3 percent for white women; and 15.7 of each category for Asian women.

“We know that what we see on screen is in direct proportion to who’s calling the shots,” said Smith, whose chief study co-authors were USC’s Marc Choueiti and Katherine Piepert.

Like many other entertainment consumers, Smith lauded strides African Americans made in film in 2013, what with the success of such blockbusters as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station. Black characters were the centerpieces of those critically acclaimed releases by black male directors. It remains to seen, though, whether this represents lasting change in Hollywood or whether more black female directors also will get their works green-lighted.

Choueiti, project administrator for the Annenberg School’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative, told the Women’s Media Center: “There’s so much room for change, growth, opportunity, given where Hollywood is at right now. We know there is risk-aversion, that things move slowly in Hollywood.”

The researchers have not pressed their case for change directly with industry executives, though they plan to request face-time to discuss ways to move forward in an America where people of color represent an increasing share of the population. They have not yet set a timetable for starting that conversation or what, in detail, it will cover.

With her graduate and undergraduate students and colleagues, Smith has been investigating the gender divide in film, television, video games, and other media sectors since 2005, a period noted for ongoing change in the nation’s racial demographic.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 non-Hispanic whites made up 63 percent of the population, down from 69.1 percent in 2000. That shift shows up among her students, Smith said, and is part of what prompted her to overlay race onto her heretofore gender-centric media analyses.

“It really just came out of a concern for what developing youth might be seeing on screen in terms of people who look like them and have experiences like theirs,” she said.

Regarding women of all races, “Some of the perceptions [of people behind] the camera are not grounded in evidence,” said Smith, also a collaborator with the Sundance Institute’s Women Filmmakers Initiative and Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. “So much of this involves myths and shortcuts. Less than a third of all speaking characters on screen are women. Yet women are 50 percent of the population and 50 percent of those buying tickets.

She added: “The last time the [Motion Picture Association of America] published their report on the percent of Hispanics who purchased tickets, that figure, I believe, was 22 percent. So, there’s a huge audience there … There’s a real disconnect between what we see on screen and what people want. Where’s the resistance? That’s the next study.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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