In a recent interview, Mike De Luca, the prominent producer of “The Social Network” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” wondered aloud something that shocked me in its openness and introspection: “Do I seek out other white men?”
In five years of asking white male producers and executives about the issue of racial and gender discrimination in Hollywood, De Luca’s comment was the first time I had ever heard genuine soul-searching in response.
In an era when a single comment can be contorted into a shaming meme on social media, I understand the hesitation of public figures to discuss this hot-button topic with a reporter. Today’s moment of candor is tomorrow’s mortifying hashtag. Over the years of asking, I have become accustomed to an array of responses — discomfort, defensiveness, bewilderment and the sudden failure of a cellphone signal, to name a few.
There’s no doubt this has been a year of constant pressure on the entertainment industry, from within and without, and from governmental and market forces, on the issues of race and gender. There are those who say we’ve been here before, that diversity is like a wave that periodically hits the shores of Hollywood only to recede.
But I’d like to believe that something is different now — the crush of evidence of the industry’s inequality is too big, the wrath of social media is too fierce to ignore. The tone and the tenor of the message has changed — at awards dinners and Hollywood luncheons — the topic of inclusion isn’t the appetizer, it’s the main course.
Change is here
Those who have long advocated for change are beginning to see the fruits of their labor. A steady drumbeat of data from researchers at USC and UCLA suggests women and minorities are at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring in behind-the-camera positions, and this fall, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began contacting female directors who said they have been subject to discrimination.
Audiences have embraced F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Elizabeth Banks’ “Pitch Perfect 2,” Nancy Meyers’ “The Intern,” Lee Daniels’ “Empire” and Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” and studios and networks have happily tallied the cash they generated.
In front of the camera, the year’s most anticipated movie, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” seems poised to be one of its most inclusive, with a black Stormtrooper, a woman pilot and an array of other key roles breaking the mold, while others of the year’s biggest box-office drivers, from the seventh film in the ethnically diverse “Fast and Furious” franchise to the closing movie in the female-led “Hunger Games” series, have confirmed that audiences show up when they see a heroic version of themselves represented on-screen.
Over the course of the year, women and minorities in the business have been using their platforms as advocates with increasing power: Patricia Arquette tipped off the conversation with a fiery plea for wage equality for women in February at the Oscars and Viola Davis drove home the point with a poignant reference to Harriet Tubman and the lack of opportunities for women of color in September at the Emmys.
Jennifer Lawrence published a widely circulated letter decrying the pay gap between men and women, and Spike Lee used the occasion of receiving his honorary Oscar in November to question the lack of black faces in studio executive suites.
Other, more systemic changes are afoot. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which began 2015 with an all-white group of acting nominees, has recently invited larger, more diverse classes of new members, and its president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black woman in that prominent job, announced a new initiative called A2020 to improve the representation of women and minorities among its staff and leadership.
In May, a female filmmaker named Destri Martino created the Director List, a database of more than 1,000 working female filmmakers designed to be used by executives and producers looking to find female candidates for jobs.
As the voices of women and people of color in the industry are growing louder and more insistent, they are being echoed, tentatively but increasingly, by the voices and actions of white male decision-makers like Paul Feig, the director of women-driven comedies including “Spy,” “Bridesmaids” and the upcoming “Ghostbusters” movie; Lorne Michaels, who has expanded the opportunities for black and female performers on “Saturday Night Live”; and Netflix executive Ted Sarandos, who has backed an array of programming reflecting diverse perspectives, including the women’s prison series “Orange Is the New Black,” the Africa-set boy soldier movie “Beasts of No Nation” and the new Aziz Ansari show “Master of None.”
Many women and minorities I talk to in the industry are concerned with how to make 2015 not a brief moment of public awareness that benefits a few, lucky people, but an opening to lasting, systemic change. It’ll be years before we know if 2015 is really the tipping point it seems to be in Hollywood, rather than that year when the hashtag “diversity” was trending. But I’ll take it as a sign if there are more Mike De Lucas willing to take my calls, and sincerely ask themselves the hardest questions.