One hundred years ago "The Clansman" premiered in a downtown L.A. theater. Later retitled "The Birth of a Nation," it featured portrayals of black Americans that were so outrageous and so outlandish that the fledgling NAACP tried to have the film banned. Fast forward to now, to the UCLA office of Darnell Hunt, where a copy of the film's poster hangs on the wall. Hunt heads the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and co-writes an annual report on Hollywood diversity. This year — the report's second — it surveys 2013 films and the 2012-13 television season. The dismal findings were released three days after the Oscars, which included no minorities among the acting nominees. But, as always in Hollywood, there's hope in the last reel.
What explains Hollywood's diversity problem?
Hollywood is a reflection of the people who have the power to green-light certain projects, to cast actors, to hire people for the writers' room — for the most part, white men. It's a high-risk industry. Most new films underperform, most TV shows fail. The white men who dominate the industry surround themselves with people with whom they feel comfortable, with whom they have a track record, who are seasoned — other white men, for the most part. They think they need to do this to succeed. You're creating this cycle that's very difficult for women and minorities to short-circuit.
There are industries you'd expect to be run mostly by white men, but Hollywood doesn't come first to mind.
It shouldn't be, but it has been throughout its history. Hollywood was created by a largely Jewish-dominated group who fled New York because of anti-Semitism. The problem is the industry never really evolved with the demographics of this region. Now it's beginning to be a business problem, whereas before it was about access and fairness. The industry is butting up against limits in its viability because it's not providing what the market has clearly demonstrated that it wants.
What is that?
Our analysis shows that the films that roughly mimic diversity in American society have higher box office, on average. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," "Iron Man 3," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" — these are all films [with casts of ] 21% to 30% minorities. The numbers show diversity sells; on the other hand, there's distressing information about how diversity is absent in the industry.
And minorities make up 51% of frequent moviegoers. Frequent moviegoers account for more than half of all ticket sales. Latinos are the most moviegoing group, but you would never know it from Hollywood.
One age-old excuse was, you can't have a film with minority leads because that'll limit its global marketability. But then you have inconvenient examples like the "Fast and Furious" series, which is making a ton of money, with an Asian American director; four of the seven major actors are minorities.
It boils down to misalignment: The interests of the industry as a whole [versus] the interests of individuals, mainly white men, who have a lot to gain. Even if a show or film fails, they're still going to make a lot of money.
If so many minority moviegoers like films as they are, why should studios change anything?
Audiences can only vote affirmatively for something that's there. They can't tell you what they wanted to see. I don't want to overstate: I don't think black audiences only want to see black characters, nor do I think white audiences only want to see white characters. People want to see reflections of America in real representations.
Talk about runaway production; [there are] runaway audiences, particularly among minority youth who are going to Web series, to YouTube channels telling stories from the perspective of people of color, who in Hollywood would be the best friend of the white lead, if they were characters at all.
What do you think Hollywood regards as diversity?
It's mostly about blacks. Other minorities are woefully underrepresented. In our research back to 1999-2000, African Americans have been overrepresented in prime time as a share of characters [versus] U.S. population; 16% [on TV]; 11% or 12% of the population. It's not as severe as it was.
You say "severe" as though it's a bad thing.
Overrepresentation isn't a bad thing, but for other minorities, it's maddening. Latinos are the most underrepresented group, probably neck and neck with Native Americans. Asian Americans go back and forth; in certain arenas like TV writing they were close to proportional representation, but they've slipped a bit.
African Americans may be more visible on cable and reality shows, but aren't reality shows essentially caricatures?
For our study, there are employment issues and representational issues. Representational issues are about the impact on society of the stereotypes and those things. Reality shows that feature a lot of minorities tend to venture more into stereotype than scripted TV. And the employment implications are a little different. By far, the most TV shows we sample are reality shows. In cable, in one season, there were about 250 scripted programs and almost 600 reality shows.
The FCC does license television networks; what could the FCC do to help?
Its job! The FCC has been a booster for large corporations as opposed to an agency that operates in the public interest. Net neutrality is a step in the right direction, but allowing these mergers and mega-national corporations, giving them such market power, is an abomination. It freezes out alternative points of view to the American public.
What about film?
Everything we say about TV is a degree or so worse in film. Fewer films are made. In some ways it's more lucrative because of $100-million-plus budgets. The industry is very selective about who gets that [filmmaking] privilege. It's very rare that [it's] a woman or person of color and it's always a much smaller-budget picture. Even "Selma" — the budget was a shoestring.
Hollywood is a business; explain why it has an obligation other businesses may not.
What does it means to live in an advanced democracy where you're reflecting an image that doesn't align with the demographic realities of that society?
Presenting stories that have minorities in stock, static roles instead of dynamic ones, painting a picture in which white men are still privileged to lead and others are followers or tangential to the main narrative — it reinforces the idea that there's a racial pecking order in the broader society. People may tend to internalize those images, and treat [minorities] accordingly, maybe even vote against them because they're harboring this perception. These are the social responsibility aspects of what the industry should be doing, given its immense power in generating images that socialize and educate us.
For your report, you didn't just look at numbers of actors, directors and writers, but diversity in film locations, genres and who talent agencies represent.
And we don't even look at [jobs] like camera operators and craft services. There are issues there too. Film is an incredibly lucrative industry. It's easy to justify "business as usual" because it's based on some art and types of talent that you can argue [aren't revealed by] taking a civil service exam. You can always resort to the argument that there aren't enough talented minorities, and when there are, they'll get opportunities. But this is a crisis.
What did you make of hacked email exchanges between white Sony executives speculating about what films President Obama liked, and suggesting only black-themed films like "Django Unchained" and "12 Years a Slave"?
I wasn't surprised at all. I'm sure the same kind of thing happens at every studio and every network.
What happened to "liberal Hollywood"?
"Liberal" is a very conditional term. The industry may be liberal in terms of presidential candidates, even some movements — Hollywood was a major supporter of the black power movement. But I'm pretty sure the people who were supporting that weren't also supporting opening up the studios to black directors, because that would infringe on their turf. They don't necessarily understand the negative effects of hogging the privilege of being able to tell stories about a nation.
Your study's recommendations for change so far depend on institutional and individual goodwill — isn't that a fingers-crossed approach?
Our long-range goal is to give a bird's-eye view, identifying patterns, best practices, obstacles. We want to accumulate enough data over time to make recommendations that will make a difference. There's all kinds of initiatives now that I would argue are more like a lottery, that give opportunities to two, three, four, five writers or actors. Those have minimal chance of having an impact on the overall numbers. It's window dressing. There is no magic bullet. It requires interventions on all fronts. I don't see anything on the horizon that would lead me to believe that there's an impetus for sufficient change in the near future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.