In recent years, the on-screen representation of women of color in feature films has increased significantly. According to a 2019 report from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, women of color were cast in leading roles in 2018 at nearly four times the rate as in 2017. They played a part in 11 of the top 100 grossing movies in 2018, compared to just four films in the previous year. This number also increased in 2019 and 2020.
The film industry is doing a lot to promote diversity in movies and TV shows, and concerted efforts have been made to showcase the talents and skills of women of color in mainstream media. However, it’s a different story behind the scenes – women of color are rarely considered for behind-the-camera positions and there is just a handful of Black, Latina, and Asian women who are writers, directors, and top executives in the industry.
A recent study on ‘director,’ ‘gender,’ and ‘race’ in Hollywood conducted by Statista, a leading provider of market and consumer data, found that women of color directed just 13 of the 1,300 top-earning movies between 2007 and 2019. That’s not even up to one percent of all directing jobs. Another study that shows a lack of representation for women of color behind the camera is the “Inclusion at Film Festivals” report presented by the Time’s Up Foundation and USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The study, which analyzed the race and gender of narrative film directors, film festival programmers, and executives from 2017-2019, discovered that at the five top international festivals, white men accounted for 47% of directors of the three years examined, while 27%, 17%, and 8% were men of color, white women and women of color respectively.
Is there an actual systematic change in the industry, or is Hollywood just trying to catch the eye of diverse audiences through casting, but without fundamentally changing the way studios do business behind the scenes?
Despite the efforts being made to increase diversity in the film industry, it seems the situation isn’t improving at all. In fact, a recent study conducted by Creative Diversity Network revealed that diversity behind the camera is getting worse over time. According to the report, positions like ‘producer,’ ‘director,’ and ‘camera operator’ are being filled less and less by people of color, especially women. So, what could the problem be? Is this happening due to a lack of competence on the end of the Black, Asian, and Latina female directors, or is it a matter of poor inclusivity in the film industry?
New research by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative tries to answer that question. The study carefully analyzed the prevalence of female directors working across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, using Metacritic scores (Metacritic is a website that aggregates reviews of film and TV shows). The results showed no differences in average or median Metacritic scores for male or female-directed movies, or the stories directed by white persons in comparison to their under-represented counterparts. However, one big difference was women of color received the highest median and average Metacritic scores for their films compared to content directed by white males, men of color, and white females. Despite this, women of color are least likely to work as directors across the top 100 films each year. Professor Smith suggests that these discoveries show that when companies try to hire “the best person for the position,” they are not relying on objective criteria, but on a subjective view of storytellers.
Changing The Narrative
2020 was a very remarkable year in the movie industry. The Covid-19 pandemic did not only influence how people watch movies but also brought about a surge in the use of streaming services. However, that’s not all that happened; 2020 also saw the rise of several film directors who are women of color. From directing big-budget movies to getting awards recognition, these women of color are making strides in the industry and leaving a lasting impression on audiences. One of such women is Chloé Zhao, who broke records earlier this year after she became the only woman of color (and second woman ever) to win an Oscar for Best Director for her acclaimed film, “Nomadland.” Times without number, Hollywood has ignored the talent of female voices. Nonetheless, Zhao’s victory is a small step towards placing women of color on the map. Another woman of color worth mentioning is Ava Duvernay who in 2016, became the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget above $100 million with her electrifying, black-girl-centered “A Wrinkle in Time.” Other women like Shonda Rhimes and Janet Mock have also shown that women of color can tell rich and engaging stories if given a chance.
It is very important to note that these awards are secondary when judging the success of women of color behind the camera. Asides from the accolades, praise, and recognition, it is more meaningful that women of color are increasingly at the helm of telling stories featuring women who look like them. Also, the incredible success of these women of color behind the camera will inspire more women of color to pursue careers in film, television, and media without feeling out of place.
We are at a point in history where many young girls are constantly accessing media and digital content. Therefore, we must shine the spotlight on women who are contributing creatively and making a huge impact in the film industry. There are so many unknown Black, Asian, and Latina female directors out there creating beautiful content and bringing to the light the stories that often go unseen in mainstream Hollywood. Until we destroy the stereotype of who can direct mainstream movies, we will not see any improvement in Hollywood’s behind-the-camera diversity.
There are many barriers to opportunity for female directors (especially women of color) in the industry, and it may take some time for proper representation to happen. However, the gap can be bridged more quickly if we all play a part. That is why we at Diversity Production Pro are equipping communities with the tools to engage in a global conversation, empowering them to amplify their unique voices and perspectives. Our community hub provides a network for people who work in the film industry and are beginning or enhancing their careers with our training and education courses. We hope that through the masterclasses and workshops featured on the DPP Community’s diverse collaborative social group, women of color can connect and network with other film professionals in the industry and drive the conversation of change.