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The Voice of the Black Community
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Arts and Entertainment

Whites, camera, action
Study sheds light on white-washed Hollywood
Published Thursday, November 14, 2013
by Michaela L. Duckett

According to a recent study, only 9.9 percent of a film’s on-screen speaking characters are black when the project has a non-black director. That number jumps to 52.6 percent when they are directed by black directors like Malcolm D. Lee, who directed one the season’s most anticipated films, “The Best Man Holiday,” which hits theaters Nov. 15.

A recent study is shedding new light on what most of us already know: Hollywood is dominated by white folks.

A team of researchers at the University of Southern California at Annenberg found that of the 20,000 speaking roles across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, over three-quarters (76.3 percent) of the were cast with white actors. Almost 40 percent of the films portrayed black characters as less than 5 percent of the speaking cast.

“The results from this analysis show that popular films under represent Black characters and Black directors in comparison to U.S. Census,” wrote the study’s lead authors Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti and Katherine Pieper in conclusion. “Clearly, diversifying casts and depicting the [United States] as a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country is not important to many working Hollywood storytellers.”

Researchers analyzed race/ethnicity on screen and behind the camera across 500 top U.S. box office hits theatrically released in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. According to their report, these trends remained relatively stable with little deviation observed over the 5-year sample.

“Despite the civil rights movement and programs to increase diversity on screen and behind the scenes in Hollywood, the representation of people of color has not been changed over the five years investigated,” the authors wrote. “Different strategies for change are needed to alter the representational stalemate that is depicted in top-grossing films.”

The study suggests that the key to diversifying cinematic content could be in the hands of black directors. When a non-black director is in charge, only 9.9 percent of the on-screen speaking characters are cast with black actors. When a black director is at the helm, that percentage jumps to 52.6 percent.

The correlation could indicate that black directors are telling stories populated by characters and themes that resonate with their own cultural experiences. On the other hand, it could also suggest that financiers and studios may be more likely to attach a black director to stories that feature Black characters and storylines.

Across 565 directors of the top-grossing films from 2007-2012, only 33 (5.8 percent) are black with some individuals directing more than one project. In all, there were 22 unique black directors, two of which were female, at the helm of projects examined in the study.

The study also highlights discrepancies in the way characters are portrayed by race and gender. Hispanic females are more likely (41.1 percent) to be depicted in sexy attire and partially naked as compared with Black females (31.8 percent) and white females (32.8 percent). Asian females (15.7 percent) were far less likely to be sexualized.

According to the study: “These patterns suggest that many females in film are still functioning as attractive eye candy… As such, repeated viewing of these types of portrayals may teach younger males and females that women are valued for how their bodies look rather than who they are.”

As for black males, they are the least likely to be cast as father figures or as being in committed relationships. Black males (10.9 percent) are more likely to be shown in sexualized clothing, defined as tight and/or revealing, than their Hispanic (2.7 percent) or Asian (3.8 percent) counterparts.

The study’s authors believe this is a missed opportunity for young black males to see Black men in caring, domesticated roles in film.

Overall, while blacks in film remain underrepresented in terms of their U.S. Census percentage (13.1 percent), their percentage of speaking roles (10.8 percent) was on par with the percentage of tickets purchased. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, African Americans purchased roughly 11 percent of movie tickets sold domestically.

Key findings from the study:

·       In 2012, black actors accounted for 10.8 percent of all speaking roles, while 4.2 percent were Hispanic, 5 percent were Asian and 3.5 percent consisted of other (or mixed) ethnicities.

·  HHispanic males are more likely to be depicted as fathers and relational partners than males in all other racial/ethnic groups.

·       Across 565 directors of the top-grossing films from 2007-2010 only 33 (5.8 percent) are black. The same individuals are at the helm of a number of the sample films. When counted just once, only 22 unique black directors appear across the 500-film sample.

·       When a non-black director helms a project, 9.9 percent of the on-screen-speaking characters are black. When a black director is in charge, that number increases 42.7 percent to 52.6 percent of all on-screen-speaking characters being cast with black actors.



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