12 Years a Slave 1

A scene from the film 12 Years a Slave.


Fox Searchlight Pictures/Cameron Cook

The vast majority of films Americans will see this year will have been produced and written by white males — with mostly white males in lead roles. Year after year, this narrative doesn't seem to change.

But why?

As part of its Hollywood Advancement Project, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA examines this diversity gap in the film and television industries. The center recently released its 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report.

Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor at UCLA and Director of the Bunche Center, was one of the authors of the report. He says there are several reasons why the lack of diversity in the film and TV industries is such an intractable problem.

“First off, Hollywood is a very insular industry,” he says. “It’s an industry that has a long tradition. It's a very lucrative industry — people make lots and lots of money — which means the people who are in control want to maintain control. Historically, that’s meant white males.”

Because it’s also a high-risk industry, Hunt says, the people creating the projects are “scrambling to do everything they can to increase the odds that the projects will make money.” Inevitably, this means that the white males who control the industry surround themselves with people they feel comfortable with — people who “anticipate and understand each others’ perspectives.”

“What that’s meant, historically,” Hunt says, “is more white males, with very few exceptions. Women and minorities have had a really hard time breaking into this clique.”

This year’s study is the largest ever, according to Hunt. It looked at 1,061 cable TV shows and at the 200 highest-grossing films of 2011-2012.

“Every project has data attached to it — about who wrote it, who created it, directed it and starred in it,” Hunt explains. “We ‘repurpose’ all of that information and create a huge data set that allows us to run all kinds of analyses across the industry.”

“We’re providing a public good,” he says. “We’re making this [data] available to everyone in hopes of changing the discourse.”

And a new kind of discourse is what’s needed, Hunt says.

“For the longest time, we made moral arguments about why it's important to diversify the industry,” he explains. “But those arguments have fallen on deaf ears. Nobody’s buying that. No one’s really listening to that.”

The new approach is economic. Hunt says the numbers show that when the diversity among casts in television and film reflects the diversity of American society, which is now about 38 percent minority, TV ratings and box office receipts peak.

Yet, despite the clear financial benefits of diversity, not much has changed in terms of how many of these projects get produced and who’s involved in producing them.

“In terms of film leads, minorities are under-represented by more than a factor of three to one; minorities are only about 10 percent of leads in films, despite the fact that they are about 38 percent of the population. They are under-represented by about three to one as film directors; five to one for writers; seven to one as leads in broadcast TV; two to one in cable. The stats go on. The under-representation is pretty abysmal.”

From the perspective of individuals who are trying to protect their own positions, “which is what while males are doing,” says Hunt, this makes sense. “They’re hiring their buddies.”

But from an industry perspective, Hunt maintains, it is highly irrational. If diversity sells, why aren’t there more projects that portray diversity? Why isn’t there more diversity within the industry itself?

Hunt says that though the industry thinks of itself as progressive, when it comes to its own backyard, “they don't see how their decision-making essentially reproduces a structure of inequality that is very sexist and very racist.”

With the success of films like 12 Years a Slave, The Butler and Fruitvale Station, 2013 has been hailed by some as the "Year of Black Film." Hunt isn’t so sure.

“These films demonstrate that these types of things sell,” Hunt says, “but I suspect they’re not going to represent a wholesale change in practices.”

Industry executives claim that they are working to address racial inequalities within the industry. Hunt says that’s where his project can help. “Part of what we've done is we've gone directly to the industry for support,” he explains. “The rationale is, if they have a stake in the project, they’re more likely to at least listen to what we have to say. Part of the deal is we have direct connections to executives who are making decisions, and they take our study and they actually circulate it. 

“So we’re getting calls now, independently, from studios and networks, asking us to come and talk to them about the findings and how what they're doing fits in.”

“Now again, the proof is in the pudding,” Hunt concludes. “When we look at the data next year, will we be able to say, ‘OK, this was really a change — as opposed to window dressing?’ But at least the discourse is shifting. That's the first step — and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

This interview first aired on PRI's The Tavis Smily Show — a weekly radio program offering a unique blend of news and newsmakers in expanded conversations.

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