Following a trio of data-filled presentations that examined the paucity of minorities in key roles and positions inside the film and television industries, communication professor Stacy Smith posed a question to filmmaker Ava DuVernay at a panel discussion held in late March.
DuVernay and Smith were two of the five primary participants in the forum held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and co-presented by the International Communication Association and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
The panel was titled “The Hollywood Shuffle: Exploring Race and Ethnicity Behind and in Front of the Camera.” The name was an apparent tip of the hat to the 1987 Robert Townsend film Hollywood Shuffle, a satire about racism and stereotyping in the entertainment industry.
DuVernay is the indie filmmaker whose second feature, Middle of Nowhere, earned her best director honors at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Smith, who served as the event’s moderator, is director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative. Since 2005, the professor and her colleagues have released nearly 36 studies about ethnicity and gender employment patterns and show business barriers.
So, Smith asked DuVernay, what did the director — an African-American woman — think about what she’d just seen and heard during the presentation?
“My reaction was in some ways of horror and in some ways relief,” DuVernay said.
Horror because of stats Smith cited, such as that of the 1,100 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2012, 95.6 percent were directed by men. And relief, DuVernay said, because “I’ve chosen not to knock on a closed door.”
DuVernay explained that she makes her films outside the studio system. And that, in part to make certain that her films are seen, she founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM).
AFFRM (pronounced, “affirm”) is a national distribution network that combines the auditorium availability and marketing muscle of various local organizations to forge a broader release for movies. The group has distributed five films to date, with a sixth due soon.
In addition to Smith and DuVernay, the panel’s other participants were a pair of decorated, California-based academics — Darnell Hunt ’84 and Russell Robinson — and Tim Story, an accomplished director, writer and producer.
Story has directed the films Barber Shop, Think Like a Man and Fantastic Four. In the latter film, Story cast Kerry Washington to play a character who in source material comic books is drawn as blond-haired, blue-eyed and Caucasian. Washington, best known now as the star of ABC’s Scandal, is African-American.
Hunt is a sociology professor and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. His presentation was titled “Writing Wrongs: Industry Diversity (or the Lack Thereof).” Hunt graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and worked in broadcast news prior to becoming a professor.
Since 2005, Hunt has produced a series of reports for the Writers Guild of America that helped to quantify how women and minorities are underrepresented as Hollywood writers. There is a disconnect, Hunt said, between the ethnic and gender makeup of the union’s working writers and the growing diversity of the United States.
“Women [writers] in the past 20 years have remained underrepresented by a factor of three to one in film,” Hunt said. “Minority writers have actually fallen further behind.”
Robinson, the third academic on the panel, is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Robinson began his presentation by saying how excited he was to see so many people on hand to hear about a topic that, he said, “often times makes people uncomfortable.”
Robinson spoke about a law review article he wrote that studied the career arcs of African-American and non-African-American Academy Award winners.
“We wanted to ask, ‘Have we seen progress?’ ” Robinson said. “ ‘Have we seen change that opened the floodgates for people of color?’ ”
By way of answering that question, Robinson noted the title of that study: “Not Quite a Breakthrough.” Many in the audience laughed, knowingly.
Robinson also spoke about the casting notices for actors that are standard throughout the entertainment industry. The notices often describe the desired physical appearance and ethnic background sought for specific character roles.
“If this were any another profession, this would clearly violate the law,” Robinson said, as he pondered what — if anything — gives Hollywood immunity.
Throughout the evening, members of the audience shuddered and gasped at times when panelists shared particularly damning information and anecdotes about Hollywood’s apparent lack of diversity.
“The information that was presented was palpable,” Smith said during an interview conducted just after the formal event concluded. “People have realized how little has changed over time.”
In addition to the industry professionals in the audience — various people introduced themselves as writers, directors and cinematographers — the audience also included USC Annenberg students who made the trip across town to LACMA.
Second-year students Sabrina Wang and Daisy Sun each take Smith’s “Introduction to Mass Communication” course.
“I’m very surprised to see this data,” Wang said.
Added Sun: “Before this presentation, I never thought of how many people are represented like that. I just watched what was presented.”
“When I watch movies or TV programs, I will start thinking about or questioning the motivation to them,” Sun said.
Prior to the panel discussion, USC Annenberg Dean Ernest J. Wilson III helped set the stage for what would follow by talking about diversity-related topics, such as “the scissors effect” in contemporary media and society.
The consumption of media by people of color is going up, Wilson told the audience, while ownership of media is going down.
“And,” he said, “our ability to understand culture in the United States is getting cut in the middle.”
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