The dirty ‘d’ word of Hollywood: Diversity

ScreenerBlog

We know what you’re thinking. It’s the D word again….

You’ve seen it everywhere: splashed across the trades, tweeted in 140-character manifestos and discussed at every industry event. With complaints about whitewashing abundant and the trades abuzz with the topic of diversity, what else can be done to add a little flavor to our casting choices and make sure myriad incredible stories are told in a realistic way?

Although studies have shown that audiences prefer diverse content and will support films and shows with a wide range of cast members, the industry still needs a little push in the right direction.We recognize that change doesn’t happen overnight. Nor does it happen when people are silent.

Earlier this summer, Film Independent gave a platform to some of the marginalized voices in the entertainment industry. Hosted on June 17th at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, the Diversity Speaks panel series told audiences that it’s not enough to just talk about diversity. You have to live it.

Although the panels addressed a diverse range of groups underrepresented in film and TV—including Asian-Americans and those within the LGBT community—one theme rang true throughout each session: they all wanted to see themselves on-screen. This desire goes deeper than just the inclusion of characters of different races, religions, sexual orientations and backgrounds: It is a desire to see their stories accurately portrayed in the media.

It is hard to gauge the colossal impact that media has on our lives on a day-to-day basis, so let’s take it from the beginning. Imagine a young child looking up at the screen and seeing his or her reality reflected back at them. For actress/writer Lena Waithe, this is how she felt about programs such as “The Cosby Show,” which made her feel “human” when she was younger. Offering realistic depictions of people of different races, backgrounds and sexual orientation goes a long way to making viewers feel that there is a place for them, that they are accepted just the way they are.

The key to creating these characters is research, and we’re not just talking about your college term paper. One of the main frustrations expressed across the board at Diversity Speaks was ignorance of the full culture of the characters and how their representations are flawed due to these misunderstandings. The solution is to include people in the process who have really lived it. Have them consult on the script, be around during production and walk the actors through what it is really like to be in these situations. By including these voices throughout the process, we can ensure that the final product is both relatable and real. This relatability will cultivate dedicated viewers and grow a strong base of supportive fans who will champion the project and create a market for diverse characters.

Although the inclusion of a diverse cast is exciting, there is also an added pressure that comes with carrying the torch of representation. Aptly named “Rep Sweats” by members of the Asian-American panel, there is an intense pressure when given the chance to carry a show (or a character) whose success on television would lead to greater representation on-screen. Unlike the routine failure of shows with all-white casts, the failure of a show with an ethnic cast might negatively affect the chances of similar content breaking into the mainstream. For example, the failure of a show with an all-Asian cast may lead to the network believing that there isn’t a market for that content, therefore hurting the chances of another Asian-American show being brought to audiences. The cure for this anxiety is simple: Keep the momentum going and continue to create content that includes diverse casts. The more diverse the shows, the less pressure is put on just one to succeed.

Another concern raised was casting choices. Participants on the transgender panel are rallying to see more trans actors involved with mainstream projects. Why not take a chance on someone who has been through the transition and can bring a depth of reality to the screen that the cis actor may not be able to deliver? As panelist Rachel Crowl put it, “You are already taking a risk. Why not take one more and hire a transgender actor?” Members of the Asian-American panel posited similar concerns, wondering why an Asian male hasn’t been cast as a romantic lead in a big-budget rom-com.

It is from these candid conversations that we start to gain a full perspective of what is important when it comes to diversity. We can’t just sit back and do the bare minimum. It is time for a change--or a “wave”--to shift our approach to creating content. It is our responsibility as members of the industry, whether as writers, directors, producer or studio heads, to bring a wealth of diverse characters to the screen.

We challenge you to bring forth the most diverse programming the world has ever seen. Hire that trans actress to play a trans role. Cast an Asian man as the romantic lead in a big-budget film. Do your research into the culture of your characters and get people involved who have lived through these experiences.

What do you think. Are you up for it?

Jason Delane Lee and Yvonne Huff Lee are co-founders of The Lagralane Group, a collection of artists, financiers and creative investors who strive to bring diverse and truthful storytelling to audiences through strategic film financing. They are social challengers, activators and thought leaders, financing diverse stories with unique characters and points of view. Lagralane aims to support uncommon voices, courageous visionaries and inspirational storytellers. Recent film projects include Sundance Film Festival world premieres Unrest, Icarus, Step, Trophy and Dina and SXSW world premieres Lucky and Served Like a Girl.