By Marc H. Morial
“She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.” – Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye,” 1970
From our television sets in our living rooms to our local movie theaters, diversity appears to be the new Black.
Fresh off the success of small screen hits such as Fox’s musical drama “Empire,” CW’s telenovela inspired “Jane the Virgin,” and ABC’s family-centric “Black-ish,” television has emerged as a powerful frontrunner in the race to broader inclusion on our nation’s shared media landscape – even outpacing Hollywood.
According to the “2015 Hollywood Diversity Report: Flipping the Script,” published by the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, people of color are gaining ground and more movie leads in Hollywood films, overall cast diversity is increasing and directors of color are a more frequent phenomena on movie sets than in the past.
But these hard-fought strides are oftentimes undermined by harsh realities, like the total lack of nominations for Black actors, directors, cinematographers or female screenwriters at this year’s Oscars. And these accomplishments are also tempered by the numbers.
While people of color make up about 40 percent of the U.S. population, those numbers are neither reflected in front of the cameras nor behind the scenes of our film and broadcast industry complex – shining a glaring spotlight on another reality: while the push to diversify casts and crews on television and in film is clearly having a moment right now, the work to remedy the underrepresentation of people of color and women is far from over and requires a dedication far more sustained than a brief, moment-in-time uptick in casting.
Diversity is more than a discussion about a studio’s payroll; it is a much-needed conversation about perspective and pride. Debra Martin Chase, the founder of Martin Chase Productions, credits a desire to create positive images of African Americans in film and television as the catalyst that drove her into the entertainment business. Chase shared her views about the importance of diversity on our small and big screens in an essay entitled “Creating the Change the World Needs to See,” in the 2015 State of Black America® report – “Save our Cities: Education, Jobs + Justice.”
“I grew up watching television and going to the movies. While I was conscious of the fact that I seldom saw myself in the images that were projected on screen, it wasn’t until I was older that I understood what that really meant. Those images did not just dictate how I viewed myself, I eventually learned that they very clearly influenced how the outside world viewed me and others like me.”
Diversity benefits us all. When we see our communities fairly represented in our movies and television shows, we are given the opportunity to see ourselves, each other, and hopefully learn about one another — what makes us unique, as well as what we share in common. This is not merely a call for greater numbers, because reducing communities to racial or ethnic stereotypes does our nation of viewers as much of a disservice as ignoring the existence of groups outside the borders of the typical Hollywood model.
Evidence from the Hollywood diversity report also points to another emerging truth about diversity: it sells. The data shows that our nation’s increasingly diverse audiences are buying movie tickets for, and tuning into television shows that have “relatively diverse casts.” Diverse audiences want to see their multifaceted lives reflected in the media they enjoy.
If ignoring the lives and experiences of so many Americans once came without a price, today’s audiences are making their voices and preferences heard with their dollars and Nielsen ratings influence, and they are sending a loud and clear message to television and film’s decision makers: they are no longer willing to have their American experience ignored.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.