Fresh off the heels of a successful year for blockbuster films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians with empowering diverse casts, the momentum for increased visibility in media has emboldened underrepresented groups. These movies have been praised as “milestones,” in articles that have clapped back at Hollywood’s lack of diversity.
But according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, from 2007 to 2017 only seven of the top grossing films made (1,100 in total) were directed by women of color, with 83 percent of these women only making one project during that period of time. While women overall are statistically excluded from filmmaking, women of color —particularly Asian, Latinx, and Black women— are even more disenfranchised than their white counterparts.
A Female Filmmakers Festival panel on Saturday sought to challenge audiences’ understanding of media visibility and diversity, championing the need for representation at all levels of the industry. On the panel were The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil, actress Cleopatra Coleman, Pose director and transgender activist Janet Mock, Black Panther and The Avengers franchise casting director Sarah Finn, See-Saw Films executive Negin Salmasi, and director Ry Russo-Young.
The panelists encouraged viewers to redefine their idea of representation on-screen, from roles behind the camera to the rarely-discussed talent in hair and makeup trailers. “True representation involves equity and inclusion of underrepresented groups, which often require a top-down look at the industry,” said Salmasi.
“We forget that just because we have one face on the screen that's diverse, doesn't mean that [the industry is],” she said. “It might just be tokenism.”
Tokenism occurs when characters from underrepresented backgrounds are included in a script or a show mainly for diversity’s sake and rarely contribute to the plot of the story. Mock, who made her directorial debut on Pose this year, acknowledged that the show has diversity in front and behind the lens.
“The show could have been trash if behind the scenes there were no trans folk, queer folk, or gender non-conforming [folk] that were involved in the making —in scripts but also directing,” Mock said. “It's great that we have these amazing talents in front of the screen able to become stars and to be the face of our show, but if they don't have the right words and craft behind them, the story would not have been resonant or powerful.”
Jamil, an English-born actress of Pakistani and Indian descent, described the uniqueness of her role in The Good Place, noting the writers’ ability to create a storyline for her character that did not solely rely on race.
“It's amazing to see that my race is not really mentioned or isn't a part of my character,” Jamil said. “I'm just a brown woman on a show, and there's other brown woman on screen at the same time as me — also Indian — we're not fighting with one another or talking about our culture.”
She added that The Good Place showrunner hired an equal number of male and female episodic directors, a move to increase inclusion behind the camera, in addition to the casting.
Coleman discussed various experiences she’s had in makeup trailers where artists do not know how to work with her hair type or questioned her use of two foundation shades. When Coleman was 15 years old on her first television set, she said, “I had a hairdresser talk to another hairdresser about me like I wasn't there. He said, ‘Isn't it so funny that their hair is curly and their eyebrows are straight.'"
Likewise, Jamil said she opted to do her own hair and makeup; because she’s had makeup artists that applied foundation that was too white for her, or tried to contour her nose so that it would be slimmer.
When examining the industry from a “top down” perspective, Mock said that issues of representation persist in makeup trailers and lack of diversity in unions.
“You don't see a lot of Black and brown folk who are unionized to do the hair and makeup,” she said. “You have talent sitting in these chairs every day in their most vulnerable sense of self, and you don't have anyone in that trailer who looks like you — to do your hair texture, all of that stuff, and that is deeply problematic.”
Most issues of representation stem from a lack of access to the industry, Russo-Young noted. Most of the women on the panel with the ability to hire, said that they tend to employ women for jobs keeping inclusion in mind.
“It’s a relationship-based business, and people hire people who they’re comfortable with,” Russo-Young said. “It’s a very vulnerable industry and it’s very expensive. People want others they can trust, especially when it comes to money.”