6. Exclusion & Depictions of Minorities

Minorities have long been underrepresented and misrepresented in Hollywood both behind the scenes and on screen. Despite racial rights in American being reformed over the years, and the acceptance of many cultures in America, Hollywood has continued to ‘white-wash’ its content. Hollywood also has an appalling lack of disabled people working in the film industry.

There have been many studies which have shown that the lack of representation of minorities in creative roles in Hollywood has a negative effect on the representation of them on screen. This in turn, has negative social and cultural impacts by normalising the exclusion of minorities and promoting negative stereotypes. The media should be a window to our society, however the image that Hollywood continues to project is one of white patriarchal values and subjectivity, limiting the views and perspectives that ethnic and disabled minorities have to offer.

Despite making up almost 40% of all Americans, ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in creative roles in the film industry (Ralph J. Bunche Centre For African American Studies at UCLA 2015). The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report has demonstrated that there is still a systemic issue in Hollywood of discriminating against minorities. As the report highlights, the issue begins with those working at the very top of the chain – the studio executives. It is quite shocking to think that in today’s modern age the head of film studios still represent a severe lack of diversity with film executives being 94% white and 100% male (Ralph J. Bunche Centre For African American Studies at UCLA 2015). As a result, decisions on who to hire in subsequent roles follow similar patterns as a culture develops of hiring people who look the same, and have similar values. This in turn results in the lack of diversity amongst film industry employees and consequently onscreen representations. “When marginalized groups in society are absent from the stories a nation tells about itself, or when media images are rooted primarily in stereotype, inequality is normalized and is more likely to be reinforced over time through our prejudices and practices. Given that our society is becoming more diverse with each passing day, media images that work against diversity also undermine the democracy we claim to be” (Ralph J. Bunche Centre For African American Studies at UCLA 2015). The media, including motion pictures, should provide a window into our society, however the lack of on screen portrayals of ethnicities reflect the white patriarchal perspective that dominates the industry.

Hollywood’s exclusion and misrepresentation of Native American Indians on screen has continued to allow negative stereotypes to thrive in the community (Rollins & O’Connor 2010). Not only have the white settlement of Native American land long been depicted through the eyes of a white fantasy, in which Native Americans are depicted as being savages who need help from the ‘civilized’ white society, but Hollywood films have constantly used white actors in their portrayals of Indians (Rollins & O’Connor 2010). This can be seen in the 1982 film The Legend of Walks far Woman in which white actress Raquel Welch plays a Native American woman who kills her abusive husband and is subsequently banished from her tribe (Rollins & O’Connor 2010). Even when films present a depiction of Native Americans as being more civilised than the white invaders, the audience is asked to identify with a white protagonist, continuing the Hollywood culture of presenting a white perspective on issues that affect ethnic minorities (Critcher 2012). This is demonstrated in the 1990 film Dances With Wolves in which the audience is asked to identify with Kevin Costner’s character (Critcher 2012).

Hollywood’s constant rewriting of the Native American history has meant that the true portrayal of Indian culture and way of life has been excluded resulting in a ‘white-washing’ of images made for mass audiences. The depiction of Native Americans in the Western genre of Hollywood films constantly depicts Indians as non-three dimensional characters who are labelled as evil (Rollins & O’Connor 2010). As films of the Hollywood Western genre tend to depict stories of conflict between white and Native Americans, Indians are given very minor roles in order to secure the stereotyped narrative that has constantly been delivered to mass audiences (Rollins & O’Connor 2010). As John Cawelti describes; “The western formula seems to prescribe that the Indian be a part of the setting to a greater extent than he is ever a character in his own right. The reason for this is twofold: to give the Indian a more complex role would increase the moral ambiguity of the story and thereby blur the sharp dramatic conflicts; and, second, if the Indian represented a significant way of life rather than a declining savagery, it would be far more difficult to resolve the story with a reaffirmation of the values of modem society” (Rollins & O’Connor 2010, pg. 32). The lack of ethnic diversity in creative roles in the film industry has resulted in negative stereotypes and portrayals of Native Americans on screen.

While the inclusion of African-Americans in the production of Hollywood films may seem to have increased over the years, things are not necessarily as they appear, and the roles that they do attain have many shortcomings in portraying a negative stereotype for mass audiences to consume. Studies have demonstrated that African-Americans are underrepresented in creative roles in the film industry, and when they do acquire roles they are often marginalised into few genres, given only low production budgets and excluded from opportunities such as directing franchise films (Erigha 2014).  Statistics demonstrate that African-Americans are underrepresented in Hollywood. in 2008, only 6 of the 100 top-grossing films were directed by African-Americans (Smith and Choueiti 2011 cited in Erigha 2014), and in 2009 over 93% of studio directors from the 6 largest film companies were white and male (Cieply 2009 cited in Erigha 2014).

Hollywood was recently accused of racism at the most recent Academy Awards which is the most prestigious event for the film industry. The critically acclaimed film Selma depicting the march for equal votes in 1965 led by Dr. Martin Luther King was snubbed of the Best Picture category win despite being a clear favourite by critics and fans (Fallon 2015). The film was directed by African-American Ava DuVernay and portrayed the important moment in history from the perspective of African-Americans which rarely occurs in the industry (Fallon 2015). In an interview, actor David Oyelowo (who plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in the film) describes the inherent racism within Hollywood; “It’s a real thing that something like only 0.4 percent of directors working in Hollywood are black and female. There are institutions that are disproportionately white and male who are in the driver’s seat of content creation and content celebration. Of course it’s going to make things disproportionately placed in terms of how things are made and celebrated. I think the quality of Selma as a film is undeniable. For it to not get everything people thought it should get, it just keeps the conversation going, that things are not as they should be yet” (Fallon 2015).

Other ethnic minorities are often misrepresented on screen, with Latinos represented in negative stereotype roles such as; the bandido, the greaser, the revolutionary, or the bullfighter (Critcher 2012). People of Korean, Chinese and Japanese descent are rarely even seen in Hollywood films except for those that depict the Vietnam war, in which they are depicted as being the enemy (Critcher 2012).

The representation of disabilities in film has long been associated with negative stereotypes which in turn influence the inaccurate perception of disabled people amongst the public. Disability groups have been working for decades to break the negative stigmas associated with disabilities, however the negative depictions on screen continue to undermine their hard work.

Traditionally the depiction of disabilities on screen has been associated with images of confronting physical disabilities and associating mental illness with madness (Safran 1998). These negative stereotypes of linking disabilities with violence and danger (seen in films such as the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs) in turn create a cultural perception of people with disabilities which affects their everyday lives (Safran 1998).

While the film industry has improved its representation of disabilities on screen, the inclusion of disabled people working in Hollywood is still a major issue. There has long been a tradition in Hollywood to hire non-disabled actors to play the roles of disabled characters (Safran 1998). In recent years, this tradition of “cripping up” has been slammed by disability groups and film industry insiders who strongly believe that disabled people should be hired as actors in these roles (Polack 2015). They argue that it would be regarded as strongly racist and offensive to ask a white actor to “blacken up” to portray African American characters and that “cripping up” is just as offensive for the disabled community (Polack 2015). This has resulted in petitions being formed and signed through change.org to influence a cultural change in Hollywood to include disabled actors in these roles (Polack 2015).

There have been more recent inclusions of disabled people with actors such as Peter Dinklage being recognised for his work in the TV industry and now working in the film industry. Including people with disabilities in the film industry is not as difficult as may be perceived, with a recent UK documentary commissioned by the UK Film Council demonstrating that the inclusion is not only possible but welcome. The documentary conducts interviews with film producers, directors, camera operators and more who have successful film careers despite their disabilities, encouraging aspiring filmmakers to pursue their dreams and not let anything stop them (In Focus: Working With Disability in the Film Industry 2014).  

Arguably the most prestigious role in Hollywood is the film director. The process of appointing film directors to studio projects is one that comes from the top executives of the studio and the lack of minorities in these roles has meant that they haven’t been given the same opportunities to tell their cultural stories. While the Diversity Report did see a slight increase in the number of ethnic minority directors, it still doesn’t represent the proportion of minorities in the community, with 51% of frequent moviegoers identifying with an ethnic minority and only 17.8% of directors being of different ethnicity in 2013 (Ralph J. Bunche Centre For African American Studies at UCLA 2015) .

The report also found that audiences enjoy, pay for, and want to see films that have relatively diverse ethnicities with these films taking the highest median global box office sales and return on investment (Ralph J. Bunche Centre For African American Studies at UCLA 2015). These findings prove that “diversity sells,” however the systematic discrimination in Hollywood is nowhere closer to being resolved and there must be interventions in every aspect to create a more inclusive culture (Ralph J. Bunche Centre For African American Studies at UCLA 2015).

Hollywood’s lack of diversity both onscreen and offscreen result in negative stereotypes in the community. It has been demonstrated that films depicting more diversity enjoy higher successes at the box office, highlighting that audiences want to see more onscreen diversity and people they can relate to.