During her acceptance of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress Frances McDormand introduced the audience to the term ‘inclusion rider’ (Fig. 1). It sparked immediate discussion in the film world and seemingly offered a possible solution to the increasing tension surrounding Hollywood’s lack of racial diversity. Simply put, an inclusion rider is a stipulation in an actor’s contract that the production will include demographic variety in both on-screen and off-screen roles. The ultimate aim is to achieve gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and disability equality in the film industry.
Researchers at the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Centre for African American Studies launched their annual Hollywood Diversity Report in 2014. In the 2018 report, they analysed 167 films released in 2017, as well as 1,316 television shows available during 2016-2017, revealing that only 12.9% of lead roles in top theatrical films were played by minorities (Hunt, Ramón, Tran, Sargent and Roychoudhury). Since then, minor progress has been made in assigning roles across all minority groups. The updated 2020 report shows a slight rise to 27.6% of minority lead roles in 2019, with around 3 out of 10 lead actors played by people of colour (Hunt and Ramón). When comparing these figures to the US Census Bureau’s population projections, non-whites account for over 50% of the population (Vespa, Medina and Armstrong). During the same period films such as Moonlight (2016), Get Out (2017), Hidden Figures (2016) and Black Panther (2018) have significantly raised the profile of black filmmakers. Moonlight led the way in breaking “the Hollywood formula of whiteness […] revel[ling] in the complexity and multiplicity of black masculinities” (Konzett). Jenkins’ film focuses on particular struggles surrounding homosexuality within a black-American community, which had previously never been featured before in Hollywood. Black Panther made a $700m domestic gross, exceeding Avengers: Infinity War’s (2018) $678m domestic gross (Abad-Santos) (Fig. 2). “What makes [Black Panther] so ground-breaking” writes Mike Sargent, the co-president of the Black Film Critics Circle, “is that you have characters […] who are proud of their heritage. The story itself deals with the history of people of color on this planet”. Sam Levin argues that “The reason [Black Panther is] a cultural phenomenon is it’s fresh, it’s new. It’s something that nobody has seen”. However, despite improving figures and these high profile films, Hollywood still fails to properly recognise the importance of diversity. Cultural historian Mark Anthony Neal, host of the webcast ‘Left of Black’, asks: “is the success of ‘Black Panther’ going to lead to the greenlight[ing] of more movies about everyday African-American experiences?” The simple answer is: no. Although there has been a rise in cast diversity, and a slightly higher incidence of films engaging with black experience, Hollywood still has a severe white skew, especially when roles behind the camera are considered.
Also, underrepresentation in Hollywood does not stop at race and ethnicity. Whilst women form just over half the US population, in 2014 only 25.8% of films had a strong female lead. This has improved drastically, with 44.1% of films having a strong female lead in 2019 (Hunt et al). But again, there is still much to be done. In 2015, Jennifer Lawrence highlighted the gender pay gap within Hollywood, which she discovered after the Sony hack. Researchers at Huddersfield and Lancaster University discovered the pay gap was “persistent”, being “almost the same in 2015 as it was in 1980. It doesn’t show any signs of improving” (Doward and Fraser). Figures indicate that female stars are paid 56% less than their male counterparts for equivalent work. This is also reflected off-screen, as the number of female directors is very small. The figures from UCLA’s 2020 report show just 15.1% of directors were female, the same figure as non-white directors (Hunt et al).
Other minority groups who are not represented in the industry include those of the LGBTQ+ community and disabled members of society. In terms of disability, Roy Frank’s appearance in Breaking Bad (2008-2013) playing Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) son with cerebral palsy proved there is no excuse for not using disabled actors in mainstream film and television. John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) features a deaf leading character, played by deaf actor Millicent Simmonds. Her disability plays a key role in the narrative. These films indicate the creative and commercial possibilities of a more inclusive filmmaking practice but their scarcity also indicates how most Hollywood films fail to provide genuine, relatable stories and characters for viewers outside of the white, non-disabled and heteronormative bracket.
Celebrities have been key in drawing attention to diversity issues. Joaquin Phoenix used his BAFTA’s acceptance speech this year to point out that the film sector is guilty of “systemic racism”. The use of his platform gained more celebrity recognition and media attention, but still did little to actively contribute solutions to the problem. Natalie Portman was criticised recently after wearing a gown to the 2020 Academy Awards with the embroidered names of each female director who failed to receive a nomination (Fig. 3). In a Facebook post, Rose McGowan dubbed her a “fraud” for making “the kind of protest that gets rave reviews from the mainstream media”, but is “more like an actress acting the part of someone who cares. As so many of them do” (qtd. in Pulver). It was later discovered that Portman’s production company Handsomecharlie Films hasn’t collaborated with any female film-makers. McDormand’s call for the use of inclusion riders seeks to replace this kind of rhetorical posturing with practical action.
The term was coined by Stacy Smith in her 2016 TED talk in which she asked for greater presence behind the camera and on-screen of women, non-white, LGBT+ and disabled filmmakers (Smith). The ‘rider’ requires the contracts of A-list stars to include a stipulation that cast and crew are representative of the diversity in the population in the place in which the film is made. For example, “with 20 per cent of Western populations having a disability, an inclusion rider clause would require 20 per cent of people hired to work on a production to also have a disability” (Ellis). Many have spoken out against the idea. Ade Odusola notes that the issue partly stems from a lack of “underrepresented groups [being] readily available for roles”, particularly behind the scenes, and suggests that the problem could be tackled by providing suitably targeted education and training. Odusola also criticises the rider for placing the responsibility on actors rather than directors, producers and financiers; and for furthering an inherent raced hierarchy that positions predominantly white A-list actors in the position of power-brokers.
Emma Teichmann is also critical, arguing that the production riders effectively constitute a quota system, with the rider requiring “the production company to interview […] at least one female and one person from any other under-represented group” for each role “regardless of whether these candidates have equal merit or experience to the other candidates”. Although the intention of the rider is positive, there is certainly a risk that positive discrimination will lead to candidates being interviewed for fitting into a category rather than for their talent, as well as a danger that well qualified individuals will not be considered if they don’t belong to one of those categories.
Since the inclusion rider rose to popularity in 2018 following McDormand’s speech, it has gained little traction. Only a handful of actors have signed on to it, and this group does not include McDormand. Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan has been the most notable user of the rider, and it has also been used by Paul Feig, Brie Larson, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, among others. However, in 2015 Damon was reported as telling Dear White People producer Effie Brown that “diversity was only needed in front of the camera, not behind it” (qtd. in Desta), perhaps suggesting the use of the rider is a form of performative allyship that doesn’t reach far enough.
Ultimately, the rider aimed to “stipulate consideration of the deep bench of talented professionals from historically underrepresented groups” (Dishman), but “sticky details” and specific quotas prevented its total endorsement. However, even though the rider has not been widely adopted, there has been some positive movement. WarnerMedia adopted an inclusion policy “which includes a commitment to hire diversely across all productions, track progress and make the results public” (Buckley). The latter is a major concession, as the major studios are notoriously secretive with what they consider commercially sensitive information. Other studios like Paramount are set to follow suit. This is particularly important at the time of writing when the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police has led to a broad civil rights movement demanding that the whole of US culture, including the film industry, “accept that our society has an innate prejudice against certain groups of people and work towards change” (Baker).
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Written by Lucie Fryer (2020); Queen Mary, University of London
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