As a writer, actress, and proud feminist, my news feeds are obviously bombarded with articles on racism and sexism in the film industry around the Oscars. Angry bloggers crank out info graphics depicting the relative lack of female and ethnic minority film roles in hopes of a thousand retweets, while others aware of the disproportion simply shake their heads through a facebook post: “another crappy Oscar year for minorities”.
Controversy is both frightening and opportunistic for a writer. Web-wide contention is ideal breeding ground for the kinds of snarky blogs that like-minded readers will practically eat off of the quick blogger’s keyboard. Criticism is funny that way. It charges the “knowledge” part of change while holding people back from the action part. As a creator who once avidly critiqued plays and films on various writing platforms, I can attest to it being, for some, a means of avoiding creation in the medium while also basking in some authority on it. With that understanding, I interrupt my own screenwriting attempts to say something that isn’t being said enough: It is paradoxical to ask casting directors to place actors in roles respective of race (while simultaneously harping on the over-abundance of white male roles in films) if we don’t begin to tell different stories.
In my utopian Hollywood, those already in influence would be pushing for a change in the status quo because we beg it of them-because they understand what feminism means and the importance of racial equality. They have heard our pleas for more women in films, more ethnic representation in films, and for talented, disabled actors to play roles that shed light on their human experience.
As it stands, the most efficient way for the white men “running Hollywood” to make big bucks from the big screen is to write what they know, write what they think people want (often based on what they know), and cast people that will sell the most tickets. Consumers flock to theaters to pick up the same kinds of movies being assembled in the mainstream film factory, leading production companies and screenwriters aspiring only to sell the same kinds of cinematic adventures over and over again.
The staggering figures (females of any ethnicity, for instance, make up about 30% of all speaking characters) are probably not news to the big guys. Yes, there are white men who seek to step outside of their comfort zone and tell a story through the eyes of someone else, but that is the longest, most painstaking route to the box office. While succeeding at such a challenge could bring prestige, placing safe bets on tried-and-true popcorn flick methods could bring fame and fortune without the research.
The world runs on narratives; from connecting with others and absorbing what humanity has to offer to selling a product, we thrive on stories-and we all have one to tell. It’s why web pages like “Humans of New York” have become a sensation. Everyone seeks to either relate to a parallel life or be surprised by one that runs perpendicular. It is up to us to share experiences beyond those sustaining the existing system. The primary advice given to me by any successful writer when prompted has been to “write what I know”. Assuming that straight white men were told-and are doing-the same, it is up to other demographics to purvey art that is representative of disparate lives. Our story is just as worthy of circulation.
The recent decision to cast Rooney Mara, a white actress best known for her roles in Side Effects and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the subsequent backlash are proof that #thestruggleisreal. I could play devil’s advocate: Couldn’t one of the many interpretations of the fictional “Neverland” include a fair-skinned tribal woman? Why shouldn’t an actor be able to take on the challenge of stepping temporarily into the life of someone who is disabled and go as deep as secondhand research allows? The issues that make a white woman portraying a Native American discriminatory are compounded by the shortage in Native American characters. What is a Native American actress to do when one of the elusive roles for someone of her ethnic background is snagged-by a big-name, Caucasian actress?
Promo for Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily.
As the prominence of indie films in the mainstream increases, so do our opportunities to actively participate in the paradigm shift that we want to see. With more connectivity and lower-cost technology, creating your own content is easier than ever. That’s not to say there aren’t more roadblocks. After all, we could write the script, cut the final production, and fight for its place with a film or television giant-only to have it shut down by the middle-aged Caucasian male literally “running the show”. In the vein of producer/director/writers who have paved their own way to the silver screen in much larger scale version of kicking and screaming your way to the front row at a free-standing rock concert, we must build our own empires. Like the heroes Tyler Perry, Lena Dunham, and Mindy Kaling, we must school ourselves in every facet of the entertainment business necessary and forge the way to Hollywood, Atlanta, New York, and wherever else we can bring our stories to life. We need to be the ones in the big leather chair.
One of the biggest blocks to potential creatives is the idea that everything that needs to be said has already been said. This shadow cast on the Hollywood sign proves otherwise. There are other stories to be told in other ways, by other people. While blogs serve the incredible function of spreading awareness and commenting on what has already been created and consumed, there are more contributions to be made. Let’s write the scripts. Let’s make the movies.