Diversity in filmmaking must be intentional

Justin Jones

A study performed by USC Annenberg’s Institute for Diversity and Empowerment earlier this year found non-white representation in film rests at about 27 percent whereas the nation’s population is almost 38 percent non-white. And with the Oscars almost exclusively recognizing white men, it’s easy to conclude the American film industry has a diversity problem. These issues are deep-rooted and widespread, but the Austin-based collaborative film industry is a blueprint for a solution.

On a larger level, the problems are more than simply missed opportunities because they also extend to the roles given. Andrew Thomas, a Texas-native black student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts said he expects “more calls from a Tyler Perry than a Christopher Nolan.”  

Now there’s nothing wrong with Tyler Perry movies, and Madea fighting zombies is one of the best ideas of this generation. But Perry’s last directorial effort was a just OK, straight-to-DVD release which grossed just over $9 million, and “Interstellar” was a just OK, IMAX release which grossed $675 million globally.

These problems exist in every facet of the film industry at large, even as recently as DC Comics’ superhero film “Suicide Squad.” The character El Diablo, played by Jay Hernandez, is the only Latino lead in the — admittedly not very good — film. His character has a dark past as a former gang member with a hot temper, playing directly into wider stereotypes. And this is not its only problem, as the character Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, is entirely defined by her adoration of her abusive boyfriend, The Joker — played by a miserable Jared Leto. Why is Warner Bros. in such fear of forging a new path to branch out and have a female Joker or a hispanic Batman?

Where Hollywood is failing, Austin is finding solutions. Pioneer Richard Linklater founded the Austin Film Society in 1985 with local film historian and UT professor Charles Ramírez-Berg, creating a more collaborative and inclusive atmosphere in Austin. Mexican-American filmmaker and former UT student Robert Rodriguez arrived in 1992 with his film “El Mariachi.” The welcome of Rodriguez to the scene is indicative of the atmosphere change spurred on by the Austin Film Society.

“It’s very competitive in Hollywood, whereas here the attitude is ‘Let’s help one another, and see how we can help one another,’” Ramírez-Berg said. “Therefore, everybody is welcome.”

Obviously the city of Austin is doing something right. The evident success of filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and the positive remarks from people within the industry show a growth within the city not reflected in Hollywood. The city’s intentional desire for a communal atmosphere has obviously lessened the competition, which made the business more inclusive.

The solution for job opportunities for minorities and women is for the Hollywood blockbuster industry to adopt an intentional shift toward an Austin-like communal atmosphere. It is obviously productive in a business model, as “El Mariachi,” the first film by Robert Rodriguez, made its own budget back 285 times over in America alone.

Jones is a journalism junior from Irving. Follow him on Twitter @justjustin42.