On a February afternoon in 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American entertainer to win a coveted Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. She sat at a segregated table at a far corner of the room. However, despite the acclaim and accolades the role won her, McDaniel found herself accused of portraying a role that perpetuated negative stereotypes. Gone With The Wind, sensationalistic even for its time, was also widely criticised for its glorified depiction of slavery. Criticism focalised upon the film’s almost nostalgic re-imagining of life on plantations and the segregated South and its characterisation of people of colour. Their only appearance on-screen was as slaves — either compliant and content in their servitude or violent and ungovernable in their quest for freedom.
Almost 90 years later, Hollywood’s representation of race certainly appears to have improved in diversity — in quality and quantity. In 2017 we saw cleverly crafted storytelling in movies like Get Out, Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Lion, Fences, Coco and Moana — all featuring people of colour. With the release of Black Panther, the box office success that deconstructs racial as well as gendered stereotypes, 2018 does not appear to mean a loss of momentum. Representation on the small screen also appears to have improved with a strong line-up of shows with diverse casts. Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Black-ish, Empire, Jane the Virgin, Quantico, Fresh Off The Boat, Riverdale and The Mindy Project are but a few examples, all of which are distinguished for going beyond tokenism and a condescending conformity to tired racial stereotypes in favour of more in-depth characterisation and complex multi-faceted storylines.
The numbers, however, tell a very different story.
In a study conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, which analysed the top 200 movies of 2016 and 1,251 television shows from the 2015-2016 season, women and people of colour were found to be severely underrepresented. In the United States, women account for just over half the nation’s total population and minorities account for 40 per cent. Yet, women only accounted for 31.2 per cent of film leads in Hollywood, while people of colour accounted for a paltry 13.9 per cent. A further breakdown of these statistics led to disquieting revelations about the extent of underrepresentation in the industry. African Americans accounted for 12.5 per cent of lead film roles, Latin Americans for 2.7 per cent, Asians for 3.1 per cent, those of mixed race for three per cent, and Native Americans for just 0.5 per cent. This same study indicated that while TV is becoming more inclusive there is still a long way to go until proportionate representation.
Beyond the numbers, women and people of colour in the industry often find themselves faced with poor characterisation, underwritten parts, stereotypes and typecasting. Hattie McDaniel found herself repeatedly typecast as a Mammy archetype following her Oscar win, with 74 of her 94 IMDB credits listed as domestic on-screen roles. She would also become the first African-American woman to star on radio in Beulah, where she played a black live-in maid, a role that was previously held by a white male voice actor — which brings us to the pervasive issue of whitewashing in Hollywood.
Whitewashing is where a non-white character is portrayed by a white actor — often in a derogatory way. The first recorded instance was the use of blackface (where a white actor’s face was literally painted black) by Al Johnson in The Jazz Singer (1927). The casting trope has flourished in Hollywood since. In 1961, Mick Rooney wore facial prosthetics to portray Mr. Yunioshi, a character of East Asian descent in the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and in 1965, Laurence Olivier portrayed the titular character of Othello in blackface — even though a black actor (Ira Aldridge) had helmed the performance back as far as the 1800s. Troublingly enough, almost 60 years later after The Ten Commandments, Ridley Scott fielded criticism in 2014 for once again casting white actors to play Moses and the Pharaoh in his reimagining of the biblical story. This remains an ongoing issue with movies like Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Death Note (2017) — both being adaptations of Japanese manga with Japanese characters, but white actors were cast in the lead roles.
The lack of representation in film and television extends beyond on-screen roles. The study conducted at UCLA outlined in detail the extent of the lack of diversity and inclusion in other key industry employment areas — be it direction, production or writing. In 2016 only 1.3 out of 10 film directors were people of colour. These unsettling numbers are reflected in award seasons with the 88th Annual Academy Awards infamously dubbed #OscarsSoWhite. As recently as at the Global Globes this year, Natalie Portman presented the contenders in the category of best director with the six cutting words: “Here are the all-male nominees”. This highlighted a blatant lack of recognition for the work of female directors that year, including Pattie Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Amma Asante (A United Kingdom) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird).
Back in 2015, winning an Emmy for her role in How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis — the first African-American woman to win the trifecta of an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony — in her acceptance speech, seized the occasion to credit the writers of the hit show and highlight the lack of opportunities for women and people of colour in the industry. “In my mind, I can see a line. And over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line but I can’t seem to get there no-how. I can’t seem to get over that line. The only thing that separates women of colour from everyone else is opportunity”, she said and in doing so, she highlighted the root of every under-representation problem: the lack of opportunity — in Hollywood and beyond.