By Peter White l August 28, 2023
Can we tell our own stories yet? According to Michael Tran, co-author of the latest Hollywood Diversity Report, “The short answer is ‘No’, I’m afraid.”
A UCLA sociologist who collects entertainment data and tracks trends, Tran says despite recent efforts to make the entertainment industry more reflective of the nation as whole, there is still more work to be done.
“While there has been historic progress on multiple fronts, including shattering several onerous Hollywood myths about diversity, progress has been mixed,” says Tran.
He notes that over the last 11 years the diversity of screen actors has increased. African Americans, for example, are much more proportionally represented among casts. Still, other groups – especially Latinx and API communities – are consistently underrepresented. “And this is especially egregious for the Latinx community because they’re consistently the biggest consumers of media,” Tran notes.
And while casts are growing more diverse, there’s less diversity behind the scenes, where the decision-making happens.
“In 2022, when we looked at the numbers… we found that women directors are getting more opportunities, but much lower budgets than white male directors,” he says. Women directors are getting shunted into smaller budget comedies specifically for women audiences, while male directors of color are given bigger prestige projects like Black Panther.
Few opportunities for Latinx actors, directors
Tran spoke alongside a panel of directors, producers, and media makers last week during an EMS media briefing on the state of representation in film and television.
According to Franny Grande, a Venezuelan American award-winning filmmaker, actor, and director, and the CEO of Avenida Productions, “Latinos are almost 20% of the US population, yet we only get 2.3% of leading roles on TV. Half of those are negative stereotypes.”
Grande echoed Tran, pointing out that Latinos “buy one in four movie tickets. We consume the most streaming. The top 10 streaming shows from last year were in part thanks to the Latino community. Yet we don’t get the opportunity to participate in this industry.”
Even fewer opportunities exist for Latinos behind the camera, continued Grande, who explained that only 1.5% of members in the Directors Guild of America (DGA) are Latino.
Grande started acting about 25 years ago, when the only opportunities for Latinx actors involved stereotypical roles of the perennial immigrant. There’s nothing wrong with being an immigrant, but Latinos are constantly being portrayed as the other, she says.
Grande launched Avenir Productions seven years ago. “What we do is empower the storytellers. We empower actors, writers, directors, and we use all non-traditional methods.”
Grande said her company has helped raise millions of dollars for hundreds of creative projects over the years.
“We have a studio space in Los Angeles and now we’re gonna be launching a streaming platform because there’s a void, there’s a huge void in the market.”
The solution, she says, is to build something that communities of color own and that they can leverage to demand a seat at the table, given the financial role they play in the industry.
Creating home grown stories
Takashi Cheng is executive director of ChimeTV, America’s only English language, AAPI Entertainment Network. Chime stands for Creating History in Media Entertainment.
“We’ve been struggling for a very long time to gain traction and progress in the entertainment industry,” Cheng says. Despite the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians, which raised the profile of Asian producers and their stories, there’s just very little progress and it’s slow in coming, he says.
“And so, over the last couple of years, we looked at how it would be possible for us to get our foot further in the door instead of having just one Crazy Rich Asians or one Joy Luck Club, one feature film once every 20 years.”
In order to recruit creators and talent, Cheng’s team needed to build a platform where people of color had equal opportunity. The delivery system for those programs exists now in the form of ChimeTV. Cheng says the next phase will be working with a wider pool of producers to create more content, especially in English.
“It’s very important to be able to deliver home grown cultural stories from our community in the English language that people can understand,” Cheng says.
Taking back the narrative
Adargiza De Los Santos, an Afro-Latina actress and director, agrees with Cheng. Originally from the Dominican Republic and currently living in Los Angeles, she says that it is “imperative that our stories are told by us who are living here for us.”
She continued, “For such a long time the narrative has been something else. We’ve been given the narrative. We have to take the narrative back.”
Simply swapping the racial or ethnic identity of characters like The Little Mermaid isn’t enough, De Los Santos stressed. “How about making a real investment into a creator community that can give you fresh original stories that will do our people justice instead of just slapping us into your story book context of what you think is going to sell?”
The major studios say this year they’re going to redo Little Mermaid for the tenth time and showcase somebody from Japan as Little Mermaid.
“That doesn’t make me happy. It’s tried and done and it doesn’t highlight the story of the Japanese American journey here. I’d be far happier if you showed me a story of a Japanese princess that came from the internment camp and the story of how her family was torn apart and every single penny of hers was taken.
I would much rather be inspired to watch an original story like that than to see a Japanese American little mermaid. That’s not the story I want to see. I wanna see a new authentic story that tells the world what happened to our Japanese Americans.”