Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian storyteller and writer, learned reading at the pre-schooling age. She also started writing as an early school-aged child and was exposed to British and American Children’s books. She wrote characters with blue eyes, the one who drank ginger beer and often talked about sunrise, emblematic of her reading.
Adichie underwent a complete transition in her perception of literature after discovering African writers; Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye. She reiterated, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult.”
Adichie’s words reverberate many pertinent questions; the representation in literature, politics, and cinema is one among them. The case this article would consider discussing is the cinema. Allow me to illuminate data of an industry whose annual revenue is more than some country’s financial budget; Hollywood. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at University of Southern California (USC) releases reports annually on inclusive indicators across gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ and disability.
The data highlight on-screen and off-screen representation across these indicators. Inclusion in Director’s chair, a report published in February 2022, revealed that among directors, across 1388 films from 2007 to 2021, 80.9% were white men against their 29.6% US population. Only 13.7% directors were men from underrepresented communities against their 19.6% US population.
Data is alarming about women directors; only 4.2% of white women and 2% of women from the underrepresented communities against 30.5% and 20.3% of their US population were directors. Ninety percent of 200 films (from UK, US, Australia and New Zealand) did not feature even one Muslim speaking character from 2017 to 2019, as stated in Missing and Maligned, a report published in June 2021. Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films, published in September 2020, revealed that only two films in 2019 featured an LGBTQ lead or co-lead. In 2019, 48 movies completely erased the differently-abled community on screen.
Netflix, a streaming giant, has interesting data to offer. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative audited scripted series (180) and live-action films (126) from 2018 and 2019 across the same inclusive indicators. The report commissioned by Netflix provides a thorough review of U.S. original fictional content. The audit report stated that 48.4% of films and 54.5% of series had girls or women as lead/co-lead. Almost one-third of all leads/co-leads were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group in series and films.
Netflix films cast American African girls and women in almost one-fourth of all leading/co-leading roles. Behind the camera, 23.1% of directors, 25.2% of writers, and 29% of producers were women in their films. Netflix films and series had a slight increase in African American women directors than the industry. Netflix recently released 100 million to improve the diversity; Latino and Asian communities in programming are the topmost priority.
One is not wrong to naturally wonder, where does India stand? O Womaniya! 2021, a comprehensive report by Ormax Media and Film Companion, highlighted representation behind the camera. One hundred and twenty-nine films across five languages (which contribute 93% of Indian Box Office) were selected.
Women headed in different departments from the 129 films include; 15% in production design, 10% in writing, 7% in editing, 6% in direction and only 2% in cinematography. Less than one-fifth of women held Head of Department (HoD) positions in OTT platforms. In the south, women filled only one-tenth of HoD positions.
The Hindu reported the lack of representation of social and religious minorities in 300 films between 2013 and 2014. In recent years, few popular films in which communities were completely whitewashed under the pretext of marketing, whereas some were downright misogynist, unfortunately, had earned well on the screen. India has a long road to travel for on-screen and off-screen representations of women and social and religious minorities.
Representation measurement for gender, the Bechdel test proposes to have at least two women feature in fiction work; they talk to each other and discuss something other than a man. New York Time film critic Manohla Dargis promulgated “The DuVernay test” as racial equivalent to the Bechdel test.
The test submits five questions; do any characters whitewashed or played by actors of a different ethnicity? Do the African American characters pursue their own goals separate from the white characters? Do the African American characters primarily talk about race? Do the African American characters fulfil harmful, downright racist stereotypes?
Is the director, writer and/or creator representative of the story’s culture? The questions in the DuVernay test principally resonate with the questions frequently prompted by Anti caste activists on representation in Indian cinema. Riz test established by Shaf Choudry, Isobel Ingham-Barrow and Sadia Habib, also poses five questions; presented victim of, or perpetrators of terror, presented irrationally angry, presented as superstitious, culturally backward or anti-modern, a threat to the western way of life and male presented as a misogynist and female as an oppressed.
Vitto Ruso test proposed inclusive indicators for LGBTQ communities equivalent to the Bechdel test. McKinsey’s report on black representation in film and TV proposes that by addressing persistent racial inequities, the industry could reap an additional $10 billion in annual revenues, which is about 7% more than the assessed baseline.
Dr. Stacy Smith promulgated Inclusive Rider which proposes that A-list actors can incorporate a clause in their contracts that stipulates on-and off-screen inclusion. The rider states that women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and members of LGBT and marginalised communities who are traditionally underrepresented be depicted on screen in proportion to their representation in the population.
Yet another Rooney Rule to help diversify lead positions across the film industry. Producer or studio should interview at least one underrepresented candidate for an open outside hire. Similarly, The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, a report by Pillar fund with the support of Ford foundation outlined interventions; examining and reforming casting practices, inclusive script review, seeking out polycultural Muslim talent, and Muslim talent to serve on board.
In India, films with anti-caste tonality are performing fairly well at the box office. However, the film industry in India seems adamant about sustaining a high concentration of certain social groups and diminishing the potential of the cinema that possesses the propensity to smash the stereotypes.
Deliberation of these indicators while producing content (on-screen) on social and religious minorities (Dalit, Adivasi and; Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Christian) could be one step further in revolutionising content with an inclusive agenda with a promise to resolve on-screen vilification.
Although the article contends about the grand idea that seems alien to the industry, the discussion on the best practice of off-screen representation will further the dialogue in the much-needed direction. Ava DuVernay, prolific director and governor in the Directors branch at Academy Award for Motion Picture (Oscar) has more in her cart than just the test. Her cinematic gaze intertwined with the idea of social justice in Selma, 13th, When They see us, Collin in Black and White is undoubtedly an emancipatory ride in the fascinating cinema of current times.
In Wrinkle in Time, Disney generously supported DuVernay to have an inclusive set; of people from all gender, race, and ethnicity. The third season of Queen Sugar, a series production of ArreyNow, had an all-women directorial team.
3 South Indian Films That Pass The Bechdel Test
Arreycrew; is the non-profit initiative by ArrayNow, a social impact collective to shift the narrative. Arraycrew is an effective tool envisioned to promote an inclusive hiring agenda by connecting people hiring (Department head, Line Producer; people responsible for the crew on the set) in Hollywood to the crew members from underrepresented communities (Women, African American, Brown, Asian and Older). It is essentially IMDB meets LinkedIn, reiterates Ava. Arraycrew maintains a comprehensive database of 3000 members, and 70 production houses are currently hiring from it.
Initiatives of such nature reflect on-and off-screen representation in a letter and spirit.
Also read: The Bechdel Test Is Not Indicative Of Feminism
Featured image source: Duke Research Blog
The author is a writer and researcher. You can reach the author for comment and/or clarification at email@example.com.