At the beginning of the shutdown, the conversations that I saw and organized were focused on making sure that the work that had been done on inclusion — including keeping the attention on building the pipeline for women and people of color, while watching some of those same people get laid off — would not get left behind post-pandemic. Now, due to the protests across the country and globe, the conversation on inclusion is rightly shifting to urgently centering the voices of Black people.
Let’s face it. This should have been urgent years ago. Hollywood may be a place on the map, but it is also a mindset. Movies are a huge American export around the world. The global box office in 2019 was $42.2 billion, and a little over 30 billion of those dollars was made outside North America. Yet, in 2020, our stories — the way we connect to one another — are still mostly created and determined by white men. 2019 marked a historic high for female directors, and that number is only 10.6 percent of the top-grossing films were directed by women, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The numbers between the years of 2007 and 2019 are shameful. Out of 1,300 films, underrepresented men made up 12.6 percent of directors, white women were 3.9 percent and underrepresented women made up under 1 percent.
I was looking forward to 2020 having the potential to change the conversation on women directors. Some of the films that were scheduled include Mulan (with a woman of color lead), directed by Niki Caro (with the highest budget ever for a film directed by a woman); Black Widow, directed by Cate Shortland; The Eternals, directed by Chloe Zhao; as well as the long-awaited sequel to Wonder Woman, once again directed by Patty Jenkins, who, with this film, became the highest paid female director. We still might get to see some of them this year, but the momentum of having several high-budget female-directed films coming out in the summer has unfortunately been lost.
The global film industry ecosystem needs genuinely to reckon with the systemic racist and sexist systems that thrive with ease. There have been challenges from outside organizations and activists for decades, especially in recent years. Excuses for not being inclusive have ranged from not being able to find any women’s films to program, that films by people of color are “too small,” that there are not enough people with “experience” to hire, as well as the completely debunked narrative that continues to this day that women and Black people won’t make money overseas.
I was one of the people who marched up the steps of the Palais in Cannes with 81 other women symbolizing the fact that in its history only 82 women have been in competition there, and last year was the first time they had a Black woman in the main competition. The Academy, home of the Oscars, had so few women in the directing branch when I started this work in 2007, I was easily able to keep track of them. Now it is working to be more inclusive and recently announced a new focus on “increasing representation in the organization’s governance, membership and workplace culture, as well as in the films nominated for Oscars.” They have a long way to go. David Oyelowo recently mentioned in an online conversation that the cast and team of Selma wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in honor of Eric Garner to the film premiere, and the producers received complaints from Academy voters asking why they were “stirring the shit.”
The question before us now is how this inflection point can be something more than platitudes and statements. What will we do when people turn their thoughts away from #BlackLivesMatter and the status quo resumes? I commit, and all of those in Hollywood need to commit now to being better white allies, and we need to take responsibility for figuring out the ways.
I reached out to two women leaders who are steeped in conversations of diversity and inclusion at media companies — Vernã Myers, vp of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, and June Sarpong, head of Creative Diversity at the BBC. The issue of inclusion in Hollywood is different depending on the company you speak to. Some companies have truly integrated inclusion as part of their philosophies, but others have not taken it seriously enough.
Shunting inclusion work to the side can no longer be a viable tactic for any media (or other) company. These two women who work on different continents had similar philosophies, which was surprising and reassuring. Vernã talked about “baking inclusion into the way we think about everything we do.” (Disclosure: Netflix is a sponsor of the Athena Film Festival, which I am the Artistic Director of.) June Sarpong said it’s “not about hard wiring inclusion just in the BBC, but hard wiring it into the whole of our creative industry.” They both see this moment as an opportunity to remake systems that didn’t work before. As Myers said: “A lot of people are like, ‘I can’t wait to go back to work.’ I’m like, ‘Do not go back. Don’t go back. Think about going forward and what would it look like. What would an ideal situation look like, and start pushing for that now.'” Every workplace principle and practice is now up for review, such as the ability to work from home and flexible schedules — these concepts are a few among many that could revolutionize work routines for parents of small children, differently abled people and more.
But this moment won’’t mean anything unless there are diverse voices at the most senior levels of companies hiring and making decisions. That means more BIPOC at the top. The pipeline has to be built and people need to have the ability to rise into leadership positions. As an example, the BBC has created a diverse advisers program to mentor new leaders, and it just committed to a 20 percent diverse talent target for all commissions from April 2021.
Racism is not fixable with only implicit bias training; everyone knows that. We have to do the work, and white people must own it and change it. We must bring more non-white women and people of color not only into the rooms but also to the decision-making tables. I’m not going to pretend to not have these problems in my own work; I do. Women and Hollywood, which is a very small but mighty initiative, has long had a commitment of highlighting voices and images of women of color, but we are still mostly a white team aside from our editorial fellows. Several years ago, I made a commitment to not appear on any panels that were all-white. And at the Athena Film Festival, we are offering submission waivers for BIP(W)OC led projects. We have always deliberately looked at the racial and gender breakdown of our programs because we believe that is part of the work we do, but our team should be more diverse. This is something that pains me now more than ever. Recent events have made me realize that we, white female activists, in this space need to use our privilege and access to bring as many voices of color into the work.
What has happened in the streets is giving the industry a real opportunity to step up and reform itself. A crucial part of that reform will result in new systems and structures that value Black voices and other people of color as much as it has valued white voices. This is now the work we all must be doing.
Melissa Silverstein is the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood. She is also the artistic director and co-founder of the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College.