Study Finds Black and Asian Speaking Characters in Film Hit 12-Year Highs in 2018

Warner Bros. Pictures; Walt Disney Pictures
'Crazy Rich Asians,' 'Black Panther'

Representation improved in the year of 'Black Panther' and 'Crazy Rich Asians,' but USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative urges that progress shouldn't end there.

The statistics support that 2018, marked by the landmark hits Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, was indeed a banner year for diversity in Hollywood.

In "Inequality in 1,200 Popular Films," its annual comprehensive and intersectional examination of representation in film, USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that the percentage of black and Asian speaking characters in 2018's 100 highest-grossing movies both hit 12-year highs of 16.9 and 8.2 percent, respectively. Overall, nonwhite characters represented 36.3 percent of speaking characters, up from 29.3 percent the year before.

"In 2018 we saw companies taking steps to ensure that certain groups were included in some of their most notable movies," AII founding director Stacy L. Smith said in a statement. "While we are pleased to see progress in some areas, efforts cannot end here. There are several arenas where much more growth is needed."

Among those areas is gender, where although the number of movies with female leads or co-leads rose from 20 in 2007 to 39 in 2018, the overall onscreen population that is female remains just 30.9 percent over the report's 12-year span and just under a third in 2018 (in the real world, women comprise about half of the human race). Latino characters declined to 5.3 percent (outnumbered by their real-world populations in 77 percent of U.S. states and two territories), LGBT characters represented 1.3 percent of cinematic populations as opposed to 4.5 percent in real life, and characters with disabilities 1.6 percent compared with 27.2 percent of the actual U.S. population, the largest disparity among the marginalized groups examined.

In studying which demographic groups were invisible onscreen, the AII researchers found that 70 of the top 100 movies had no Latina characters, 78 had no people of Middle Eastern/North African descent and only one film depicted a Native American character onscreen.

Multiple studies of diversity in Hollywood have consistently found that directors from underrepresented backgrounds tend to hire more inclusively. The AII researchers pointed to the fact that the number of black directors at the helm of a top 100 movie hit a historic high of 15 in 2018 as one reason for increased representation onscreen, while urging studios to “uncouple the link between lead and director” — in other words, to avoid considering black directors for hire only when the characters are black, female directors for female characters and so on. Still, in 2018 black characters were featured in 44.5 percent of speaking or named roles in movies from black directors, as opposed to 11.3 percent in those from nonblack helmers. Meanwhile, female and Asian directors have remained around 4 and 3 percent, respectively, over the past 12 years, and out of the 112 individuals who directed one of last year’s 100 highest-grossing movies, just three were Latino (one from the U.S.) and four were MENA. Only one woman of color — A Wrinkle in Time’s Ava DuVernay — directed a top 100 movie in 2018.

"These numbers reveal the depth of the erasure of female characters, particularly those from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds, the LGBTQ community and individuals with disabilities," AII program director Marc Choueiti said in a statement. "As we continue to monitor the most popular films released each year, these numbers are one place we will continue to scrutinize for change."