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In the early years of the streaming era, the documentary field flourished, with runaway successes like Netflix’s Making a Murderer and Wild Wild Country driving more funding and buyer interest in the format. What were the demographics of those who were behind the camera on films during this recent boom time for nonfiction titles? Primarily white and male, according to a new study.
Between 2014 and 2020, 78 percent of documentary films distributed across cable, network and streaming platforms featured a white director or directing team, while 66 percent of these titles were helmed by directors who identified as men, according to “The Lens Reflected: What Stories & Storytellers Get the Green Light in Documentary’s Streaming Age?,” released on Tuesday. By comparison, 18 percent of films were helmed by Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC) directors and four percent had “mixed” directing teams, including both BIPOC and white filmmakers. Twenty-six percent of these films were helmed by women, 7 percent had “mixed” directing teams and less than one percent had nonbinary directors.
In front of the camera, 63 percent of documentaries’ primary subjects were white, while 69 percent identified as men. Meanwhile, 37 percent of subjects were BIPOC and 29 percent identified as women, with one percent identifying as nonbinary.
The study, the latest from American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), gauged the gender and racial identity of subjects and directors in 1,232 documentary films released between 2014 and 2020, a period that the study authors considered to be the onset of the “streaming age” for the medium. The authors additionally compared how three different distribution platforms measured up — streaming, cable and public media — by selecting two key companies to represent each, and studying the titles they released during this period: Netflix and Hulu stood in for streaming, CNN Films and HBO Films for cable and PBS’ Independent Lens and POV for public media.
Streaming and cable had “greater racial inequities” than public media when it came to directors, the study found. Eighty percent of streaming projects and 84 percent of cable projects featured white directors, while 17 percent of streaming titles and 13 percent of cable titles featured BIPOC directors. On both platforms, three percent of directing teams featured both white and BIPOC helmers. (Public media had a 65 percent white, 29 percent BIPOC and 6 percent “mixed” director composition.) In terms of gender diversity, men dominated directing roles on all distribution platforms but most prominently in streaming (71 percent) and cable (65 percent).
“The Lens Reflected” authors also focused on documentaries that featured one discernable main subject — about 530 films, or 43 percent of all documentaries studied. Documentary subjects on streamers and cable were largely white (66 percent and 68 percent, respectively), but on public television, they were largely BIPOC (57 percent). On the topic of gender, “a lack of gender diversity is evident across the platforms studied,” the study noted: Over 60 percent of main subjects on all distribution platforms were men and 2 percent or less were nonbinary.
Caty Borum, the study’s principal investigator and CMSI’s executive director, said in a statement that the study showed that “there are huge gaps in the stories and lived experiences that we get to see when we are, in many ways, still missing the lens and viewpoints of BIPOC and women-identifying filmmakers and on-screen protagonists.” She added, “We need to have serious conversations about how to work together to showcase the many incredible stories we could be seeing in this vastly expanded marketplace for nonfiction storytelling.”
In an effort to answer the question “who is telling whose stories?” the study examined the demographics of directors in combination with that of their subjects. The authors found that overall white directors were more likely to feature white subjects and BIPOC directors were more likely to feature BIPOC subjects. Still, “White filmmakers are much more likely to tell BIPOC stories than the other way around”: 25 percent of subjects in films by white directors were BIPOC, while 17 percent of subjects in titles by BIPOC filmmakers were white. Films by men and mixed-gender directing teams overwhelmingly highlighted male subjects, while women directors and directing teams focused nearly evenly on men and women subjects (51 and 49 percent, respectively).
The CMSI report additionally reviewed the topics of films distributed between 2014 and 2020, classifying titles as either essentially “entertainment” or “social issue” films. During this period, documentaries that centered “social issues” (including government/democracy, racial justice, war and conflict, criminal justice and the environment) outnumbered those focused on “entertainment” (such as films centered on travel; sports and leisure; murder; arts, culture, entertainment and food; and science and technology) across platforms: 52 percent of all titles measured took on social issues, while 48 percent told entertainment stories. Breaking it down by platform, streamers over-indexed on entertainment topics (55 percent of their doc offerings) while cable and public television favored social issues (which constituted 56 percent and 75 percent of their slates, respectively).
The report’s authors probed, within the “social issue” documentaries studied, whether racism or insitutional racism was ever mentioned. The reason, they explained, was “the dominance of structural racism as a contributing factor to many social problems.” The analysis found that among documentaries tackling societal problems, “29% of commercially distributed documentaries (within the “social-issues” category) included any reference at all to racism or institutional racism, whereas 47% of those documentaries distributed by public TV address racism in some way.”
In conclusion, the authors say “one portrait becomes clear” in the study: “BIPOC storytellers and primary protagonists are not yet integrated fully into the growing media system that distributes documentary storytelling, and women and nonbinary people also are not nearly as likely to be heard from (as directors) or seen (as protagonists on screen) relative to men.” More specifically, “Of all groups, BIPOC women are the least likely to have their nonfiction films distributed across major media networks, or to be seen as primary protagonists on screen.”
Notes Sonya Childress, the co-director of Color Congress and a member of the leadership working group that produced the study, in a statement, “Over the last decade we have witnessed promising investments in efforts to increase access for BIPOC and women-identifying filmmakers. Yet despite investments to diversify the field, the documentary sector falls short of reflecting our diverse nation.” Childress adds that the study suggests that BIPOC and women-identifying filmmakers face impediments in the industry “not solely at the entry point”: “The results of this rigorous research demands we face the persistent structural barriers in our field and enact data-informed solutions to address them.”
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