Beneath The Surface – Representation in Media

Amidst the protests, figures in media have been speaking out against the systemic racism that persists in America, the media’s role in it, and the call to create a more inclusive Hollywood. Over 300 high profile actors, directors and producers signed a letter calling for the divesting of police in Hollywood. And it was met with several of the criticisms we often here:

“Why do black creators only movies based on stereotypes”

“They’re just looking for a handout”

“The Hollywood elites are out of touch with reality”

As a nearly 20 year veteran of the industry, I wanted to take a deep dive this week about the issues pointed out not only in the letter, but about representation and diversity in Hollywood in general.

There are a lot of misconceptions about how the industry works and the people who represented. so let’s take a look behind the curtain

Photo by Chris Murray on Unsplash

It’s Who You Know

The entertainment industry has always relied on hiring through word of mouth. The nature of how content is created relies on a group of people gathering together in separate but important roles to create a product. So naturally, people tend to bring on people who they already know or are are friends of who they know.

People say they do this because there’s a sense of security. There’s no time to train someone how to do their job correctly with chaos that is being on a film set. But what I’ve found is that it’s almost completely based on personal comfort. Which for many of those who are power translates to “those who look like me.”

I’ve held several positions in the film industry, and one of them has been as a Line Producer where the hiring and firing of crew was part of my job. And when hiring, I’ve found that the success ratio of someone who’s hired based on a referral vs not is about even. Knowing someone does not guarantee their ability to do their job, yet it’s the primary way that people break into the industry. And this trickles into the unions as when they open their doors to accept new members, often they are allowed in based upon the approval of current members.

But this need for personal comfort also puts those of us who aren’t the “standard” hire in jeopardy while doing our jobs. I’ve been on many a set where I was brought on for one position, but then demoted or sometimes even let go because someone a bit higher up than me wanted to bring in “someone he was comfortable with”. And I’ve heard this story from countless others of my contemporaries, some of whom are white women, who face the same discrimination.

The general populace looks at the people who work in the industry through the lens of the people at the top – the mega producers, directors and actors. But the majority of the people who are behind the camera, and some even in front, aren’t living with millionaire status. We make a middle class living and our security fluctuates depending on what job we are on. Which again is based on who we know.

The result of this is that the people who are in control get to keep bringing in more people who look and think like they do. So the perspective that we see in our media doesn’t really change, as we’re having to appeal to one sensibility that doesn’t always reflect the society at large.

The Portrayal Of Other

The entertainment industry is exactly that – an industry. It is an expensive business that takes a lot of investment to turn a profit. And for the majority of it’s history, what is put out into the society at large has been controlled by a few select gatekeepers.

The saying “you do one for them, then do one for you” has been a staple of how films are made for decades. Even though there are many directors and actors of color who have a large degree of power. For years they’ve been at the whim of either a studio or investor who decides that their perspective is “worthy” of financing.

And when one voice breaks through that is “different” the general practice is to try and find other voices similar to that one in order to recapture the same magic. Often without the same success. This practice of “gatekeeping” has kept diverse voices from really having a say in how they’re portrayed. Which has led to the depiction of the “other” as something often through the perspective of someone who sees them as a monolithic category. Not the varying collection of the human experience that we’re all a part of.

And we have these separators used to label those others as something different:

Ava Duvernay is not a film director, but a black female film director. Spike Lee is a black director, Katheryn Bigelow is a female director. They make “black movies” or “female movies” as if they are somehow separate (and sometimes below) our overall human experience.

The Police

Throughout the history of mass media in our country, depictions of ethnic groups other than white have been used in a large part as a way to dehumanize and incite fear. And the police have been portrayed as the last bastions of hope and order in a lawless society overripe with “out of control” brown people. I can recall growing up seeing trailer after trailer of movies where the “rogue cop” who didn’t abide by the rules when after the bad guys while taking no prisoners. And while the bad guys weren’t always white, a large portion of them were.

Many will say that we watch films and TV to escape reality, it’s very evident that these escapes often inform what our reality truly is. And this portrayal of media as a type of vigilante superhero, keeping the world safe from the unruly barbarians of poor communities, is part of the problem of how police interact with the citizenry at large.

The relationship with the creation of film and TV is one that is for the large part unnecessary. While many security officers on sets (mostly to protect locations and equipment) are ex-law enforcement. That gives no advantage on the job duties, especially when they are often brought on through private security firms.

Having worked on several high-profile effects shoots. I can attest that on-set safety is most often handled through the fire department as the common issues of concern are with either fire or injury. The police are used most often hired to close off streets, some on-location security. Although the use of private security is preferred due to the massive expense to hire police officers as security, as it counts as overtime as a base rate for a minimum of 4 hours.

The primary role that police play in film production (at least in Los Angeles) is the enforcement of permits. Securing the permission of the city to shoot anywhere is at a minimum a $700 cost, and if you don’t have one your production can be fined and/or shut down by a police officer. While some productions take the risk to shoot without them, even those who do are always on lookout at being stopped by police to check their permits. As it usually results in time being lost during the day. Not to mention making the duty of a police officer to ensure that the city or county is collecting money from the creation of entertainment.

A Coming Shift

Even before the pandemic, the movie theater was suffering. Attendance has been declining overall each year with TV and streaming taking an increased share of the way we consume visual stories.

The old gatekeepers have continued to try and keep the movie industry as it’s always been, ignoring the facts that film without diverse casts only perform better in an international market, which now cannot be counted on as a consistent influx of revenue.

While some downplay the call for diversity as a handout. What it really is, is a blueprint for the industry’s survival. Demographics are shifting and there is an increase in choice. No longer do we need the permission of a large studio or network to tell our own stories. So if we don’t like what we see in one place, there are other options that are available or emerging. And I feel fortunate to currently be working for a company that is at the forefront of championing those emerging voices.

If the larger Hollywood film industry wants to survive, then it has to adapt. It has to let the new voices in and make way for new perspectives. Those of us who are a part of it want to see it survive. We fell in love with the industry and we want to see it grow, change and prosper.

Our voices need to be a part of that process. Because the benefit enhances our society at large.

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