Report: Black filmmakers may be underrepesented, but they lead in pushing diversity

Black filmmakers are the most likely to have the most diverse casts and crews for their movies, but they remain racially underrepresented among filmmakers overall, according to University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which recently released comprehensive reports with statistics.

In August, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published its report titled “Inequality in 1,600 Popular Films,” which examined “representation on screen and behind the camera across the 100 top-grossing fictional films” for every year in the U.S. from 2007 to 2022, according to the report. Of those 1,600 films, which had 1,784 directors, only 6% of those directors are Black, even though the U.S. Census Bureau reports that Black people are about 13.6% of the U.S. population. About 84% of the directors of these top-grossing films identify as white, 5% as Asian, 4% as Hispanic/Latino, and 1% as multiracial. Tyler Perry is the Black director with the most movies (18 films) that were part of this study.

Idris Elba and Will Packer on the set of “Beast” Photo credit: Lauren Mulligan, Universal Pictures
Idris Elba and Will Packer on the set of “Beast” Photo credit: Lauren Mulligan, Universal Pictures

The statistics also show that when Black movie directors, particularly Black female movie directors, are hired by producers and movie studios, these directors tend to helm movies with Black-centric stories and hire diverse casts and crews. According to the “Inequality in 1,600 Popular Films” report, Black directors had Black characters as the lead/co-lead characters for 100% of their movies, compared to the 5.9% of non-Black directors who had Black characters as the lead/co-lead characters for their movies. Of the 1,600 films in the study, Black movie directors had Black characters for 51.1% of on-screen speaking roles, compared to non-Black movie directors who had Black characters in only 10.3% of on-screen speaking roles. 

Black female directors lead the way in having the most diverse movies, in terms of casts and crews, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 2023 Inclusion List report on diversity and inclusion for the Top 100 movies that had the highest box-office revenue in the U.S. from 2019 to 2022. Six out of the Top 10 most diverse films were directed by Black women. (There are no movies directed by Black men in the Top 10 of this list.) Ranked at No. 1 is director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King,” a history-based action/drama film about an all-female African army in the 1800s. Released in 2022 by Columbia Pictures, “The Woman King” has a cast that includes Viola Davis as the title character, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega, Jordan Bolger, and Jayme Lawson.

Elsewhere in this Inclusion List report, Will Packer is ranked at No. 1 on the list of most inclusive producers. In the process of filmmaking, producers fund the movies and have a say in who gets hired to direct their movies. Packer, whose movies are usually released by Universal Pictures, produced several films from 2019 to 2022, including the 2019 comedy “Little,” starring Regina Hall, Issa Rae, and Marsai Martin; the 2020 romantic drama “The Photograph,” starring LaKeith Stanfield and Rae; and the 2022 action flick “Beast,” starring Idris Elba. Packer’s frequent producer partner James Lopez (who is Afro-Latino) ranks at No. 2 on the list of most inclusive producers. Oscar-winning horror master Jordan Peele is at No. 6, as a producer of 2019’s “Us,” 2021’s “Candyman” remake, 2022’s “Nope,” and 2022’s “Wendell & Wild.” There are no Black women in the Top 10 of this list of producers.

Dr. Stacy L. Smith, who leads USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, did not respond to Black News & Views’ request for comment on these studies as they pertain to Black filmmakers.

In an April 2023 interview with WXIA-TV (11 Alive) in Atlanta, producer Packer commented on bringing Black stories to movies: “We want to tell stories that are universal in nature but do come through a very specific lens. I’m very proud of telling stories about Black Americans that are universal subjects. … I love telling them through a Black lens, because for a very long time, Hollywood was not focused on those stories, didn’t see the value in those stories. There wasn’t an economic imperative to tell those stories.”

Packer added, “Now, you have audiences saying, ‘I want to see myself … on the big screen, on the small screen, and everything in between.’ I take that as a very serious part of my responsibility and my privilege as a storyteller to tell stories that other folks aren’t [telling].” 

In the Inclusion List’s Top 10 rankings of the most diverse movies of 2019 to 2022, the movies directed by Black women are dramas or comedies with Black women as the central characters and the stories told from these characters’ perspectives. Ranked at No. 3 is director Janicza Bravo’s 2021 exotic dancer comedy/drama “Zola” (released by A24), co-starring Taylour Paige. Two movies from director Kasi Lemmons are on the list: Coming in at No. 4 is the 2019 Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet” (released by Focus Features), starring Cynthia Erivo in an Oscar-nominated role, while at No. 6 is the 2022 biopic “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (released by Columbia Pictures), starring Naomi Ackie. Ranked at No. 8 is director Adamma Ebo’s 2022 comedy/drama “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,” released by Focus Features, and starring “Little” headliner Hall and Sterling K. Brown. Tied at No. 9 (with the 2022 South Korean film “Broker”) is “Little,” directed by Tina Gordon.

At a September 2022 public Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Woman King” had its world premiere, director Prince-Bythewood and Oscar-winning actress Davis (a producer of “The Woman King”) spoke frankly about what it’s like to be Black women filmmakers who work with major Hollywood studios. Prince-Bythewood described typical filmmaker business meetings for Hollywood-made movies: “When you’re a Black artist, certainly a Black female artist … to go into a room, it’s almost always, 99% of the time … white men sitting across from you, and you’re trying to convince them that your story is worthy. … It’s a constant fight. There are so few of us [Black women]. If I’m not in the fight, if [Viola Davis] is not in the fight for ‘The Woman King,’ these things will not get made.”

Davis commented, “Most people don’t understand what it means to get a film made. They know you have the vision for the film. You pitch it or whatever. And then they see it when it finally comes on the screen. But there’s no talking about the in-between. And it can get ugly. … And there are so many internal battle scars from that fight. I’m telling you, sometimes your soul can die.” Davis also described getting a movie completed and released: “It’s like being in a battle and making it out, and you’ve survived.”

Prince-Bythewood offered this advice on what Black women filmmakers need to have, particularly in making movies about Black female characters: “Stamina, swagger, that absolute belief in yourself. … Black women and Black girls up on screen [are] absolutely worth the fight.”

As for the current and future state of the movie industry for Black filmmakers, Packer noted: “Black buying power was something that was not discussed 10, 15 years ago in the way that it is now. The next thing that Hollywood has to do is to put people in positions of power: decision makers. Not just the folks in front of the camera—that’s very, very important—now, we need more folks behind the camera. We need more Will Packers, we need more Black directors, and most importantly, we need more Black studio execs who are greenlighting these films. We still have a long way to go in terms of Hollywood, when it comes to real diversity and inclusion behind the scenes and within the traditional power structures that Hollywood subscribes to.”

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