Well that was quite a shift in tone. The event was moderated by Chaz Ebert, with writers and critics Justin Chang, Matthew Zoller Seitz, and ReBecca Theodore-Vachon. The topic was diversity in film and film criticism. Ebert explained they meant diversity of all types: race, gender identity, physical, ability, and technology, to name a few.
The panel began with Ebert introducing a clip of her late husband, Roger giving a verbal smackdown to some idiot who criticized Justin Lin’s portrayal of “his race” in the indie film, Better Luck Tomorrow (one of my favorite revelations from taking film classes). There was much applauding.
The panel then proceeded to bring up the most recent Hollywood Diversity Report. The Report brings a few things that are disappointing, but not entirely surprising. Despite Latinos and women attending movies more often then white males, it’s the latter group that has not only a dominant screen presence, but also authority status in the film industry (seriously high percentages here; think upwards of 80 and 90 percent). Bottom line: minorities and women are sorely underrepresented on and behind the screen. They bring up a modern, yet seriously outdated way of thinking: white people feel uncomfortable watching anyone who doesn’t look like them on screen.
They bring up Selma; how neither the director, Ava DuVernay, nor the star, David Oyelowo, got an Oscar nod. They mention that regardless of one’s personal feelings about the quality of the film, how gratifying it is to see a cast of black leads. Also, whatever feelings you have about awards shows, artists do like to receive validation for their work. I’m sad to say I haven’t seen Selma yet, but I honestly hadn’t considered a lot of these points when the controversy about the Oscars was originally raised.
The conversation turned to modern day television. The runaway success of shows like How to Get Away With Murder (black female lead) and Empire (black cast), seem to challenge the notion that white people feel uncomfortable watching anyone who doesn’t look like them. They mention Shonda Rhymes, producer of How to Get Away With Murder and Scandal (black female lead), and someone refers to her as a “perfect entertainment machine.” That’s what it come down to, they argue: entertainment. People will be comfortable with anything as long as its entertaining.
Case in point: the Fast & Furious franchise. It’s nearly (if not as) big as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and features an incredibly diverse cast. And Justin Lin (remember him from Better Luck Tomorrow?) has even directed most of the series. The also mention the cast’s diversity is almost entirely incidental.
Chas mentions how at rogerebert.com they try to employ a diverse array of writers. They believe it is important to different cultures’ views on films, and that writers who have been doing it a long time don’t always have time to take on new viewpoints. Someone (Theodore-Vachon, I believe) mentioned the Ferguson incident and the reporting on Twitter from people who are actually living there versus reporting from professional outsiders, and how they prefer the former.
They moved on to gender. Someone asked why we can’t have more transgender actors – especially in the roles of transgender characters (I remember seeing a documentary maybe ten years ago saying the same thing regarding gay actors playing gay roles). They brought up Jared Leto (won awards playing a transgender character), and Eddie Remayne (about to play a transgender character), and asked what does it mean when we say actors playing roles outside of their sexuality or gender are considered “brave?” Finally, why can’t Laverne Cox play Beyonce?
The panel concluded with a Q & A session. It was brought up that when a film needs foreign financing, it can be difficult to obtain without a famous, bankable star (i.e. white). The group posited that it may be due to past negative portrayals of minorities in film, and the resulting negative images associated with them. They pose a solution: send out positive images and eventually people will become more comfortable with them. Lastly, they had this to say: if you are interested in writing about film, just star writing; everyone’s opinion is valid regardless of race or gender.
It’s a lot to take in, and I don’t know if I have the eloquence or sense to form some conclusion, but I will say this: as a straight white male, though I love seeing myself on the big screen all the time, variety is the spice of life, isn’t it, Hollywood?