Latinos, the largest minority in the nation, and the largest racial or ethnic group in California and Los Angeles, are virtually disappearing from the big screen, a new report on Hollywood diversity shows.
The film and television business, which is in the midst of taking more than $1.5 billion in credits from California taxpayers, has essentially made no progress in major-film casting of people of color since 2007, USC’s annual “Inequality in 900 “Popular Films”report found. This despite being lambasted by critics in recent years.
The paper’s analysis of the 100 top-grossing films of 2016 found that Latinos captured only 3.1 percent of big-screen roles. That’s the lowest percentage since the study began in 2007, according to the report’s author, USC communications professor Stacy L. Smith. “Latinos are the most underrepresented racial/ethnic group, compared to the population,” she said via email.
“I’m angry about it,” says Alex Nogales, president-CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “I will not stand for it and neither will the Latino community. That means demonstrations across the city and across the nation.”
Last year, the same team of researchers, led by Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, looked at the 100 top-grossing films of 2015 and found that 5.3 percent of roles were filled by Latinos. For 2014, the figure was 4.9 percent.
“You have a huge Latino story in America that’s being forgotten,” says Rick Najera, a screenwriter who also directs CBS’ annual Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase . “The putting down of Latinos is so prevalent in our country. Look at the president. Subconsciously, if America is saying, We don’t want Latinos, it’s not a stretch for Hollywood to say, ‘Does the character have to be Sanchez?'”
Nogales of the media coalition agrees, saying, “If the president of this country feels this way, it means the industry doesn’t have to do much for these Latinos.”
The study found that more 2016 films — a majority of the 100 analyzed — lacked a single Latino actor than lacked a face from any other ethnic group. “A total of 54 films were completely missing Latino speaking characters, which is 14 higher than in 2015,” according to the report.
“These are sustained and systemic problems,” Smith said in a statement. “It is impossible to look at this data without concluding that much of the advocacy surrounding on-screen representation over the past few years has not been successful.”
In other findings, researchers said that less than one-third of characters last year (31.4 percent) were women or girls. Less than a third (29.2 percent) were minorities. “There has been no meaningful change in the percentage of black/African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian/Asian-American or mixed race/other characters since” 2007, according to a summary.
“People behind the scenes are still predominantly white men, and they’re just not conscious,” says Biola University sociology professor Nancy Wang Yuen, author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. “There has to be intentionality.”
The figures are particularly eye-opening because 2016 was a peak year for Hollywood diversity criticism, which included a boycott of the Academy Awards and the social media #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Hollywood diversity reports from USC, UCLA and San Diego State University in recent years have continued to show little change for an industry based in a county that’s nearly three-quarters minority.
“With #OscarsSoWhite, there’s a lot of awareness,” Yuen says, “but unless people behind the scenes make institutional efforts, change isn’t going to happen.”
April Reign, the former attorney who started the #OscarsSoWhite campaign on Twitter in 2015, says Hollywood is ignoring multiple studies that show films with diverse casts tend to make more cash at the box office.
“Inclusive movies make money,” she said via email. “Movies should represent the demographics of moviegoers so that everyone has an opportunity to see themselves on screen. This is especially true with respect to traditionally underrepresented communities. When someone asks if #OscarsSoWhite is still relevant, I can point to this report. We still have a long way to go. Hopefully this report will spur studios to make more inclusive choices both in front of and behind the camera.”
Smith of USC said that a boycott of big Hollywood films “may not be realistic.” But she also said the choices audiences make at the box office could sway studios, talent agents and casting agents to see the light. “Consumers do have power to vote with their dollars, and to use their social channels to ask for better representation,” she said.
L.A. Weekly staff writer Dennis Romero has worked on staff at several magazines and newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times, where he participated in Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the L.A. riots. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone online, the Guardian, and, as a young stringer, the New York Times.
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