On October 15, 1990, during an era when the “big three” dominated network television, the sixth episode of THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR (starring an untested new actor named Will Smith) aired during NBC’s high-profile Monday block of sitcoms. The episode featured two young black men being pulled over, harassed, and eventually put in holding without just cause.
Well-written and evocative, the half-hour comedy featured fantastic performances from a predominantly black cast starring Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro, Janet Hubert, and the late James Avery. Woven throughout is a commentary on racial and social inequities, ending with Smith’s west Philadelphia born-and-raised character warning his Bel-Air socialite cousin about the dangers of driving while black:
“No map is going to save you, and neither is your glee club or your fancy Bel-Air address or who your daddy is. When you’re driving in a nice car in a strange neighborhood none of that matters.“
Brandon Tartikoff, the show’s champion, head producer at NBC before his death in 1997, seemingly defied conventional wisdom when it came to casting diverse leads and pushing for a show starring a BIPOC cast and a young, black, untested lead. Tartikoff was known for bucking the path of least resistance: he also saved SEINFELD from cancellation after four seasons and pushed for Michael J. Fox to star as the lead of FAMILY TIES. 31 years later, that untested actor is one of Hollywood’s biggest megastars. The show, starring a predominantly black cast and unafraid to broach social issues, is still so well-reviewed, re-watched, and beloved that it garnered a reunion special on HBO MAX in 2021.
So what happened? Statistics show that diversity in the industry has been at a steady decline, with initiatives to increase access as often bemoaned for their shortsightedness as hailed for their innovation. Even with increased discussion surrounding representation, issues like tokenism, a reliance on stereotypes, and black- and brown-face persist, pointing to a lack of diversity among gatekeepers and decision-makers behind the camera.
Analyzing film and television’s creative ecosystem from what makes it to air, however, only shows half the picture, and in an attempt to gain a more comprehensive insight into the reason our screens obscure nearly half of the country’s experience, Jonathan Dunn, Sheldon Lyn, Nony Onyeador, and Ammanuel Zegeye have released a McKinsey study entitled Black representation in film and TV: The challenges and impact of increasing diversity. Combining extensive insider interviews with existing data garnered from multiple sources, the study aims to provide a “qualitative and quantitative approach to assess the business case for diversity in the film and TV industry.” Data is the light that dispels the shadows of myth, and the study’s takeaways point to a new direction for the industry writ large.
The Myth of the International Market
One particular sticking point is international sales, which have such a bearing on films from blockbusters to made-for-TV fare that the numbers affect casting and content. “I’ve been told,” says one producer, “that diversity is great, but only for the best friend if you want the movie to sell in Europe.” While white stars tend to generate higher revenue at the A-list tier, this does not hold true overall. Hollywood also has a disproportionate effect on international perceptions of race within the U.S., creating a seemingly inescapable ouroboros of justification for white leads for international distribution as a best practice.
This helps to explain why “white actors receive more opportunities for lead roles early in their careers than Black actors do – and the gap only widens over time” The low-budget holiday movie which will air in France, the independent thriller searching for worldwide distribution, and the next multi-million-dollar incarnation of robots punching robots set to recoup its spend in China all aim to hedge their bets by attracting international audiences, and received wisdom says that certain leads work best to make that happen.
Still, data from the USC Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies shows that films with more diverse casts perform better at the global box office, and according to the McKinsey study, films with Black leads earned nearly the same global box office sales as films with white leads, even as they were distributed in 30 percent fewer international markets. This means that films with diverse leads aren’t just on equal footing financially when it comes to international distribution, they are pound-for-pound higher grossing.
The War at Home
Among the salient findings of the McKinsey study’s examination of “pain points” — which quantify the issues that create a less-than-fecund environment within the current industry — are steps during the decision and development phases of a project which are often hung up on one-dimensional perceptions of audience appetites, the strength of black stories in relationship to “trauma” content, and a lack of transparency in the reasoning behind the choices to greenlight certain projects over others. One of these perceptions, which is backed up by a research study from Indiana University, is that white people don’t watch black movies.
While that study found that “minority cast members ‘do in fact lead white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films’”, its conclusions and the prevailing ideas of which stories will be accessible to a broader audience are predicated on an idea that domestic audiences exist in a one-to-one ratio along racial and ethnic lines. They do not: Black people watch more television than any other group, Latinos buy more movie tickets, and they are first and second in watching frequency for streaming services among all adults in the U.S. Film and television audiences have leap-frogged the national projection for a majority-minority, and “Generation Z” (born between 1995 and 2012) is both more ethnically and racially diverse than its predecessors, consumes more video content, and is already driving change in corporate behaviors representing a market share of 40% of all consumers in the U.S.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood Loses $10 Billion a Year Due to Lack of Diversity: the census might reflect a majority white population, but when it comes to the eyes on screens, America is far closer to racial parity. To quote Aaron Sorkin’s THE NEWSROOM, “There aren’t two sides to every story. Some stories have five sides, some only have one,” and when it comes to casting diverse leads and writing and producing diverse stories, the moral, ethical, financial, and interpersonal data all point toward one road forward: an industry ecosystem that boldly fosters diversity, equity, inclusion, and access on screen and behind the camera.
The Road Forward
The McKinsey study joins the ranks of the Quartz/Asian American Performers Action Coalition, the UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, the breakout runaway successes of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, and dozens of other pieces of evidence, both qualitative and anecdotal, pointing to the overall benefit of reflecting the lived experiences of people of the global majority.
The McKinsey study stands out, however, in its depth of investigation and broad focus on scalable change in terms of advocacy, mentorship, and resources for a movement toward a more inclusive industry. Its authors’ prescription for change involves “ensuring diverse representation, increasing transparency and accountability, seeking and financially supporting a wide range of Black stories, and creating an independent organization to promote diversity.” Those steps must be backed by an acknowledgment of the urgency of the cultural moment to create lasting change.
The fifth episode of THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR starred a young, relatively unknown actor named Don Cheadle in a role so popular that it nearly launched a spin-off of its own based solely on his charisma. Two hit series, three IRON MAN movies, and an OCEAN’S ELEVEN and OCEAN’S TWELVE later, that same actor found an industry of gatekeepers unwilling to support his Miles Davis biopic, one of the hurdles being producers citing “a lot of apocryphal, not proven evidence that black films don’t sell overseas.”
In many ways, proactive strategies that defined the time when Brandon Tartikoff ran NBC are seeds for the much-needed change the industry seeks today. As one industry veteran quoted in the study reported:
“Brandon Tartikoff ran NBC through much of the ’80s, and he hired Black executives. He didn’t need a mandate to create opportunities; he just did what was right.”
But like an injury left untended, the trauma has become more complicated to treat, and the regressive ideas that have stalled progress in Hollywood since the ’90s have had a pervasive negative impact on minority talent. The remedy is swift, decisive action which elevates untapped voices within, and prizes innovative solutions throughout every aspect of the filmmaking pipeline. The McKinsey study provides data that goes far in overturning the myths that have led to an overall less inclusive industry, but as audiences shift from begging for diversity to demanding inclusion and access, Hollywood is driving in a strange neighborhood. Its past successes, name-brand stars, and fancy Bel-Air addresses might not save it, but a road map toward seeking out and developing diverse talent will.
The Final Deadline to enter the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Screenwriting Lab is only a week away!
Joshua Noble is a Puerto Rican writer, actor, and producer based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his career in TV and film, he is a founding producer of The American Playbook, a series of conversations and new works highlighting historically underrepresented voices, and currently serves as Director of the National Actors’ Retreat. Joshua received his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.