(Credit: TIFF)

TIFF 2020: The brutally honest discussion about racism within the film industry

The Toronto International Film Festival is known for its premieres of major productions and interesting international films alike. The festival also provides a forum for talks and panel discussions on topics relating to film and television, the film industry on a whole, and the art of filmmaking. Of particular interest to the festival’s administration, for many years, is the issue of diversity and equal representation in film.

Several events at this year’s TIFF dealt with the topic of race: how race is portrayed in film, how minorities are represented onscreen, and to what extent control over film and television is shared by all races and sexes. 

During the 2020 festival, TIFF in partnership with the Racial Equity in Media Collective (REMC) hosted an industry conference. Titled From Micro to Macro: How Data Can Drive Anti-Racist Action in Film and Television, the conference was moderated by Kathleen Newman-Bremang of media website Refinery 29, and included discussion and audience questions from a panel consisting of: 

  • A board member of REMC
  • Amar Wala Film Studies professor Dr Clive Nwonka 
  • Cheryl Bedford, founder of Women of Colour Unite. 

The panel agreed on one issue: lack of relevant and reliable data makes racial inequality in the film industry more of a challenge to address or overcome. 

The central issue of data collection was launched first by the outspoken Cheryl Bedford. She pointed out that, despite the common excuse that not enough black actors or filmmakers are available to provide more diversity, there are a great many, but relatively few of those members are of the requisite unions. Bedford and her organisation claim that the means or requirements for joining these unions often keep minorities out, inadvertently, but effectively. Bedford noted that this is one of many hidden or unnoticed barriers to work in film or television; these barriers are not always a matter of simple bigotry; they can be bureaucratic.

Bedford concluded that, while public support is valuable, she wishes for support of equality to begin to move beyond the area of police brutality.

REMC member Amar Wala noted that it is difficult to quantify inequality without data and statistics. Film institutions and government agencies, for example, often include an applicant’s ID as a racial minority, but there is no information offered on how the data is used. REMC have begun to investigate and collect data. He suggests that any agency using public funding should be required to at least attempt equity, but agrees that can’t be done with collecting pertinent data.

Dr Clive Nwonka of the London School of Economics and Political Science described a study of all UK films made since 2016, a time when diversity standards were set. As Dr Nwonka discovered, over half of these films cited ‘diversity’ or the presence of minorities, but he found that very often, including more women is chosen as a solution to the demand for diversity, over and above race. Movies with an entirely white cast and crew could be designated ‘diverse’ on this basis. He concluded, “We must keep an eye on how data can conceal as well as reveal.”

The conference’s moderator referred to a similar situation in the case of Bell Media, which declares 70% of film workers in their firm are either women, LGBTQ, or racial minorities, with no breakdown as to which categories are represented or to what extent. 

On top of that, Cheryl Bedford offered yet another example: Disney, which boasted an overall percentage increase in ‘diversity’ of film workers at the same time the number of black women was reduced to zero. As Bedford put it, “You can get the stamp and never hire a woman of colour.”

Continuing the debate, Amar Wala brought up the subject of film festivals, saying they make a definite effort to be inclusive, but may have built-in forms of exclusion that go unnoticed along the same lines: sometimes, he says, “diversity = women” with no data available on the race of the women included.

Wala brought up yet another category in which data is important. Film festivals present finished films, while exclusion is “beginning to end,” not just in the finished product. Even as more films are being made by and about minorities, ownership and profits are still held by all-white studios and production companies, and they, Wala points out, make the decisions about what films will be made and how they will be marketed. 

(CreditL TIFF)

The moderator brought up another topic that has received much attention in the past few years: the Oscars

Clive Nwonka felt that their significance has been exaggerated a bit. The Oscars are an important symbolic gesture in the American context, he allows, but the real power still lies in the studio system. He compared this to the situation in the UK, where films are funded by public resources. Nwonka also asks the question: who determines what is ‘representation’? A diverse cast may still place minority actors in consistently minor roles. 

Returning to the matter of data gathering, Cheryl Bedford remarked that auditing film content can show specific flaws or failures in attempts at diversity. For example, she pointed to the tendency to cast racial minorities more frequently if their skin tone is comparatively light; very dark skinned black women are measurably less likely to be hired.

Dr Nwonka addressed the superficiality that sometimes limits public support, making a comparison with the recent summer protests against racism. He agrees systemic racism is being recognised and the support is genuine, but says support is often given “without doing the long, deep-seated, hard work of really thinking about what [racism] is and how it manifests within your institution. That takes a generation, not a matter of days.” He feels that institutions like the Academy of Motion Pictures have come to some realisations about racism but “haven’t really done the homework, as they examine their policies.” He suggests keeping track of representations of white men in film, and in power at the film production level, as white men are “seen as the default” and therefore not tracked in statistics.

The discussion moved into the matter of whether some categories of film are becoming more diverse, others not. Dr Nwonka recommended keeping statistics on this, as including racial minorities only in specific genres “effects representation in practice.” He added that there is a risk of “compartmentalism” which would not, in the end, represent a real change in the system. 

Amar Wala referred back to the production level: since creators of films are still almost all white, minorities are chosen and portrayed “as they see us.” The fact that fewer black men are seen in period films, science fiction or fantasy comes, he says, from the default white vision at the decision-making level. Viewing “white people as the default setting” still impacts on casting, once again enabled by using statistics to exaggerate diversity. 

Cheryl Bedford was prepared to go further. She feels that using black actors in comedies—particularly pointing to American television in past decades—has sometimes fit in with the tendency to present African-Americans as happy and funny. Even the more frivolous white-based television characters were given true-to-life problems. 

The subject of ‘genre segregation’ came up in a separate event earlier in the week, in a comment which seems to support the panellists’ observations. During the TIFF press conference for the premiere of David Oyelowo’s The Water Man, Oyelowo remarked in passing that the film, as a family fantasy/adventure story, is unusual in being written around a black family unit. The director feels there was little support in the film industry for projects in this genre with black characters as the central focus. 

Bedford reiterated the data showing that professional film experience does not increase the opportunity for racial minorities. Minorities in film, especially women, are more inclined to eventually change careers—what Bedford says should be regarded as being “forced out”. 

The panel seemed to agree that there have been positive changes but was not prepared to overlook the remaining problems. There has been a change, Amar Wala said, in “the way the system commodifies and wants our stories now.” As he rather bitterly describes it, “Stories about our pain are now wanted and commodified by the industry. They want the stories about injustice because they can wrap it in a package and sell it to a white audience, who then feels good about watching these movies.” By contrast, stories he pitches about black families as “ordinary people” aren’t generally wanted. “In the eyes of production companies, the audience is presumed to be white.” Data on audiences, he added, may also be helpful. 

Oscar-winning director Ava DuVernay, in a TIFF 2020 interview, offered some insight on this subject as well. While preparing to direct Martin Luther King epic Selma, she saw that in the original script, a great deal of the focus was on the reaction of American politicians. She chose to direct attention instead to the feelings of ordinary black Selma residents observing the famous civil rights marches. DuVernay also had surviving participants of the march present as advisors on the film. Similarly, for her television series When They See Us, a drama based on the 1989 false arrest of five black American teenagers, the director had the actual victims provide input and monitor the production, both to ensure accuracy, and so that it was also “their story.”

Asked to comment on the question of data about audiences, Clive Nwonka said, “The American [film] industry is founded on a sound economic model: what sells to a mass audience? Often that audience is predominantly white. That’s the default audience for films in the US… Therefore, films don’t cater to a broad, homogeneous audience who may have different interests – different races as well.”

Referring back to the ‘Oscars So White’ action of 2016, he noted that it was followed up by the nomination of black-centred film Moonlight. Dr Nwonka says, “the Oscars needed Moonlight more than Moonlight needed the Oscars,” to improve their reputation. He expects another Best Picture nomination for a racially diverse film in the coming year, for the same reason, suggesting that the Academy Awards don’t address racism in the film industry’s structure, so that diversifying casting may be a form of deflection. Ava DuVernay also commented on her experience as a director, often being, during meetings with studios or production company executives, the sole black person in the room, often the sole woman as well. She admitted that she was at first intimidated by this: “In my early days in the industry, I’d walk in thinking, ‘I’m the only one!’ Now I walk in thinking, ‘Why am I the only one? What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have more [non-white] people here?’” She expressed satisfaction in the fact that things have changed, at least to the extent that “there’s no way everyone isn’t aware that everyone looking the same way is a problem.”

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