False dichotomy, big time.

West Indies playwright and screenwriter Eulalie Spence

Stephen King’s recent twitstorm about writers opting for quality over diversity is an old argument. It’s time to stop thinking fallaciously about films not made by and not focusing on white American men. There is no quality problem, only a perceptual mistake — a very serious one.

What we call Hollywood (i.e. the American film industry) isn’t deliberately racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. It’s deliberately risk-aversive. It funds and promotes movies it thinks will yield a safe profit. The final results of this business model, however, are visibly racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. and not just at Oscars time.

There’s a chicken-and-egg problem with Hollywood’s principle. Since previous successes are primarily by white men (from the production crew through the producers), then Hollywood thinks it’s safer to go with white men.

“Black Panther” did well at the box office, so there will be a Black Panther 2 by Ryan Coogler, but not a James Bond film with Idris Elba (and there’s not a chance that the next Bond movie will be written / directed by Ava Duvernay).

Notice how I said “Hollywood thinks….” Its business model is based on perception, not facts. Screenwriter and science-fiction novelist Leigh Brackett (“The Big Sleep,” “Rio Bravo,” “The Long Goodbye,” and some work on a draft of “The Empire Strikes Back”) reportedly picked up some assignments early on because producers assumed from her first name that she was a man.

The Bechdel test provides a somewhat objective measure of the autonomy of female characters in screenplays. When the data-driven site FiveThirtyEight analyzed 1,615 films, they found evidence that “ films that feature meaningful interactions between women may in fact have a better return on investment, overall, than films that don’t.”

What we as viewers of film and TV can do to mitigate the chicken-and-egg error is make the deliberate choice to watch more films not written / directed / produced exclusively by white American men. And in discussing art, we can promote the contributions by anyone not in that exclusive country club. (Did you see how I sneaked in five such references above?)

If you watch a particular television series regularly, pay attention to the credits and note whether the screenwriter is a man or a woman. (This approach is a little misleading because most shows are written by a room of writers, but the person getting sole authorship credit normally plays the largest role in shaping the script.) Over time, you will probably notice that scripts by women tend to be different from those by men (not necessarily better or worse but different in the sorts of issues they focus on). Without diverse voices and subjects, our image of the world is inevitably lacking.

I think people naturally have a taste for art that gives them a broader, more fully informed sense of life. What we call “diversity” is simply the byproduct of the desire we all have as readers and viewers to be complete individuals.

Music: Discovering the lost and forgotten. Politics: Exposing injustice. Screenwriting: Emotional storytelling.

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