I have thought about jumping into the film and TV diversity debate many times, but hesitated. On the one hand, as a manager who works very hard to get traction for Asian American actors it is an important subject to me. On the other hand, the politics and debate can be distracting to just putting my head down and being involved in the day to day grind of trying to “be the change I wanna see.” I have the opportunity to discuss the subject almost daily with people in the entertainment industry and do so regardless of whether or not it has a direct effect on one of my actors because breaking down walls and finding success for one is success for all. So here I go adding my 2 cents. I am not an expert nor is my assessment the truth, it is just part of the discourse.
First, the problem is not diversity, it is equal opportunity and the debate should be re-focused. Opportunity naturally leads to diversity. Second, the issue of diversity has turned into a black and white issue, literally, and that is a problem in and of itself because suddenly it excludes so many more (like Asian Americans) and other issues of inclusion beyond race (like women and actors with disabilities) and it ignores the complexity of people and the world (if you are an Asian, disabled woman does the studio get to fill in three of the diversity boxes on their score cards?) and relegates people to demographics so they can be placed in neat little boxes. For example, someone as talented as Halle Barry, who IS by genetics half Caucasian, has been forced into the African American box because of her skin color. The truth is that Halle Berry is an actress who can play most roles that Hollywood has to offer and before fame had limited opportunities to play certain roles because they were labeled Caucasian and that was not her box (by virtue of her fame she actually does have more opportunity now), and yet even with fame is referred to as an African American actress, a very talented person recognized by her skin color. I actually googled Halle Berry when writing this to find the most recent news about her and found an E!news article about her Oscar and being “the first black woman to win the award in that category.” She is also a Caucasian actress who won the best actress award for Monster’s Ball, a fact that is lost because that’s not her box (Did only the half of her that is African-American win the award?).
When you break down scripts, the reality is that unless you are talking about a historical character or an issue that is driving a storyline specifically linked to race then it doesn’t matter what ethnicity the character is for the role and yet breakdowns have race as an essential part of every role. “All Ethnicities” is becoming more common, but why can’t ethnicity just disappear completely unless it really is necessary for the role? The demand for diversity in casting is actually detrimental to more diversity because it has become a game of percentages where we need one of “those” and one of “those” and one of “those,” and the “quota” is more often than not fulfilled by roles other than lead and supporting characters. That’s why equal opportunity is more important. An even bigger problem focusing on the issue of diversity instead of equal opportunity is that dotting the film and TV landscape with more Africa American actors, which is happening rapidly, has in many ways diminished the inclusion of other minorities because the media then starts pointing to the problem of diversity as being addressed and/or solved. When executives start deciding that “all ethnicities” can be the norm for most roles AND posting “all ethnicities” is a truthful statement and not a politically correct inclusion, then the problem starts to really be addressed and “all ethnicities” and any ethnicity doesn’t even have to be a part of breakdowns.
There is another issue in this debate that is important to me and that is how the problem of more diversity is always stated as a “casting problem” which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Casting agents in my experience are the front line of change and I have routinely seen them pushing alternatives in casting and encouraging discussion on ideas and options for roles. While they may be the face of casting, ultimately they are only presenting what they consider to be excellent options to their bosses, the producers and executives who make the final decisions. The issue of diversity is fighting against an old (literally) system of the decision makers at the top, the executives who have final say and whose primary goal is making money. The fight from the bottom up is to prove what I truly believe and that is that race, ethnicity, national original etc. are not relevant to making money; good is good and if what you create is entertaining people they will pay to watch and become fans of any actor from their favorite film and TV shows. The rise in a number of African American actors in successful film and TV shows over the last couple years is proof of that argument. So, for me, I don’t use the word diversity because the key is equal opportunity and that in turn will lead to more diversity and more diversity will in time prove that outward appearances aren’t relevant to the financial success of a project.
One final note from Fran Lebowitz who said this about the film industry, “Although it would be delightful, it is not possible for the culture to make up for the society.” The change we fight for is bigger than the entertainment industry.
Scott Eriksson, Talent Manager
Asian Cinema Entertainment (ACE)