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Stop making excuses for the lack of diversity in film

February 6, 2020, 6:21 PM UTC

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In her latest opinion piece for the New York Times, Aisha Harris digs into Hollywood’s habit of embracing films that have a diversity dodge built in. She gets right to the point. Why do so few of Martin Scorsese’s films have female leads? Or meaningful roles for people of color, for that matter?

“When it comes to filmmakers guarding themselves against critiques for telling the same-old stories about white men, history is a powerful shield,” she writes. She was referring to The Irishman, Scorsese’s epic three-decade saga of mobs, unions, and politicos, and in which actor Anna Paquin has only one line in three and a half hours of mostly white male drama. Scorsese has dismissed the critique, saying that his films have women if the story calls for it.

But Oscar contenders consistently retreat to safe territory when it comes to diversity—this year, there’s 1917, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Little Women to parse.

“A quick glance at the best picture nominees reveals just how impenetrable that armor is: Of the nine films in this category, all but two spend the majority of their running times at least 39 years in the past,” writes Harris. “Each of these period pieces is overwhelmingly homogeneous when it comes to race, gender or both; the fact that they are set firmly in the past seemingly allows them to exist without much pushback.”

The problem she says, bringing receipts, is that there were women and people of color in history. Fighting in wars. Putting white astronauts on the moon. In justice movements. Even hanging around with Henry the VIII. Erasing them from film is a choice, and perhaps a conscious one designed to continue to center white men in stories that actually belong to everyone.

In the spirit of embracing uncomfortable conversations about race and culture, there is an outstanding option this year.

Consider American Factory, the Oscar-nominated documentary feature, and the Netflix debut of Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions. The film does a remarkable job documenting the culture clash when a Chinese company re-opens a much-lamented shuttered factory in Ohio. It offers a surprising and poignant look at the human challenges of globalization and is sparking important conversations in the U.S. and in China, where pirated versions are finding an audience prevented from accessing Netflix.

My colleague Aric Jenkins has a terrific interview with the filmmakers here.

What caught me up short was one surreal moment, about an hour in, that Jenkins describes perfectly: “The Chinese president of a Chinese-owned factory is coaching a roomful of Chinese workers on how to increase the productivity of their American coworkers, whom they work together with in Dayton.”

To do that, Fuyao Glass America president Jeff Daochuan Liu had to explain “Americans” to them, part exasperated manager, part armchair anthropologist. It was a startling look at how Americans are perceived, and I imagine for some people was an uncomfortable and unfamiliar window into what it’s like to be stereotyped, diminished, and erased.

“You need some skills to handle Americans. How can we take advantage of American characteristics to make them work for Fuyao?” he begins.

“There’s a culture in the U.S. where children are showered with encouragement. So everyone who grows up in the U.S. is overconfident. They are super confident. Americans love being flattered to death. You will get into trouble if you fight with them. ‘Donkeys like being touched in the direction their hair grows.’ You should touch donkeys in the direction their hairs grow, otherwise they’ll kick you.”

But it was Liu who delivered the real kicker. “We need to use our wisdom to guide and help them.”

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

On Point

The largest companies in the U.K. are failing to set diversity targets on corporate boards This is the finding of the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), U.K.’s audit and accounting regulator, which found that Britain’s largest companies are not setting goals to increase diversity on board. According to their study, a dismal 2% of FTSE 250 companies and 14% of the FTSE 100 set measurable goals for board diversity. In cases where targets have been set, no FTSE 350 companies are reporting their progress. “The U.K.’s record on boardroom ethnicity is poor,” said Sir Jon Thompson, CEO of the FRC in a statement. “A more diverse boardroom leads to better business outcomes, which is why the U.K. Corporate Governance Code, and now the UK Stewardship Code, requires companies and investors to promote diversity and inclusion. We will monitor closely how companies report on their policies or explain their lack of progress, in this area.”
FRC

Study: Native Americans are offended by team mascots and name of D.C.’s American football team The study, conducted by the University of California Berkeley, contradicts previous surveys on the matter. More than 1,000 self-identified Native Americans participated—67% of whom routinely engage in tribal cultural practices—and reported feeling deeply offended by “caricatures of Native Americans.” The study is the largest to explore Indigenous attitudes toward sports mascots. “We keep seeing clear examples of Native people speaking up and protesting these problematic team names and mascots. Yet, public opinion polls, with little methodological transparency, say that Native people are not offended. Things just don’t add up,” says Arianne Eason, the UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology who co-led the study.
Berkeley

The FBI declares white supremacist and racially-motivated terrorism a “national threat priority” FBI director Christopher Wray, speaking at an oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, says the agency has elevated its assessment of the danger posed by racially-motivated violent extremists. He cited white supremacists explicitly, and the “lone actors” who are radicalized online, and who decide to attack “soft targets” in public like houses of worship and retail outlets. "That threat is what we assess is the biggest threat to the homeland right now," he said.
CBS News

White House threatens to veto emergency aid package to Puerto Rico On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives is planning a vote on a $4.7 billion emergency aid package intended to help the U.S. territory recover from a series of earthquakes, but the Trump administration called this package “misguided.” It is the latest in a series of stand-offs between the White House and the Democrat-led House on aid to Puerto Rico; the island has been waiting for two years on billions of dollars approved by Congress for recovery from Hurricane Maria.
Washington Post

On Background

Hey, ally! You’ve been called out. Now what? Sam Dylan Finch is here with an important reminder that it’s human to feel defensive when you’ve been told you’ve made a mistake in speech or deed. But saying, “I didn’t mean it that way!” just won’t get you where you, as an ally, need to be. Repairing things “requires decentering our own feelings and tuning in, which takes a certain amount of practice and skill,” he says. “This can be difficult to do when we’re feeling fragile and vulnerable.” Finch offers nine phrases to use that can both minimize any harm caused and help anyone grow. (All are excellent. “I believe you” and “thank you” are the foundations.) But Finch offers a smart adjustment to the natural impulse to ask the person you harmed for help. “You never want to imply that the folks who are calling you out are required to give you an extensive education or invest even more labor on your behalf,” he says. He offers a better way.
Everyday Feminism

Back in the day, distinctively Black names offered an advantage Numerous research has shown that people with distinctively Black names are discriminated against in employment, education, and health care scenarios. But this fascinating working paper from economic historians Lisa Cook, Trevon Logan, and John Parman found that in the past, Black men with obviously Black names lived longer than other Black men. The team examined over three million death certificates from Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina issued between 1802 to 1970 and found a “robust within-race mortality difference,” which added more than one year of life to men with Black-sounding names. Prepare to nerd out, their methodology is fascinating and still evolving. “Overall, the results suggest cultural factors may be at play in both the transmission of distinctively black names and their mortality effects,” they say. “As much as 10% of the historical between-race mortality gap would have been closed if every black man were given a black name.”
NBER

Deaf man adopted a deaf rescue dog and taught him sign language Emerson had a rough start in life. The pup suffered from seizures and canine parvovirus, a dangerous illness for puppies, before he was three months old. After he recovered, Lindsay Powers, from foster-based rescue NFR Maine, posted about Emerson on Facebook. Nick Abbot, who is also deaf, thought they would have a good connection—and they did! Abbot has taught Emerson to sit, lie down, and come by signing, and documented their many adventures together on a popular Instagram account and in a children’s book, the proceeds of which will be shared with rescue shelters as well as organizations for people with audio disabilities. Not really an inclusion lesson here, but, sometimes it’s just nice to look at pictures of a very good boy.
The Epoch Times

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.

Quote

"My impression of Americans is that they uncomplicated. Interpersonal relations among Americans are much more practical, in contrast to the complicated way that we Chinese people treat each other."

Men Xuezhi, 54, doctor, Beijing, in an Associated Press roundup of how Americans are perceived around the world.