By Ryan Clarkson, Leveller Media
When Frances McDormand received her 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress, she gave an acceptance speech as stirring as any she’d ever delivered on film. She called for gender parity in Hollywood — “we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed” — and concluded with two words that quickly entered the cinematic lexicon: “Inclusion rider.” When an actor, director, producer or other creator insists on an inclusion rider, sometimes called an equity rider, in their contract, the production is obligated to ensure diversity of staff, actors (“as long as its sensible for the plot”), and crew. As McDormand put it after the ceremony, “We aren’t going back” to the way things used to be.
Dr. Stacy Smith of the University of South California introduced inclusion riders in 2014, but she never touted them as the single solution for inequity in Hollywood. They’re a good idea, but more needs to be done. Frances McDormand can get an inclusion rider added to her contracts, as can fellow supporters like Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson. One major studio, WarnerMedia, and one of the largest agencies, William Morris Endeavor, have pledged to incorporate riders in future productions. While this is necessary progress, it’s not enough. For one thing, inclusion riders presume that a production includes someone with sufficient sway and influence to impose it. An A-list star in a blockbuster or a revered director on a [prestigious?] picture can guarantee diversity both in front of and behind the camera, but not every production boasts someone with sufficient will and power. The vast majority of productions aren’t tentpole movies, and it’s possible that no creative on a project will have the negotiating power needed to guarantee inclusion.
Well-meaning people may reduce representation on film to presence on set. What do I mean? I mean that a film can feature diverse talent while telling an old story. The night that Frances McDormand won her Oscar, Best Picture went to Green Book, a film that attempted diversity. It addressed African-American history and featured black actors, but its perspective, as critics and audience alike noted, was essentially that of a white liberal. There was diversity in theory, but little representation in practice. The family of Don Shirley, the black pianist played by Mahershala Ali, even protested that the film egregiously distorted their relative’s story. Two years before Green Book surprised audiences and distressed critics, Best Picture went to Moonlight, which also starred Mahershala Ali. That film, which had black talent in front of and behind the camera, went beyond inclusion and achieved representation.
Companies like A24, which produced Moonlight and similarly diverse films like The Farewell and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, have done an admirable job, but they remain the exception, not the rule. And it’s evident that many promising artists have gone undervalued and underfunded; they might receive critical praise and connect with audiences, but they’re neglected by front offices and marketing teams. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is universally acknowledged as one of the great 1970’s films, but Burnett’s second film, My Brother’s Wedding, was pulled from release after a single festival showing in 1983. The movie eventually arrived to critical acclaim and a single theater in 2007. More recently, Fast Color, an independent superhero film starring black women, was in theaters long enough for critics to praise it, but not long enough for audiences to discover it.
In an era when even an artist as acclaimed and popular as Martin Scorsese struggles for financing, it’s obvious that the film industry needs to find a new way forward. Equity and inclusion riders should be part of the solution, but perhaps we need to look beyond the typical business model that has prevailed in Hollywood for decades. Imagine if audiences had the ability to invest in and support projects from underrepresented voices, whether or not the creators and stars had big-name agents and big-league money. Imagine if the artists could create films without worrying about corporate focus groups and franchise potential. Imagine, in short, a level playing field. In such an entertainment production world, inclusion riders would be things of the past: There would be true diversity, true representation. No longer would anyone have to negotiate for the inclusivity that would already be a given.