When Frances McDormand took the stage Sunday night to accept her Oscar for Best Actress, she delivered a rousing speech but left the audience in the theater and at home puzzled over two unfamiliar words: ‘inclusion rider’.
What is an inclusion rider? The one that McDormand mentioned is essentially an equity clause inserted into contracts; actors can request to be retained only if the cast and crew is diverse, allowing them to put pressure on studio executives to hire actors and crew members representing backgrounds of a vast array of races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities.
When McDormand left the stage at the Oscars, she told reporters, “I just found out about this last week. This has always been available to all—everybody who does a negotiation on a film—which means you can ask for or demand at least 50 percent diversity in not only the casting but the crew. The fact that I just learned that after 35 years in the film business—we aren’t going back.”
The words “inclusion rider” may be a novel concept to some, but this call for equity in Hollywood contracts has been cooking for years. Stacy Smith, a professor who founded the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, introduced the concept of an inclusion rider during a TED talk on “the data behind Hollywood’s sexism” in 2016.
Out of the 45 speaking roles typically found in most films, nearly 30 of those could be portrayed by a diverse array of actors, in terms of race, sexual orientation, and more, but far too often they are not. After watching 800 films from 2007 to 2015 and cataloguing every character with dialogue based on their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability, Smith found that less than one third of the 35,205 speaking characters in 800 films were portrayed by women or girls. She discovered that those statistics are essentially equal to a small sample of films produced from 1946 to 1955; which means that in over 50 years, not much has changed. “There’s no reason why those minor roles can’t match or reflect the demography of where the story is taking place,” Smith explained.
Smith also discovered that, while looking for speaking characters on film, 48 out of 100 films released in 2016 did not feature a single African-American speaking character. Of those 100 films, 70 had not a single Asian or Asian-American female speaking character, 84 had no female speaking characters with a disability, and 93 of those films had not one single LGBT female speaking character. “An equity rider by an A-lister in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live. Now, there’s no reason why a network, a studio, or a production company cannot adopt the same contractual language in their negotiation processes,” Smith argued.
To say these statistics of underrepresentation are bleak is an understatement, and an inclusion rider written into the contracts of major talent attached to a large studio movie could begin to repair some of the damage that has been done to those who have been erased from Hollywood. And while a single actor may not be the most powerful individual on a film set, they are the public face of the production; their star power is crucial to the studio executives’ bottom line. In this way, actors do have power, and as public figures they should also have a responsibility to urge executives to make positive changes for inclusive representation on screen and on set. As McDormand noted in her speech, older, established actors and industry gatekeepers—most of whom are white and male—have a responsibility to make space for those who have been historically erased from films, and demand an intersectional inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds.
Of course, not all movie stars are equal; only a select group actors have the clout to really push for an inclusion rider in their contracts. Meryl Streep, for one. As an establishment star with 21 Oscar nominations under her belt, it could be argued that if Streep negotiated for an equity clause in her contract that stated she would not appear in a producer’s film unless the cast and crew were diverse, studios would likely be more inclined to accept this request than if a young actor of color with hardly any acting credits to vouch for them made the same request. As McDormand said in her acceptance speech when requesting the women in the room to stand with her, “Meryl, if you do it, everybody else will.”
And while inclusion of a more diverse cast can begin with the audition process, it is important to note that one movie is an entire production that can employ hundreds of people; it is not solely actors, writers and directors who should reflect the diverse world in which we live, but lighting technicians, hairstylists, and graphic designers who are all paid to construct the stories told on film as well. And if more women and people of color are hired as executives and producers, a positive structural change could come from the top down, all the way to the individual crew members who play an important part in filmmaking.
The issue of underrepresentation is also not limited to film or the Oscars. We should be turning an analytical eye towards the television landscape as well, where this initiative for equity has also begun, as Ava DuVernay has partnered with Netflix and HBO to create the Evolve Entertainment Fund to create opportunities for people of color, women and low income residents of Los Angeles. Without financial support and funds like the one started by DuVernay or contractual equity clauses negotiated by powerful actors, it becomes increasingly more difficult for people who have been continually shut out of Hollywood to chisel their way in. The sort of radical change that is required to repair a broken culture machine like Hollywood would need decades to fully take hold—and the industry needs a major overhaul, on systemic and structural levels—but McDormand’s call to action for inclusion riders written into contracts is a good start to pressuring the filmmaking community to tell stories that reflect the diverse populations who pay to see films.