Diversity Sells
Diversity Sells

by Marc Morial

Ignoring the experiences of women and people of color now comes at a price for filmmakers and TV execs.

From the television sets in our living rooms to our local movie theaters, diversity appears to be the new black.

Fresh off the success of small-screen hits like Fox’s musical drama Empire, CW’s telenovela-inspired Jane the Virgin, and ABC’s family-centric Black-ish, television has emerged as a powerful frontrunner in the race to broaden inclusion in our nation’s shared media landscape -- even outpacing Hollywood.

Nonetheless, people of color are gaining more movie leads in Hollywood films, overall cast diversity is increasing, and directors of color are more frequent phenomena on movie sets than in the past, according to UCLA’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report.

But these hard-fought strides are often undermined by harsh realities -- like the total lack of nominations for black actors, directors, cinematographers, or female screenwriters at this year’s Oscars.

And while people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, they don’t show up anywhere near that much either in front of the cameras or behind the scenes.

The push to diversify casts and crews on television and in film is clearly having a moment right now. Yet the work to remedy the underrepresentation of people of color and women is far from over. It requires a dedication far more sustained than a brief uptick in casting.

Diversity is about more than a studio’s payroll. It’s about perspective and pride.

Debra Martin Chase, the founder of Martin Chase Productions, credits a desire to create positive images of African Americans in film and television as the catalyst that drove her into the entertainment business.

“I grew up watching television and going to the movies,” she wrote in a recent essay for the National Urban League’s State of Black America report.

“While I was conscious of the fact that I seldom saw myself in the images that were projected on screen,” she continued, “it wasn't until I was older that I understood what that really meant. Those images did not just dictate how I viewed myself. I eventually learned that they very clearly influenced how the outside world viewed me and others like me.”

Diversity benefits us all. When communities are fairly represented in movies and television shows, we’re given the opportunity to learn about one another -- what makes us unique, as well as what we share in common.

Evidence from UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report points to another emerging truth about diversity: It sells. The data shows that our nation’s increasingly diverse audiences are buying more movie tickets, and tuning into more television shows, for productions that have “relatively diverse casts.”

That makes sense. Diverse audiences want to see their multifaceted lives reflected in the media they enjoy.

If ignoring the lives and experiences of so many Americans once came without a price, today’s audiences are making their voices heard with their dollars and their Nielsen ratings influence.

They’re sending a loud and clear message to media decision makers: They’re no longer willing to have their American experience ignored.

Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League and the former mayor of New Orleans. NUL.org