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Diversity is now the defining conversation of the entertainment industry

Diversity is now the defining conversation of the entertainment industry

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This year, in lieu of the traditional "Best Of" lists, we thought it would be fun to throw our editors into a draft together and have a conversation. The last few years we’ve been made more aware than ever of systematic discrimination, everywhere from our law enforcement to our boardrooms. Silicon Valley has grappled, with halting progress, to correct its deeply entrenched sexism. But Hollywood has always been painfully behind when it comes to reflecting the changing times — until this year. As platforms and channels diversified exponentially so did the people on screen and behind the cameras. Asian Americans created and starred in critically lauded sitcoms for the first time in over 20 years. The triumphant return of Star Wars starred a black man, a Hispanic man, and a white woman. And Caitlyn Jenner became the most high-profile transgender celebrity, in a year when trans issues received unprecedented attention on and offscreen.

Hollywood has long been making half-hearted gestures toward diversity through quotas and special achievement awards, but this year was when audiences started voting with their dollars and their clicks. And the message was clear: the future of entertainment won’t be VR blockbusters or 4K Laser Projected 3D IMAX with rumbling seats. It will be an on-screen America that reflects the real America, and a community of directors, writers, and producers with a huge array of backgrounds and points of view. We brought Emily Yoshida and Kwame Opam together to talk about the changing face of entertainment in 2015.

Kwame Opam: Earlier this year, The New York Times openly wondered whether or not the word "diversity" had lost all meaning. It obviously hasn't, even if it’s been over- or misused, but it's such a huge topic that affects so many people that there are certainly a thousand and one ways for people to get it right and wrong. There was a lot of progress made in the last year, and maybe just as many steps back. I tend to think of the Ellen Pao trial as proof of the tech industry, right alongside so many other industries, struggling to reckon with inclusivity but not really getting how to undo the damaging practices that got them in court. At the same time, at least they’re changing their hiring practices little by little. Sort of.

There was a lot of progress made this year, and as many steps back

I don't think the call for diversity affected any other industry quite as visibly as entertainment. In television especially, networks and studios took perceived "risks" by airing shows created by and for people of different races, genders, and orientations, and it paid off commercially and critically. Empire became a ratings and cultural phenomenon in a league of its own. With Master of None, Aziz Ansari took the sadcom formula Louis C.K. pioneered and turned it into something so heartwarming and honest that it feels new, especially with how it portrays South Asian characters. And Transparent is probably the best show on TV. I never thought a cake floating in a pool could feel so transcendent.

These are conversation-defining shows. People care about them, and it's great that they're being green-lit. Anyone who was worried the Golden Age of TV would end with the Mad Men finale was basically wrong.

Emily Yoshida: I honestly don’t care about the Peak TV problem if it leads to Peak TV Diversity. There are no longer three or four golden shows that everyone watches; everyone’s finding their own corner of the TV universe that they like, and there’s something super liberating about that as a viewer, and I’d imagine as a creator also.

At the same time, we were still being constantly made aware of how much progress still needs to be made when it comes to determining whose voices get heard, especially in Hollywood. For me, the HBO show which elicited the frustrated screams week to week in 2015 was not Game of Thrones, but Project Greenlight, the revival of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's indie film reality series. For the cult of viewers the show attracted after its headline-making premiere (TL;DR, Matt Damon doesn't think diversity behind the camera matters all that much) producer Effie Brown became a martyr of sorts — not because she was a saint, but because of the struggle she represented. As a woman of color in a managerial position, she ran up against every microaggression in the book, and the show was a brutal look at the pervasive, often subconscious sexism of the movie-making industry.

Effie Brown

"Young guys in baseball caps who remind older guys in baseball caps of themselves" — that's how The New York Times' Maureen Dowd described the criteria by which the new auteurs of Hollywood are vetted and boosted, year after year. Her comprehensive, devastating feature for the paper's magazine had women from every corner of Hollywood — from Shonda Rhimes to Leslye Headland — telling different versions of the same sexist story. Since the dawn of the '70s blockbuster era, American filmmaking has been more about money than art, and when people start caring about money they get scared — in this case, scared of anything but the white male director prototype steering a studio-engineered franchise film.

Of course, sometimes that strategy backfires spectacularly — let's never forget the crash-and-burn of Josh Trank's Fantastic Four — another young director rushed to the big leagues off the success of a low-budget genre indie. The horror stories from the set and the disaster of a press tour are all a huge cautionary tale for any producer who thinks that a penis and a buzzy Sundance film are the only prerequisite to handling a $100M+ blockbuster. And yet, I'd bet you a large sum of money that Trank works again.

Kwame: Oh, Trank will almost certainly work again. Fantastic Four might have been irretrievably bad (I'm still amazed Fox felt the need to step in at the eleventh hour to make the movie worse) but one multimillion-dollar foul up isn't enough to stop Hollywood from throwing opportunities at relatively untested male talent. Just look at Colin Trevorrow's Jurassic World. Despite reducing the film’s character development to basically "Dude who loves dinosaurs teams up with frigid lady in high heels," people loved it. Box-office-wise, it's behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And wouldn't you know it? Trevorrow's directing Star Wars: Episode IX now. And dude's made four movies to date? Awesome.

Creed and Straight Outta Compton were huge successes

I do think the franchise strategy — something every studio is suddenly trying its hand at, what with the million cinematic universes cropping up — can be taken in interesting directions, though. Creed is a transparent attempt by Sony to keep the Rocky brand fresh for young audiences. But instead of hiring a young white director, they hired Ryan Coogler, a young black director. The result is a movie that actually corrects some of the franchise's past mistakes — mainly, the racially tinged framing of Apollo Creed as a rival-villain. Its critical acclaim has quickly turned into Oscar buzz, and alongside the runaway summer success of Straight Outta Compton, it validates everyone in Hollywood who had the radical notion that movies for non-white audiences can make serious bank.

But critical acclaim and the Oscar conversation are two totally different things. Hollywood is already slow when it comes to representation, but the award shows are so much slower. For instance, trans issues figured more prominently in the media than ever this year, with awareness reaching an all-time high after Caitlyn Jenner came out in Vanity Fair. At the same time, 2015 gave us two very different movies about trans women to talk about in her wake. Tangerine is a technically daring Sundance darling that stars actual trans women of color. The Danish Girl is, by most accounts, a decent prestige film starring a cisgender man. But of course, The Danish Girl is the obvious choice for Oscar contention.

Emily: I know you haven’t seen The Danish Girl yet, Kwame, so I’ll save you a couple hours: yes, Eddie Redmayne is great, but the film is a trendpiece, a book report — an unfortunate fate for Lili Elbe’s story. It suffers the same problem as another infamous Issue movie, Crash (which won the 2006 Best Picture Oscar) in that every single conversation in the film is about the Issue. This is a hallmark of a clinical, outside-in approach to a group of people, or a social theme ("What must trans people talk about all the time? Probably being trans!") and Tangerine's rejection of all that is what makes it so memorable, humanizing its characters far more than Tom Hooper's film.

And again, that all comes down to who's telling the story. Director Sean Baker penned the script for Tangerine with co-writer Chris Bergoch, but they worked closely with stars Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rogers, whom they met at an LGBTQ center blocks away from the filming location. "Being that I’m a cisgender white male from outside of that world, I knew that I couldn’t walk in there and impose any sort of script or a plot," Baker told Vogue. "It wouldn’t be the responsible way of doing this or the respectable way of doing this." Instead, he let Taylor and Rogers supply the real-life details and anecdotes that color the story — some funny, some tragic, all lived-in and human.

It's more possible than ever to create your own circle outside of the establishment

Tangerine was made for a fraction of the budget of The Danish Girl, and via far less traditional means. Its comparative success suggests that an approval stamp from Hollywood's establishment doesn't add automatic value, given that it’s often outside that establishment where much more diverse, interesting work springs up. For a long time now, we've defined "diversity" as increased inclusion in an established circle. But in an increasingly sprawling, non-centrifugal entertainment environment, it's more possible and powerful than ever to create your own circle.

Kwame: And it’s all the more satisfying to see traditional circles of influence break down. While the Ellen Pao trial illuminated how difficult it is to dismantle systemic sexism within the tech industry, the slow but all-too-necessary fall of Bill Cosby was important and powerful. We finally heeded the voices of dozens of women, and he's finally paying the price. That victory was followed swiftly by James Deen’s public downfall in the porn industry, as well as by an ongoing reassessment of R. Kelly amid numerous allegations that he sexually abuses underage girls.

We’re nowhere near done with these conversations, but I think overall we’re having more and better conversations that put us in good position going into 2016 to break down more walls.