As usual, Frances McDormand stunned us.
After being awarded the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand had some work to do, and she did it fast. She roused the crowd, literally raised female filmmakers up, and sent Google scrambling. She even got Merriam-Webster Twitter abuzz. And all it took was two words.
What’s an “inclusion rider”? According to writer Colin Dwyer:
It’s a stipulation that actors and actresses can ask (or demand) to have inserted into their contracts, which would require a certain level of diversity among a film’s cast and crew.
Social scientist Stacy Smith originally laid out the dispiriting statistics around what Hollywood looks like now.
And the way it could change.
McDormand was clear about what she meant by “diversity,” as my CFR colleague Sherie James points out here. Basically, even if white feminism still walked the earth this year at the Academy Awards, McDormand isn’t having it. Her demand is for an intersectional Hollywood. Inclusion riders are for all groups who are typically not get invited to the movie-making party — not just white women.
And then somebody had to be the bummer.
The bummer, in this case, was Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, who sniffed at the need for an inclusion rider. In an interview with USA Today, Hastings said,
We’re not so big on doing everything through agreements. We’re trying to do things creatively.
Why do I have a hunch that “creatively” is not the manner in which Hastings handles his own employment contract? I’m gonna guess he uses lawyers and agents and hardball negotiating.
To be sure, Netflix has made some great films and TV series that look like the actual world we are living in these days, not the pale and putrid nightmare that the 45th President strives to drag us into. Franchises such as Orange Is the New Black, Luke Cage and the reboot of One Day at a Time come to mind. I once attended a technology conference where a Netflix employee explained how Chelsea Handler’s show was translated into 20-plus languages in just three days. This would suggest that Netflix values inclusion and diversity on at least some level.
It’s also no secret that Netflix wants to take over the world, but wants to earn those eyeballs — and the cash — “creatively.” It has given deals to TV titans like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. So it’s easy for Netflix to suggest that diversity is “handled.” Murphy has taken a diversity pledge, and, through his foundation, substantially increased the number of women and people of color who work on his projects. Rhimes created a network TV juggernaut that includes two series starring powerful African-American women.
But individual solutions are not systematic change. Would it surprise you to learn that ABC wanted Scandal’s Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, to be white? Or that Scandal was the first TV drama series to star an African-American woman in 37 years?
That sounds about right. Back in the early 1990s, I was a development scout for a classy TV movie producer who mostly made true-crime movies. Such a job existed back then because the 24-hour news cycle was barely a blip on our screen: O.J. hadn’t gotten into his white Bronco yet and made all true-crime TV movies irrelevant. Through that job, I’d go on to meet Lawrence Wright, Russell Banks, Eve Ensler and Caleb Carr. The first project I worked on was based on a book by the legendary Peter Maas, who wrote Serpico. It featured Valerie Bertinelli and a young Christopher Meloni. The ratings and reviews were spectacular. My boss had previously worked with Jonathan Demme, produced Joe McGinniss’s notorious Fatal Vision, and brought to a not-yet-dominant HBO a searing film about a sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in small-town Louisiana. This was years before anyone did anything of the kind.
People wanted to work with us. They liked us. They really, really did.
Unless we pitched them certain stories.
Here are the stories they did not want to work on with us:
- The Amistad rebellion, years before Spielberg made it, with an Oscar-winning writer attached.
- A biopic of legendary Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, the first African-American from NYC to serve in Congress.
- The true story of Anna Hopkins, an IBM executive who hunted down her daughter’s killer. Unlike the local police, she refused to believe that her daughter, a young mother of two, might simply wander off after a night at a local club. Aided by friends and family, Hopkins created a dragnet and located the serial killer who had not only murdered her daughter but several other women. Even the police admitted that they would never have caught the killer without Hopkins’ detective work.
Incidentally, Hopkins was Black. So was her daughter’s killer. As would have been perhaps 80% of the people in the movie. Which we did not make.
The TV money people who turned these stories down were always nice, and they always had a reason. They would always say that a story was “urban.” That a story was “difficult.” That there would be “creative issues.”
Hmmm. Nobody ever said the words, “We won’t make a story where the hero and the majority of the characters are Black.” And, to my great shame, because I wanted to keep my job, I never said a word, either. I let them keep speaking in code.
There was absolutely no penalty for me, a white woman, for keeping things exactly the way they were. That penalty was paid by the TV artists of color who wouldn’t get any work from us — or, frankly, almost any network. They paid that penalty for decades.
It wasn’t supposed to be like that. In 1977, the blockbuster success of the miniseries Roots was supposed to herald a new era of African-Americans in TV. But it didn’t. It gave the white people who made TV all of the self-congratulations and none of the obligations. They didn’t need more Black history. Something like an inclusion rider would have forced the issue. An inclusion rider would have created more work for artists of color.
But people handled things “creatively” instead.
And here is another reason why we need to say the words, to take the action. Because the pay gap between white women and Black women is widening. According to a recent article in Slate by Kimberly Seals Allers, “At the beginning of the 1980s, black women with a college degree or higher and white women with a college degree or higher earned roughly the same wages. But today, wages for black women with a college degree or higher are 12.3 percent less than those of their white counterparts.” That’s where we are when we handle things “creatively.”
Here’s another reason why we need to say the words, to take the action. Because Netflix’s creative solutions don’t seem to apply to the actual running of Netflix. The company’s board consists of white men and a few white women. African Americans only make up 4% of staff and leadership; Latinos comprise 6% of staff and 5% of leadership. This is an entertainment company that craves global domination without actually looking like the globe.
Perhaps it worked all right in the past, when artists of color lacked the power to demand their due. When “allies” like me kept quiet. But Netflix or not, the first winds of change are already blowing: Michael B. Jordan, who stole Black Panther with his brilliant, swaggering Killmonger, has announced that all projects coming from his production company will have an inclusion rider going forward.
Jordan, of course, is producing and acting in a TV series called Raising Dion. For Netflix.
Let’s hope with the introduction of those two words, “inclusion rider,” we’ll soon be hearing two more words: “Time’s up.”