Streaming: A Colorful Future for Entertainment
John Boyega, a 28-year-old black actor, was in Star Wars. It sounds like a dream come true. That is, if the dream involves getting death threats from hateful fans because of your race, having your appearance controlled by stylists who don’t embrace your culture, and getting narratively sidelined in favor of a white character. Boyega broke through into “an industry that wasn’t even ready for [him],” as he told Jimi Famurewa in a 2020 interview for British GQ. Essentially, he felt used by entertainment behemoth Disney; he’d been marketed as a lead to make the company seem progressive, then pushed to the side.
John Boyega has since signed a deal to produce films with Netflix.
Hollywood is rotten with racism. There has been outcry against it for years, with actors, writers, and consumers alike clamoring for more diversity and representation on movie and tv screens. It seems, though, that little changes in any meaningful way when it comes to conventional Hollywood. Maybe, then, a newer, less conventional branch of entertainment is where quality representation must be established. Enter streaming services.
Streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, are spearheading the campaign for good representation in entertainment since Hollywood won’t. To evaluate the successes and failures of streaming and Hollywood, though, “good representation” must be understood. Good representation is more than just including non-white characters. The existence of a non-white character only does so much good if that character is “stereotypical” and “one-dimensional” rather than “multi-dimensional” and “multi-faceted,” according to Maryann Erigha’s article “Race, Gender, Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change.” Characters of color need to exist outside of a white lens. They need to hold their own narrative significance. They need to be main characters. In the words of Rashad Robinson, executive director of racial representation organization Color of Change, the writing for non-white characters has to be “authentic, fair, and have humanity” for it to be good representation. Non-white characters can’t exist just to support or prop up a more important white character. They can’t exist just for comic relief. They can’t exist just on the sidelines. Their race can’t be portrayed through the white perspectives alone. These common practices in media perpetuate stereotypes about people of color and enforce the idea that they are less important than white people.
Another aspect of good diversity is what Maryann Erigha refers to as “centrality.” People of color should be “located in institutions that are in the core…of cultural production” in order for the industry to be truly diverse. If people of color don’t have access to core talent agencies or the inner circle of production companies, their stories remain on the periphery of the entertainment industry. When there isn’t diversity at the center of the industry and white actors and creators are given a disproportionate amount of opportunity, diversity doesn’t reach a general audience.
These factors that work against meaningful diversity are all too prevalent in Hollywood. Ashley Nicole Black, a writer for “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” put it succinctly in saying “the system is racist.” Hollywood was built on white supremacy. White men controlled the business at its inception. White men dictated the structures and the unwritten rules within the business. White men did it all in such a way that allowed themselves to remain in power. The concept of centrality is key to true diversity. Agencies don’t adequately support people of color, which essentially locks them out of the business. Entertainment giants continue to have the majority of their highest executive levels occupied by white people.
Attempts at diversity often contribute to mere tokenism. A television show will hire one writer of color and one director of color and think that’s good enough. Creators of color get hired, but from there, companies don’t care “how quickly they’re promoted and elevated,” according to Black, which leaves them struggling to rise past low-level positions. Hollywood checks boxes for doing the bare minimum and pretends it’s sufficient without making any change. It’s even a struggle for people of color to tell their own stories. It’s common that a story centering on characters of color will be told by a white director or writer because companies want a recognizable name behind the camera or they want someone who has impressive credits. The problem with that is “you can’t get credits if you don’t get opportunities,” and white people have historically been the ones getting opportunities, says short film director Matthew Cherry. Since the current status quo benefits the white Hollywood executives in power, they won’t try to change the system in meaningful ways. It might not be worth hoping for. A structure with rot running that deep cannot be salvaged. A new structure, though, could be the solution.
Netflix changed the entertainment game when it launched a video streaming function in 2007. Streaming evolved from merely being a convenient way to access pre-existing content to being on the cutting edge of original content. Streaming has changed the face of the entertainment industry with services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ offering scores of original TV shows and movies that garner audience and critical approval alike. Streaming is an entirely new branch of the entertainment industry, which means its structure is more malleable as far as diversity and inclusion. The system isn’t stuck due to decades of white supremacy.
Already, the difference between streaming and the more conventional side of Hollywood is clear. Streaming services have more characters of color in their shows, largely in part because it’s easier for creators of color to tell their stories. The people behind streaming platforms seem to better understand that diversity isn’t just about quantity, but quality as well. Their effort is reflected in audience responses, where 65% of consumers of color feel that streaming shows are “more reflective of America’s diversity” than their network cable counterparts according to a recent Horowitz Research survey. Streaming services can deliver the diversity that Hollywood is too far gone to incorporate.
Erigha, M. (2015). Race, Gender, Hollywood: Representation in Cultural Production and Digital Media’s Potential for Change. Sociology Compass, 9(1), 78–89. https://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12237
Famurewa, J., Maoui, Z., & Johnston, K. (2020, September 02). John Boyega: ‘I’m the only cast member whose experience of Star Wars was based on their race’. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/culture/article/john-boyega-interview-2020
Low, E. (2020, June 30). The Reckoning Over Representation: Black Hollywood Speaks Out, But Is the Industry Listening? Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://variety.com/2020/biz/features/black-representation-hollywood-inclusion-diversity-entertainment-1234693219/
Umstead, R. (2019, December 07). Diverse Characters Increasing On-Screen, but Viewers Want Better Portrayals. Retrieved October 15, 2020, from https://www.nexttv.com/blog/diverse-images-increasing-screen-viewers-want-more
White, A. (2017, August 28). How can TV and movies get representation right? We asked 6 Hollywood diversity consultants. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/8/28/16181026/hollywood-representation-diversity-tv-movies