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
Cardinal, you haven’t said what sort of feedback you desire, so I’ll just start at the top and make comments until I’ve used up half an hour or so. After that, if you guide my attention for another round of Feedback, I can be more responsive to your actual needs.
The strategy of your 3-paragraph introduction is brilliant. You’re going to use a single anecdote of a black actor to illustrate the systemic racism of the Hollywood movie-making machine and use that same actor’s experience to launch your own thesis that actors whom Hollywood has disrespected will seek greener pastures elsewhere instead of fighting a losing battle for recognition from the establishment.
You’ve chosen John Boyega because he had some success, felt disrespected and marginalized, and has since found opportunity at Netflix, not only as an actor, but as a film producer (something you imply would not have happened in Hollywood).
So . . . good strategy. Good candidate. Now, how about the details, the tactics, the rhetorical approach?
Here we don’t know which part of the first claim is supposed to qualify as a dream come true. If John Boyega has been in lots of movies, maybe being in Star Wars is a particular thrill for him because of his love for the franchise. If it’s his first role ever, then maybe it’s a dream come true because he’s been auditioning since he was 16. If he’s been routinely passed over because he’s black, then the dream has to do with his race. In your presentation, we can’t tell, but you need to tell us; otherwise, your point is lost.
If you hadn’t told us he was black, this would be more intriguing. But if you’re going to tell us first, and then say he got death threats “because of race,” then we’re going to need some context. Did his attackers blame him for “taking a white role”? On what basis could he, and not the producers, be to blame for that?
This is interesting but a little confusing. Don’t stylists for a science fiction movie pride themselves in being able to mess with standards of contemporary culture and create characterizations that represent other worlds and times, not “our culture”?
This impression may be completely legitimate, but it does sound like sour grapes from an actor who thinks he’s more important than another character.
I’m glad to see this quote. I’ve been wanting to hear your character’s own words on the subject of his mishandling.
This is a beautiful piece of Purposeful Summary, cardinal. Again, it may be completely legitimate, but your readers have no way to judge whether Boyega’s claim is accurate or is a product of his own pride. I appreciate that you want to tell the whole story in just a few words. That is an EXTREMELY admirable goal. But this story might need more evidence before we can “side” with your main character.
The other possibility is that you don’t NEED to convince us that individual cases of false promise and sidelining are compelling. TAKEN TOGETHER, the decades of examples of actors of color being relegated to weak supporting roles are probably obvious to anyone paying attention. You might be able to walk the fine line between advancing the cumulative claim without giving TOO MUCH weight to this one example.
Even if his particular story doesn’t warrant close scrutiny, Boyega is probable still a very good candidate for your lead anecdote BECAUSE OF his Netflix deal.
So, how about this? If your “evidence”—his gripes about his Star Wars role—is not overwhelming but the consequence IS compelling, could you lead with that? John Boyega signed a deal to produce films for Netflix. It’s not the way he INTENDED to succeed in movies, but it’s a particularly sweet outcome considering the sour taste of his experience with the Star Wars franchise.
You see where I’m going with this? Once you position Netflix (and other streaming services/producing outfits) as the preferred path to success for POC, the experiences they had in their early movie roles don’t HAVE TO be so compelling. They felt marginalized and underappreciated and that’s all that matters. Their FEELINGS are all you have to convey.
There’s a subtle difference between racism and business decisions that you should acknowledge, Cardinal. Hollywood is probably guilty of both racism and ingrained stupidity, but you can easily demonstrate one while not so easily demonstrating the other. Do Hollywood producers automatically reject black actors as leads, as directors, as producers? Yes, probably. And by the numbers, demonstrably. Do they do it because they think black actors, directors, producers, can’t handle the job? That’s harder to prove. My guess is they don’t give a crap what color anybody is as long as they can produce green. And they way they decide who to take a chance on is the proven commodity. They don’t really want to be first to try anything. Something to keep in the back of your mind.
Streaming services, though, are IN THE BUSINESS of breaking the mold, aren’t they? They succeed, when they succeed by offering a clear ALTERNATIVE to the Hollywood mainstream product and business model.
Yeah, like that.
So we end up in the same place, Cardinal. Creative artists seeking to be judged on their talent and capability will go to the house that’s more interested in their ability than their color. UNLESS, and this is very possible, Netflix and other producing machines are making business decisions just as cynical as those of the Hollywood behemoths. Black actors in lead roles directed by black directors on a script by a black screenwriter are commodities that are pitched to a very specific audience that’s been neglected for too long and is eager to be sold to.
To recap. I admire what you’re doing, Cardinal, and I want to recommend a shift of emphasis to a position that will be easier to defend if this is the best evidence you have. Is that helpful? Have I said anything that seems contrary to your opinions on the subject you’re writing about?
I will appreciate your thoughtful response.
I know I didn’t ask for specific feedback the first time around, which is because I felt so aimless with this that I didn’t know what to ask for. Your initial feedback was so helpful and I was able to rework the opening anecdote when I started rewriting. Now I have some questions:
-Am I too accusatory? I felt like I needed to firmly establish that there is a problem in Hollywood, but I don’t know if I’m being too harsh.
-Do my ideas flow logically or is the essay really choppy? My thought was that I’d define what “good diversity” is, then put conventional Hollywood into the category of “bad diversity” by using specific examples of where that industry has failed creators of color. After setting all of that up, I felt like I could move onto the potential bright future for streaming services. That’s what was logical to me, but I’m not sure how it translated.
I already plan on citing my sources better.
Feel free to address any other glaring flaws I’m not catching (only if it won’t take too much time- you must have so many of these to do).
Your argument will get the ready approval of people who already agree with you, Cardinal, because it pulls no punches about its claims, and there’s plenty of “felt evidence” in our shared cultural experience to suggest that your position is sound. But it won’t convince readers who don’t already sense the injustice of sidelining creatives of color. Your evidence for the most part amounts to Boyega saying he was mishandled and Black saying the system is racist. The rest may all be true, but it might also not be, as far as readers are concerned.
I love the boldness of “Hollywood is rotten with racism,” but if you don’t support that offensive claim, it’s dangerous. It costs you readers that you might be able to retain with a more measured by equally conclusive claim: the motivations of Hollywood’s power brokers are immaterial to the facts: creatives of color are not proportionally represented or supported by the system. So, whether they’re denied access because of overt prejudice or because of business decisions that give every appearance of prejudice irrelevant to the result. They don’t get a fair shot in Hollywood. Enter streaming services.
If you’re polishing, you have some problem sentences.
It seems, though, that little changes in any meaningful way when it comes to conventional Hollywood.
—”Little changes” sounds like your subject. Then it isn’t.
The existence of a non-white character only does so much good if that character is “stereotypical”
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.
—The list of “can’ts” aren’t common practices. Casting for comic relief is a common practice. Portraying through a white lens is too. So is pushing characters to the sidelines. Those practices perpetuate stereotypes. That “they can’t” isn’t a practice.
It’s even a struggle for people of color to tell their own stories.
Streaming evolved from merely being a convenient way to access pre-existing content to being on the cutting edge of original content.
The system isn’t stuck due to decades of white supremacy.
There are a few more, but for the most part you write clean, logical sentences.
Thank you for your consideration, Cardinal. You’ve earned good attention through hard work. But you’re right, even minor observations take a lot of time.