At the Oscars this year, Frances McDormand mentioned in her speech two words that have since entered the conversation surrounding diversity in Hollywood: Inclusion riders. Is it worth taking seriously? Two of our staff writers weigh in on the issue.
The folly of the inclusion rider is inclusivity over authenticity
Written by Ethan Axtell
Frances McDormand reinvigorated or perhaps even generated initial interest in the concept of an inclusion rider, by encouraging the widespread implementation of this practice in her Oscar acceptance speech for the Best Actress award. Her good intentions aside, under scrutiny this constricting contractual obligation is counterintuitive to both the objectives of making impressive films and increasing diversity in Hollywood.
The essential beauty of storytelling is freedom, creativity and the pursuit of a certain kind of truth. These qualities can be found in all mediums of great art. What degrades art, are restrictions and conventions. An inclusion rider can in Frances Mcdormand’s own words, “ask or demand at least 50% diversity in not only the casting but also the crew.” This kind of demand mandates that certain demographic quotas must be met, be it for the positive purpose of promoting diversity. This mandate is in direct opposition to the concept of a meritocracy.
A meritocracy hires on the basis of ability and qualification, it judges potential employees based on, in the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King jr., “The content of their character.” Where this model can degrade, in the context of the film industry, is when a director can make the ignorant and unethical assumption that the most qualified people can only be found in a certain demographic or group. The solution to this potentially discriminatory and unfair process is to spread the word that it is occuring and convince more people that they should boycott the film or the filmmakers unless they re-evaluate their casting criteria. Of course, this tactic requires action and participation from many people whereas an inclusion rider simply compels people with contractual pressure.
That said, it is always preferably to create change in an organic fashion that actually engages the public because it is solely the public that can ensure that diversity is sustained in Hollywood. Even if inclusion riders catch on and films with diverse casts and crews begin to emerge more often, if the public doesn’t respond, than the trend will conclude. Certain people would have ammunition to antagonize inclusion riders and say that the appeal of the films is compromised because of them. They can say that diversity in film is a failure and demand that more culturally homogenous films be made, citing successful films which feature such casts. This reaction is not justified but it would be entirely predictable.
Anyone who has seriously studied film understands how diversity in film enriches the medium and the greatest filmmakers in history have hailed from places across the globe and have told a vast range of stories. There is no master race or culture in any facet of society, and filmmaking is no exception. However, the presence of inclusion riders would have greatly hindered much of the diversity of stories that were told throughout the history of cinema.
Take for instance the late, master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, a japanese film director and one of the most influential auteurs in film history. He made countless masterpieces and has influenced an immense number of brilliant filmmakers across the globe. Yet he accomplished this by making films about Japan, starring Japanese actors, and crafted by predominantly Japanese crews. The reason for his impact was, when people across the world watched his Samurai epics, yakuza films, or contemporary Japanese dramas, they weren’t seeing something totally foreign. They saw a foreign setting, but one filled with courage, suffering, uncertainty, humor, and beauty. They recognized that all of these concepts were present in their own cultures and thus were able to relate to and invest in the films. Martin Scorsese, the great American filmmaker and avowed Kurosawa fan, went so far as to say, “Kurosawa was my master.” He did not need to see any Italian New Yorkers standing beside Kurosawa’s samurai in order to make this declaration or be inspired by his films.
Film is an expression of the human condition, not the unlike any other artistic medium. Diversity occurs in film when audiences and filmmakers recognize that every demographic, culture and race has unique and exciting stories to tell, and what makes those stories truly incredible and engaging is that they engage us as humans. They appeal to our emotions and reflect our behavior. They investigate, challenge or reaffirm our beliefs. They illustrate our strengths and expose our vulnerabilities.
If a story concerns multiple cultures, it can also be an exceptional piece of art, given that it explores our humanity in a bold and powerful fashion. Inclusion riders take freedom and power away from filmmakers. They force filmmakers to meet certain quotas which would prohibit them from telling stories that did not feature an adequately diverse cast and crew. Diversity will be commonplace when people recognize that we’re all humans, equipped with the same faculties for contending with the vast, beautiful and often challenging world that we all inhabit.
Filmmakers creating a film, would realize that a Pakistani actor is no less capable of understanding loss, revenge, aggression and courage than an English actor. A homosexual actor is no less adept in understanding complex human emotions than a heterosexual actor. A story concerning a homosexual character is no less powerful than a story concerning a heterosexual character.
Diversity is fully appreciated when we can recognize the differences that make individuals and distinct groups unique while also identifying the struggles and characteristics that define us all as human.
Inclusion riders don’t impede creative autonomy
Written by Andrea Ngeleka
The systematic exclusion of marginalized people in Hollywood is not going to organically undo itself. Whether or not you value artistic integrity, it would be naive to infer that a denouement of years of racism, misogyny, homophobia etc. will occur as audiences begin to realize that the human condition isn’t solely experienced by a hegemony of cis heterosexual men. If a year of Trump brought down LGBTQ acceptence in the country, the prospect of passivity in the face of systematic exclusion looks weak at best.
Contractual riders have existed for about as long as contracts have. They are essentially just conditions added to contractual obligations. Inclusion riders, which Frances McDormand mentioned at the Oscars, are clauses that require productions to look for talent in places they’ve traditionally ignored.
They by no means make studios find random people on the street and make them assistant directors and boom operators. They have no correlation to creative freedom. Hiring a black production assistant isn’t what stands in the way of Jason Bourne becoming the next Citizen Kane. However, employing that black production assistant gives them the opportunity to rise up in the ranks and potentially run their own sets for films they believe in. This is critical in facilitating upward mobility which is unattainable for most marginalized folks, whether social, academic or professional, because of systematic oppression.
Inclusion riders are meant to give a seat at the table to people who have been denied entrance to the room in the name of meritocracy. Meritocracy itself was conceptualized as a way of denoting inherent abilities to certain groups. Mediocre straight white men have been given opportunities since the dawn of man and continue to fail up because their identities are inherently conflated with merit.
When white men make films that don’t do well, they’re said to be ahead of their time. Both Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, who are considered among the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium, made movies that almost never resonated with wide audiences. Yet people of color and queer folks, to this day, have to prove they can generate revenue and have willing audiences in order to either have movies made about them or be given a chance to make movies. One marginalized person’s shortcomings is representative of their entire community yet that congruent logic never seems to apply to straight white men.
Filmmaking is political, whether it’s about robots or about how humans deal with the burden of their own existence. When Martin Luther King Jr. said that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice he wasn’t saying that if we act like good little negroes our characters will shine through and we’ll be rewarded. He never advocated to passively wait for a colorblind society to fall upon us. He advocated for us to use our bare hands to bend the moral arc of the universe to bend towards justice with action.
If actors who claim to be allies of marginalized folks have the power to make studios find talented people in communities they conventionally overlook, doing so is real advocacy. Telling people to just make what they want and audiences will respond to authenticity is both dismissive and disingenuous.
When resources are put into communities that are largely disenfranchised, that’s when audiences respond. “Girl’s Trip” is a movie about four black women and it garnered $100 million. “Black Panther” on it’s fourth week in a row being number one in the box office has made over $600 million. These things were no accidents. When you deprive people of representation, you create a niche audience that wants to be seen.
The only thing that inclusion riders seek to do is break up straight white male hegemonies at every level of production, because for far too long anything but that has been considered deviant.
Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar, did so in a hotel with a strict “no blacks” policy and wasn’t allowed to sit with the rest of the cast of Gone With the Wind. The lack of diversity in Hollywood isn’t about whether or not people think everyone is equal. It’s not about whether or not people believe talent can come out of anyone. McDaniel’s co-stars were well aware she was going to win and commended her acting.
This conversation is not about who’s allyship means anything. It’s about who at the Gone With the Wind table was willing to give McDaniel their seat and stand behind her. It’s become clear through decades of filmmaking, that no one, is giving up their seat willingly. If anyone claims they are a champion of diversity and change, inclusion riders are their chance to add a chair to the table.