It’s no secret that it’s close to impossible for aspiring actors of color to make it mainstream in Hollywood. Every year studies find that people of color are underrepresented in almost every aspect of the film industry. And that’s largely due to studio executives’ fears that white audiences will stay away if there are too many people of color in a film.
But a recent study shows movie-goers are just as harsh when it comes to “casting” where they spend their money at the box office.
In a research paper published in May, Andrew J. Weaver, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University, conducted two studies to test whether the racial makeup of a film’s cast could influence the decisions of white audiences. The study, called “The Role of Actors’ Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure to Movies”, concluded “minority cast members” do in fact lead white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films.
In the study, subjects were presented with twelve fictional movie plots. Web pages advertising the films and the race of the characters was manipulated to create different versions. Though a sample group of 79 white undergraduate college students who participated in the study generally indicated that the race of cast members in a film did not influence whites’ desire to see a film in general, researchers say those results need context.
“This is not to say that race does not matter, of course,” Weaver explained in the paper. “Preexisting racial attitudes moderated this relationship, such that whites who were low in color-blind racial attitudes were more interested in films with mostly black casts than they were in films with mostly white casts.
“A more complex relationship between actors’ race and selective exposure begins to emerge when other factors are considered,” he added. “For example, those who were frequent movie viewers preferred white casts to black casts in the celebrity condition, but light movie viewers showed no such preference.”
The second study looked at romantic comedies. And race definitely played a role when it came time for on-screen kisses.
“The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie,” Weaver wrote of the second group. “Importantly, this effect occurred regardless of participants’ racial attitudes or actors’ relative celebrity … This finding would also seem to lend credence to producers’ concerns about casting black actors into these kinds of romantic roles.”
While Weaver says he was discouraged by the research’s results, he has high hopes for what his findings can provide for studios.
“Many films are written with race-neutral roles – they’re just cast with white actors,” Weaver said. “A good first step would be casting minority actors in those roles, but I think the marketing question is a really interesting one.”
Another good one is making sure race-specific roles meant for actors of color actually go to actors of color. For example, The Last Airbender, the film that whitewashed its way to the theaters, was adapted from the popular cartoon series with an Asian cast set in an Asian fantasy world. But casting for this film included an all-white hero cast and only one lead role for an Asian actor – whose role was the villain in the plot.
Last year, only two of the 30 highest grossing films featured major non-white characters. And while it’s a complicated issue of who’s to blame, it really comes down to who has the power to change things. And that’s Hollywood studio executives. The way ethnic groups are portrayed in films really contributes to public opinion and because of that the responsibility of studio executives goes far beyond movie houses.
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