Text by Emma Silvers, video by Claudia Escobar.
Anthony Lucero has too many trophies to carry at once. The writer-director’s first feature film, East Side Sushi, about a Latina woman who aspires to become a sushi chef, has been racking up awards since it first debuted on the festival circuit in 2014.
But back in 2011, when the Oakland native was shopping his screenplay around to potential investors, it was a different story altogether.
“There were multiple strikes working against it,” says the filmmaker, who was born and raised in the Fruitvale District. “I had a very strong sense that no one wanted to pay for a film with a woman lead. The second issue was she was Mexican. And the other lead was Japanese. And you just don’t see that in cinema.”
Think that sounds like an oversimplification? Think again. A recent report by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has confirmed what many in the entertainment business say has been common knowledge for decades: Hollywood’s diversity problem goes far beyond the Academy Awards. Below the surface of the buzzy #OscarsSoWhite conversation that’s dominated social media the past few months lies an iceberg — it’s the industry itself, and it’s overwhelmingly comprised of straight, white men.
“Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed,” reports the USC study. With an eye to gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, researchers analyzed roles in front of and behind the camera on 109 films released by major studios in 2014, as well 305 scripted television and digital/streaming series that aired across 31 different networks. Shows distributed by Disney, NBC, CBS, Hulu, Netflix, 21st Century Fox, Sony and more were included in the data.
At a time when the U.S. population is increasingly made up of minorities, the report casts a clear spotlight on the damning degree of disparity between what Americans look like and what we see on our TV screens. Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans are all vastly underrepresented, both onscreen and off. Only 2 percent of speaking characters on television were identified as LGBT. White directors outnumber those of color by nearly 7 to 1. Only two black women directors were identified in an entire year’s worth of major motion pictures.
Those numbers may seem shocking — but asked for their reactions, several local industry insiders responded with a resounding “duh.”
“Not surprising,” says Margaret Cho, a comic who — sometime in between doing impressions of her mother in small San Francisco nightclubs as a teenager and becoming a household name — had the distinction of being the first Asian-American to have her own primetime network TV show, with 1994’s ABC sitcom All-American Girl.
“I have often been the only person of color on set or involved in an entire production. It’s not unusual to me. For a long time, it was the norm, and it still is to some extent.”
Cho says she gravitated toward comedy in part because of its inclusiveness, which set it apart from film and television.
“I was told all the time, by many people, that I didn’t belong in show business — from my family to important agents and producers and managers and other actors,” says Cho. But “in comedy, there was no supervising entity limiting your participation in the medium. You just had to be good, that was all. You didn’t have to fit into anyone’s story; you didn’t have to wait until there was ‘Trouble in Chinatown.'”
“And then being a successful comic was like a backdoor entry into the rest of Hollywood,” says the comic, who’s currently juggling a guest-hosting job on E!’s Fashion Police with standup, songwriting, and activism. “I made a name for myself. I couldn’t have broken into TV from the other side. There were no significant roles for people of color at all.”
Lucero notes that he, too, was far from shocked by the USC report’s numbers. “I’ve known [about the disparity] ever since I’ve known about film,” he says. “I mean, it goes back to Natalie Wood portraying a Puerto Rican in West Side Story. It’s not surprising, just sad.” (For a plethora of other facepalm-worthy instances of whitewashing, check out this week’s New York Times feature on being non-white in Hollywood.)
So: Considering this long-running legacy of underrepresentation — what the study refers to, in turns, as an “inclusion crisis” and an “epidemic of invisibility” — is the media’s current focus on the Oscars misguided?
In an interview with Variety this week, Mo’Nique, who in 2010 won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Precious, argues that the talk around “the trophy” is irrelevant and detracts from real issues — such as the pay gap faced by women of color. (The actress has said she was paid only $50,000 for her award-winning role.)
Still, “I think it’s a conversation we should be having, in part because it’s a launching point to many other conversations about diversity,” says N’Jeri Eaton, an up-and-coming documentary filmmaker whose recent film First Friday examines a changing Oakland, with its accompanying race, class, and gentrification issues, via the focal point of its monthly Art Murmur.
“There are so many different aspects to this — say, for black women in particular, when black women do win [awards], what kind of roles is it for? It’s always women who are in peril, this tragic black woman narrative — because those are the opportunities we get as black women actors.”
Eaton says one of the best bets for moving beyond the online conversation involves hiring decisions: When it came time to select a crew for First Friday, she made it a point to seek out a team that reflected what Oakland actually looks like, and that comes through in the film.
But making change is multi-fold, she says: we must create opportunities, platforms and financial support for young people of color who are interested in filmmaking. (Her day job at San Francisco’s nonprofit media organization Independent Television Service provides grants of up to $15,000 to do just that.) And the movie-going public must also vote with their wallets.
“I’m a closet fan of the Fast and Furious series,” she says with a laugh. “And it might seem silly, but that series is incredibly diverse, and I think that’s part of the reason it’s so successful — it’s more reflective of our country, and people are dying for that. No one could say that [franchise] isn’t profitable.”
If the Oscars serve as a springboard for discussion, however, she’s all for it. “I mean, I’m black. I think about race every day of my life, maybe every hour of my life,” says Eaton. “But for some people, this might be their very first entry point to thinking about race.”
Cho echoes that statement. “I think it’s great,” she says of the Oscars conversation. “The only thing that seems to take down overt racism, invisibility, and cultural erasure is shame.”
But come Monday morning, when the Oscars are in the media’s rearview mirror, her focus will be back on paving her own way, making a space in entertainment outside of the studio-sanctioned blockbusters, and supporting others in the same boat.
“I think that we have to make our own movies — bring our own stories and do it any way we can, whether that’s making content for social media, making movies with our phones, making music on our laptops,” says Cho. “We need to do it on our own.”
Anthony Lucero adds that, for a young person of color who doesn’t have many high-profile role models in the industry she can relate to, putting that DIY ethic on display can be nothing short of powerful.
“A lot of it is education — filmmakers giving back. I’m doing a lot of tours at high schools and middle schools right now, to show kids that, yeah, I’m Chicano, I come from the Fruitvale District, and it’s possible to come from there and make films,” he says. “I do feel like it’s my duty to do that.”
As for East Side Sushi? Lucero wound up paying for it himself (with a little help from Kickstarter). And a couple months later, right after he took the top audience award at Cinequest, he got a call from the head of acquisitions at a major studio who was interested in distributing the film.
“They loved the film, their whole staff loved the film, but they wanted somebody famous in the lead,” says Lucero. “They weren’t comfortable putting a no-name Latina woman on an ad on the side of a bus.”
So when it came time to make marketing materials, Lucero went with a big, solo shot of his leading lady — who, yes, is Latina. Her name is Diana Elizabeth Torres.
“I said, okay, I’m gonna put her face front and center on this poster. That poster that you see is my defiance against Hollywood,” says Lucero with a laugh. “That’s just me. When there are obstacles, I go against them.”