The lessons of “Fast Five” are apparently lost on a Hollywood that's about to embark on its biggest season, the summer.
The Universal sequel exploded onto theater screens last weekend, raking in $86.2 million with an ethnically diverse cast that attracted an equally diverse audience.
Latinos represented almost as many moviegoers as whites (33% versus 35%), while African-Americans also turned out in force, according to studio figures.
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The multi-racial cast starred Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, featured a Rio de Janeiro backdrop and was directed by Justin Lin, who scored the biggest-ever domestic debut for an Asian director.
“‘Fast Five’ is a great example of Hollywood getting it right,” Craig Detweiler, professor of film history at Pepperdine University, told TheWrap. “Its multi-racial cast matches the multi-racial audience. The Rock and Vin Diesel reflect the browning of America, that there is more blurring across races and cultures than ever before. The box office take reflects that.”
But after that auspicious start, the summer derails quicker than one of Diesel's sports cars. A quick scan of the major films hitting theaters over the next few months shows that Hollywood is about to flood the marketplace -- again! -- with four-quadrant fare almost exclusively by and starring the ever-shrinking white plurality.
Don’t look for anybody ethnic to save the world or make it safe for democracy in “The Green Lantern” or “Cowboys and Aliens.” For that matter, “X-Men: First Class” may preach inclusion, but its cast isn’t exactly a rainbow coalition.
“There’s a huge consumer market that’s very diverse that wants to see itself on TV and film, but I’m not sure why the studios aren’t looking at this market,” Rebecca Yee, SAG's national director of affirmative action and diversity, said. “Film has been slow ... You watch TV, it’s much more diverse now.”
Once again, the major films hitting theaters over the next few months lean heavily on Anglo-action stars with only a sprinkle of Latinos and African-American actors thrown into the mix.
With the possible exception of “The Help,” an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling Civil Rights era novel, no major release this summer centers on actors of color.
Lacking a Will Smith or Denzel Washington vehicle, actors of color have been consigned to supporting roles. Penelope Cruz (who is European Latina) will play lusty foil to Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Carribbean: On Stranger Tides;” Aziz Ansari will crack wise in “30 Minutes or Less”; and Idris Elba will go toe to toe with Chris Hemsworth in “Thor.”
But by and large, it’s looking like it'll be another monochromatic tentpole season.
"The question of whether there is a vast underrepresentation of African-Americans in film is always timely, because the answer unfortunately is yes," L. Scott Caldwell, an African-American actress on programs such as "Lost," told TheWrap. "While one only need look over our collective shoulder to see that we have come a long way, it is not nearly far enough."
Veering away from the tried and white has led to big box office in the past.
Tyler Perry’s “Madea” films have made more than $500 million domestically, the massive global successes of “Hancock” and “Men in Black” have made Will Smith perhaps the biggest box-office star in the world, and Smith’s son Jaden and Jackie Chan propelled “The Karate Kid” to a $359 million worldwide gross last year.
“If we relied on the studios, we’d get one film a quarter. Black folks like to go to movies more than that. We’ve got dollars to spend,” Ava DuVernay, founder of the independent distributor the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, told TheWrap.
The whiteout is not due to a lack of commerical muscle, industry insiders tell TheWrap, but is rather a reflection of the lack of diversity in studios’ boardrooms and executive suites.
“Part of the reason there are so few Latino actors and content about Latinos is that there is a lack of Latinos among the executive ranks.They don’t understand the audience and they don’t nurture the audience,” Moctesuma Esparza, co-chairman of Maya Entertainment, an independent studio geared at Latinos, told TheWrap. “It’s bad business, because when you look at the population under 30, the largest demographic is Latinos. We are the new mainstream."
The dearth of films starring different ethnic actors is doubly puzzling considering that Hollywood has become fixated on the global marketplace.
One prominent Disney exectuive, for instance, told TheWrap that the studio is trying to broaden the appeal of films such as “Prom” and “Pirates 4,” by casting Asians or Latinas in prominent roles. But any improvement in terms of onscreen depictions of different ethnicities has largely taken place in the supporting realm not in the above the titles credits.
That’s an improvement from last summer, when films such as “The Last Airbender” and “Prince of Persia” were taken to task for assigning roles written as Asian or Middle Eastern and tailoring them to white actors. Whitewashing on that level is largely absent this summer. Indeed the only example of racial recasting involves Elba, who is taking the role of a Norse god portrayed in the Marvel comics as white.
Not that Elba’s casting wasn’t without controversy, with “Thor” fans loudly protesting the move.
“It's so ridiculous," Elba said during an event Rutgers U. last winter. "We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley."
Elba’s casting aside, that kind of absurdity is not yet reflected in Hollywood's casting department.