Actors of Color Had 40% of Lead Roles in 2020 Films, UCLA Study Says

Roles for nonwhite actors are now proportionate to the U.S. population, but directors and writers are still lagging behind despite progress

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

UCLA says its latest annual Hollywood diversity study shows that even during a pandemic, film and TV audiences are showing a high demand for diversity that studios are answering, and the share of lead and overall roles for actors of color has reached a level proportionate with the overall U.S. population.

According to the findings from the UCLA College of Social Sciences, 42% of overall roles and 39.7% of lead roles in 2020 films were taken by actors of color, putting it alongside the 40.3% population share of nonwhite residents in the U.S.. In 2011, when the report of began, more than half of the films survey had casts where 90% or more of the actors where white. In 2020, however, a plurality of films had the highest level of cast diversity (28.8% POC). Just under 10% of films in 2020 fell into the lowest level of cast diversity.

But it is a different story behind the camera as directors and writers of color only accounted for around 25% of their respective roles in films last year, even though 2020 is the first time since the study began in 2011 that POC directors and writers saw their share rise above 20%.

UCLA’s examination of the box office also reflected data from previous years showing that audiences are turning out more for diverse films. While the 2020 box office was severely diminished by COVID-19, the study found that films with casts that were 41-50% POC had the highest median global box office grosses. while films with less than 11% POC roles had the lowest median grosses. Among the films that were in that 41-50% group were Warner Bros./DC’s “Birds of Prey” and Disney/Pixar’s “Onward.”

Among the much larger selection of films released on streaming in 2020, ratings peaked for films with a POC role share of 21-30%, a group that included “Spenser Confidential” and “Enola Holmes.” Among the top 10 streaming films with the highest household rating, only one, the Adam Sandler Netflix comedy “The Wrong Missy,” had a POC role share of under 20%. “Onward” led all films followed by “Spenser Confidential” in second, and “Hamilton” in third. On eight of those 10 films, POC households overrepresented among audience share.

While applauding the notable progress in representation seen in this year’s report, study authors Dr. Darnell Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences at UCLA, and Dr. Ana-Christina Ramon noted that there is also a disparity in the average budget sizes of films directed by white men and those directed by women and filmmakers of color.

“Our report finds that women directors and directors of color have overwhelmingly diverse productions,” said Ramon, who is director of research and civic engagement for the College of Social Sciences. “However, these films often have smaller budgets than those helmed by male directors and white directors. So, in a year where more diverse productions were made more accessible to larger audiences through streaming services, the contrast is stark as to what types of films have the big budgets. There is a clear underinvestment of films made by, written by, and led by women and people of color.

Hunt and Ramon also noted that is still unclear whether this upward trend in diversity will continue as Hollywood comes out of the pandemic, even if the data proves that it is the industry’s best financial interests for that diversity to continue.

“Could there be a relationship between the dictates of the pandemic and the tremendous progress observed on the diversity front? Or were these corresponding breaks with business as usual a mere coincidence, Hollywood finally coming to terms with its diversity problem by happenstance in year also rearranged by a pandemic?” they wrote. “How do we know that the progress observed in 2020 was not an anomaly that will be revealed as such by findings from the next report?


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