With ‘Woman King’ Assist, Top-Grossing Films Starring Women of Color Jumped 5% in 2022

A new Annenberg Study also finds 44% of surveyed films had female-identifying leads, up 3% from 2021

Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim in "The Woman King" (2022)
Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim in "The Woman King" (2022) / Sony

Onscreen representation for women of color and female-identifying leads increased marginally from 2021 to 2022, according to a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

The report found that girls and women of color led or co-led 16% of the top-grossing theatrical releases of 2022, a 5% increase from the year before. Women at large headlined 44% of these films, reflecting a minor 3% jump from 41% in 2021. The study pointed out that this year’s top films did not match the U.S. Census threshold, which counts about half of the population as female-identifying.

However, these numbers are significant in context of the entire survey, which looked at 100 films per year from 2007 to 2022 – or 1,600 films total.

In 2007, only one of these films starred a woman of color versus 16 films in 2022. The study noted that two movies starred nonbinary actors of color – Janelle Monáe in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” and Amandla Stenberg in “Bodies Bodies Bodies.” This year marked the greatest number of underrepresented women and nonbinary leads and co-leads throughout all years surveyed.

“The progress for women of color in leading roles is encouraging,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. She added that there’s still work to be done.

“It’s past time for the film industry to recognize that stories about women of color have a place in theaters,” she said. “Girls and women of color are 20% of the U.S. population, but the film industry has not ensured that this is what audiences see on screen. With effort and accountability, this threshold is one that not only can be achieved but easily surpassed.”

The study’s lead author Katherine L. Neff found the results “disappointing.”

“The lack of progress for women and people of color in leading roles for yet another year is disappointing,” she said. “The film industry must recognize that even though the stories it creates features fantastic locations, audiences in this world still want to be reflected on screen.”

Findings were grimmer where ageism is concerned. According to the study, 35 films this year featured a leading man aged 45 years or older, while women in the same age category starred in just 10. That’s three more than last year’s selection, and nine more than 2007’s. Moreover, five of the 2022 films in this category starred women of color, compared to zero in 2021.

As for the major studios, Lionsgate’s 2022 slate featured the highest number of female-identifying leads and underrepresented actors, followed by Paramount, then Universal. Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. all featured female-identifying or underrepresented leads in roughly one-third of their releases.

Read the full report on the Annenberg Initiative’s website.