The report, "Black Characters in Popular Film: Is the Key to Diversifying Cinematic Content Held in the Hand of the Black Director?", is written by USC Annenberg’s Dr. Stacy L. Smith and project administrator Marc Choueiti and includes data from their ongoing, multi-year Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative.
"One fitting extrapolation of this small study is that the race of directors may really matter," Smith said. "And one key to diversifying content would be to diversify who is at the helm."
Smith, Choueiti and teams of undergraduate researchers annually view the top 100 grossing movies released theatrically in the United States and Canada. (More than 300 students have worked on the project since its 2006 inception.) Under Choueiti's supervision, the students train for six weeks and then meticulously code the movies across more than two dozen measures.
Smith and Choueiti regularly release snapshots culled from the research. Their report about gender was released last month. This secondary analysis, "Black Characters," examines in particular the presence – or lack thereof – of African-Americans and other ethnicities in the top 100 grossing films from 2007 and 2008.
During 2008, according to Smith and Choueiti's research, five African-American directors headed up a total of six of those top 100 productions. Nearly 63 percent of the characters with speaking lines in those six films are black. In the other top 94 films from the same year, less than 11 percent of the characters with speaking lines are black.
Grouped together, numbers from the top 100 do resemble U.S. population figures, as 13.2 percent of all speaking roles coded that year went to black characters. The U.S. Census indicates 12.6 percent of the nation's population then was African-American.
In 2007, a similar number (13 percent) of overall speaking roles in the top 100 movies went to black characters, but that percentage rose to 50 percent in films with black directors. That's a lower, but still significant, ethnic differentiation compared with 2008.
Smith said the recent findings from the same data set for female characters and female directors run along the same general lines.
"It could be that a person in a position of power is advocating on behalf of their group," Smith said. "But the flip side to this is that the people responsible for green-lighting the picture may be associating black directors and female directors with 'black' storylines or 'female' storylines."
Only one of the top 200 movies from 2007 and 2008 was directed by an African-American woman, "Black Characters" reports. "Black Characters" also quantifies the continuing, although slightly diminished, sexualization of black female movie roles versus black male movie roles.
”Compared with all characters, we see a similar pattern regarding gender differences in how characters are sexualized when focusing solely on black males and females.” Choueiti said. “Black females are more likely than black males to be presented in sexually revealing or alluring attire, as partially nude, and as attractive, potentially reinforcing a value on how black girls and women look over other traits.”
The report concludes: "Repeated viewings of these types of portrayals may reinforce male and females beliefs that black girls/women are to be valued for how they look rather than who they are."
The report's conclusion also notes that Hispanics are under-represented in 2008 speaking roles (4.9 percent) compared with 2008 U.S. population figures (16.3 percent).
“Overall young consumers are still receiving a relatively homogenous view of race/ethnicity in popular motion picture content” Smith said. “Such portrayals may communicate to children and adolescents of color that their stories are not as important as their Caucasian counterparts.”