Inclusivity in screenwriting and filmmaking

Hot damn, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here.

The topic du jour is inclusivity. Firefox doesn’t seem to think that’s a word, but fuck it, it’s what I’m going with (Do you like ‘inclusiveness’ better Firefox? Yes you do. You’re weird).

Some Cinco de Mayo demonstrations today got me thinking along these lines. How as writers do we make our work more inclusive? It should be obvious why this is a goal — persons of every race, colour, creed, gender, and so on, they all buy movie tickets. And they all want to have the same experiences. And since they by definition can’t, we’re kind of fucked, but we can take steps to make the gap to be bridged as small as possible.

Think about Hollywood’s great black actors. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Sam Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker. Maybe I’m just out of touch (that is VERY possible, don’t get me wrong), but this list demonstrates problem #1 — these men are not getting any younger. Sorry to ruin your childhood, but Will Smith turns 45 this year, and he’s the youngest man named in this paragraph.

Now think of their careers — how often have they played roles that weren’t required to be played by a black actor?

You’ll find a few examples, mostly with Smith. Robert Neville in I Am Legend comes to mind (as does the deplorable decision to recut and reshoot the ending of that film, but that’s another story). Smith’s role in Independence Day (the name of the character eludes me, and I can’t be arsed to google it) also comes to mind. Washington’s well-received turn in Flight wasn’t a black-specific character. And in a bit of irony, perhaps Freeman’s most beloved role was specifically written to be white in the original source — Ellis ‘Red’ Redding in The Shawshank Redemption.

But for the most part, all of them get by by playing ‘the black guy.’

And that’s okay, generally speaking. There’s no reason to never have characters that are specifically written to be of a certain race. At least not on its face (you can certainly go wrong with it). But I find that we as writers generally don’t assign a particular face to our characters. Or if we do, it’s merely for the sake of convenience, and not some grand and glorious vision. The grand and glorious vision comes later.

So if I have a character, who could realistically be of any race, and I name him Joseph Wallace, have I just assigned him a race by default? I hope not, but it seems pretty likely. Certainly, if I name a character Ciaran O’Flaherty or Juan Francisco Montoya, I have an idea of what he looks like. And of course it’s harder with Hispanics than blacks, because persons of Hispanic backgrounds rarely (not never, but rarely) have names like Joseph Wallace. I don’t think I’ve ever actually written a Hispanic character, and I feel sort of bad about that.

It’s different for prose writers. They do need to describe what their characters looks like — we, beyond what’s necessary for actor to get into characterisation, generally don’t. I want to leave the door open. I don’t want to have to start naming characters Deion just be to inclusive. That won’t come off as inclusivity — it’ll come off as tokenism.

So this is a social change I’m very much looking for. It seems like it’s coming, and not a moment too soon.

I try as well to write in a way that’s inclusive of ‘invisible’ minorities, though for obvious reasons that’s not as easy or meaningful. I think the romance genre, and even just romantic subplots of otherwise not entirely romantic films, would do well to include the occasional gay or lesbian romance. Nothing explicit or salacious, and with stories that could conceivably work with straight characters. I have two active projects along those lines, a feature and a short. I’m sure if either are ever to get made, it’ll be with me as producer. To claim that every character, outside of niche genres, pornography, or drawn-from-stock supporting roles, is straight is ludicrous. And yet that’s what mainstream cinema does. Anyone who would walk out on a movie for this reason is someone I don’t want buying a ticket anyway. I feel no need to be inclusive to them, not least because most of my works will be anyway without me trying.

There’s no easy answers. This is something we’ve got to keep working on. The payoff will be worth it, though.

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