With this year's high-profile movies "The Butler," "42" and "12 Years a Slave" prominently featuring black actors, it may seem as though the multiplex is enjoying new levels of diversity. But popular films still under-represent minority characters and directors, and reflect certain biases in their portrayals, according to a study being released Wednesday by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Researchers evaluated 500 top-grossing movies released at the U.S. box office between 2007 and 2012 and 20,000 speaking characters, finding patterns in the way different races, ethnicities and genders are depicted.
Latino women, the study found, are the demographic most likely to be shown nude or in sexy attire; black men are the group least likely to be portrayed in a committed relationship.
In 2012, the researchers found, 76.3% of all speaking characters in these movies were white; according to U.S. Census figures, 63% of the country is white, and according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, 56% of movie ticket buyers are white.
"At the core, this is a visibility issue," said Katherine Pieper, research scientist at Annenberg's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative. "Who we see in film sends a powerful message about who is important and whose stories are valuable, both to international audiences and to younger viewers in our own country.... Are films communicating to audiences that only certain stories are worth telling?"
Latinos are particularly under-represented considering how likely they are to go to movies — though Latinos buy an estimated 26% of movie tickets, they have only 4.2% of speaking roles.
According the USC researchers, 10.8% of the speaking characters were black, 5% were Asian and 3.6% were from other ethnicities.
The explanation for these numbers may lie behind the camera, researchers said. Among 565 directors of top-grossing films, 33 (5.8%) were black and only two were black women — Gina Prince-Bythwood ("The Secret Life of Bees") and Sanaa Hamri ("The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," "Just Wright").
"I'm not at all surprised," said Ava DuVernay, who became the first African American woman to win the Sundance Film Festival's best director prize last year for her film "Middle of Nowhere." "I pretty much know us all personally."
But the study, which focused on the highest-grossing films, inevitably skewed away from the independent film world, where many directors like DuVernay work, she said. "Don't let those stats lead you to believe that there are not black women filmmakers," DuVernay said. "We're finding ways to tell our stories outside the studio paradigm."
Researchers found a strong relationship between the race of a film's director and the race of the cast — when a non-black director helms a picture, 9.9% of speaking characters are black. Under a black director, 52.6% of speaking characters are black.
The researchers didn't speculate as to the cause of that relationship, whether it was the result of studios and financiers recruiting black directors for scripts featuring black characters or of black filmmakers telling stories that echo their own experiences. DuVernay said it was more likely the latter.
"In general, we see the world through our own eyes," DuVernay said. "When we see the majority of films being made by white men, you get a certain perspective. I see an array. When I'm casting, it would be unconceiveable not to have people who look like the ones on my street, the ones in my family."
Other institutions in Hollywood have turned their attention to race and gender issues --- the Motion Picture Academy, for instance, has recently sought to diversify its largely male, white membership.
The USC report is the latest in a series of studies the group at Annenberg is conducting on race, gender and ethnicity on screen. In the new year, according to Pieper, they expect to release more research focusing on independent film.
"We think our data open up opportunities to have a larger conversation about issues of inclusivity in the industry," said Stacy L. Smith, the study's principal investigator.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun