Decoding diversity: Is the film industry evolving?

By Jessica Silverio, March 19, 2024

The diverse array of nominees and winners at this year’s Oscars signifies a notable stride toward inclusivity and representation within the film industry, yet it also underscores the persistent challenges that continue to hinder true inclusivity.

Lily Gladstone, America Ferrera and Colman Domingo are just a few of the talented individuals from marginalized communities who have earned nominations, showcasing the industry’s growing commitment to diversity and representation.

While Domingo became the first Afro-Latino to be nominated for Best Actor and Gladstone becoming the first Native American to be nominated for Best Actress, their groundbreaking recognition prompts a reflection on why such milestones are only now being achieved within the industry.

It’s imperative to acknowledge that these milestones are not just markers of progress, but also reminders of the persistent barriers that have hindered diversity and representation in the film industry for far too long. The Cal Poly Pomona Theatre Department stands at the forefront of these discussions, deeply engaged in exploring and addressing issues of diversity and representation within the arts.

Paula Solano, a theatre lecturer at CPP, emphasized the importance of representation across all facets of filmmaking, not just in front of the camera.

“When I think of representation, I think of all aspects and not just the actors that we see, but also who’s writing the stories,” said Solano. “Who’s telling the stories? Whose stories are we seeing or are we hearing?”

Solano acknowledges the strides made in the film industry toward increased diversity and representation for minorities, but she candidly reflects on the challenges she faced in the past, drawing from her mixed heritage of Chinese and Ukrainian-Jewish descent.

“When I was a young actor, it was ridiculous,” said Solano “They would say to me all the time, ‘we’re not seeing ethnics for that role.’ You know, I had managers and agents who were working for me, and they would just not let me in the room to even audition.”

Solano’s experience underscores the systemic barriers that once hindered minority actors from accessing opportunities in the industry.

Anne Taguba, a kinesiology student with a minor in theatre who identifies as an Asian-Pacific Islander, does believe there has been some progression in representation, but shares her frustration with the lack of people like her on screen.

“I can’t really think of people who look like me in mainstream media,” said Taguba. “Which kind of sucks, but with how the film industry works, I think at this point I’ve learned that we have to put ourselves out there and make our own content and hopefully that picks up.”

Taguba opened up about the personal struggle she faces in finding stories that deeply resonate with her and articulates the difficulty in connecting with narratives that lack relatability or fail to capture her interest.

“It’s sometimes hard for me to find stories that are relatable and stories I’m drawn too, or I really want to do and work on,” said Taguba. “I mean, maybe in the industry I won’t feel that way all the time, but it’s like, it’d be really nice if I worked on stories I really resonated with.”

Taguba desires authentic narratives that mirror her own experiences and for the opportunity to contribute to projects that hold personal significance. This desire stems from an industry landscape where representation remains a prevailing issue, leaving individuals like Taguba striving for narratives that truly reflect their identities.

Noemy Clara, a theatre arts student, asserts that the film industry has made significant strides in representation.

“They have improved comparing it to the past couple of decades, how it was just, I’m going to put it in this term, black and white,” said Clara. “Now I feel like there’s more color to it, and we have more cultures. I feel like they’re giving more of an opportunity to others that they’re not overshadowed.”

Clara’s pride in the current state of representation runs deep, particularly as a Mexican American actress. Her recent triumph as the recipient of the Best Lead Actress award at the Wolverine Con International Film Festival for her debut short film, “We Missed You,” further underscores her belief in the industry’s evolving inclusivity.

“That for me, it’s huge,” said Clara. “I may not be on the Hollywood red carpet, but I’m starting off somewhere and I’m starting off with my roots of a proud Mexican American and I’m bringing this onto the big screen.”

While Clara has felt grateful for her recent achievements and acknowledges the progression of representation within the film industry, others do not share this perspective.

A recent study conducted by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, analyzing top films released from 2007 to 2022, revealed stagnant progress in Hispanic/Latino representation within the film industry over the past 16 years. The study highlighted troubling patterns: when Hispanic and Latino characters appeared on screen, a significant portion were portrayed in stereotypical roles.

24.4% of those with prominent roles were depicted as immigrants or low income, while over half (57.8%) were portrayed as criminals with almost half of those (46.2%) being shown as violent offenders. Additionally, 40% of characters were depicted as angry or temperamental, and nearly one-third (31.1%) were sexualized.

Ariana Case, the initiative’s lead author, noted a clear reluctance on the part of the entertainment industry to develop and distribute stories centered on Hispanic/Latino actors and experiences.

According to Solano, the CPP’s theatre department has been an invaluable starting point for students seeking representation and inclusivity.

“We have a large population of first-generation students, which I really love to give support to because people who don’t have that sometimes need extra support and going, ‘You belong here,’ and ‘Yes, your voice matters,’” said Solano. “They completely teach me stuff all the time, not just about their perspectives, about their cultures, about their realities and art.”

Solano reports that over the past couple of years, the theatre department has taken proactive steps to curate a season of plays that represent playwrights, actors and directors of color. Additionally, she emphasized the importance of extending these efforts beyond the college environment, advocating for similar strides in the wider film industry.

“They need to create programs that bring all kinds of people in,” said Solano. “Then, they get a chance to show their work and they develop their skills. I think it’s the responsibility of the industry to create opportunities for them to grow and make an effort to bring in people of different perspectives who have not been represented.”

The CPP theatre department can be found on Instagram @cpptheatredance for updates on upcoming shows and performances.

Feature image courtesy of Dynamic Wang

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