Notes from AFF’s Diversity On Screen panel

by Guest Contributor jbrotherlove, originally published at jbrotherlove

I haven’t been a very good cinephile lately. And by “not very good” I mean I haven’t attended any films in this year’s Atlanta Film Festival. In addition to being very busy at work in the past few weeks, I attribute the oversight to a combination of procrastination, lack of Atlanta friends who are passionate about independent film (Boo!), and confusion over my AFF membership status (holla at a brother, Charles).

However, I did manage to get over to the newish Starbucks in Midtown Promenade (off Piedmont Park) to attend the festival’s Diversity On Screen panel, part of their Coffeehouse Conversations series. The panel was moderated by journalist and author Gil Robertson. Author Ronda Racha Penrice, Felicia Feaster (The Atlantan), Ryan Lee (Southern Voice), and Will Hong (TurnerAsia) rounded out the panel.

In general, the panel agreed that the state of diversity in film (race, sexual orientation, gender, age, etc.) is improving. But film lags far behind television and digital/internet in terms of portraying characters and stories with complexity (Hong). Penrice added that film classics could be carried by actresses such as Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. Today, despite women becoming stronger forces in society, roles in Hollywood films have gotten weaker. The roles that do center around women are often labeled “chick flicks,” a practice that discredits interest by other audiences (Feaster).

There was discussion about a lack of resources such as financial and distribution. The panel agreed that the need to make money hampers stakeholder’s desire to takes risks. But there doesn’t seem to be an actual lack of diversified talent (Feaster). Lee mentioned that the pool of decision makers need to be diversified (for example, more LGBT executives) in order for things to change. Penrice pointed out that even when decisions makers are gay, they are often out personally (attending public events with their partner) but when it comes to professional decisions, they don’t want to be viewed that way.

Instead, Hollywood bets on the “sure thing,” even when that yields actors playing ethnic roles improperly (often a sore spot with the Asian community). Lee stated that including gay or black characters isn’t always a good thing because they are often added for diversity window dressing without any depth or backstory.

Robertson suggested audiences need to get to a point where we tell filmmakers if they cannot attain a certain standard in depicting us, then maybe they don’t need to show us onscreen at all. [Note: I love that Robertson said that! The mentality that I should support stereotypes or crap just because black or gay people are in it doesn't fly with me.]

Hong believes it’s everybody’s role to travel outside of their comfort zone and immerse themselves in other communities to learn about each other. He confessed he doesn’t do it enough himself. Robertson agreed that we profess change but may not be ready for it in actuality. He admitted that his Facebook page is 98% African American although he attends all kinds of events and travels internationally.

Unlike Hollywood films, the panel didn’t reach a neat “solution”, per se. But I think it woke up some people in terms of what we consider to be diverse in terms of film and how we challenge ourselves (or don’t) to explore lives and cultures outside of what we already know.