A series of panels and keynote discussions at Variety‘s Inclusion Summit Wednesday provided attendees thought-provoking insights about the state of diversity and inclusion throughout the entertainment industry. Coming amid the swirl of sexual harassment reports roiling Hollywood, sexism came into sharp focus, starting with a talk by Anita Hill, the attorney and civil rights activist who in 1991 accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of harassing her when she worked for him. Hill called for strong anti-sexual harassment policies that would be vigorously enforced. Other speakers included director-writer Jordan Peele who delved into the making of his hit social thriller “Get Out.” Here are Variety‘s top takeaways from the day’s discussions:
1. Skepticism remains a major obstacle for women reporting sexual misconduct: Hill proved to be a timely keynote speaker at Variety‘s Inclusion Summit. Hill, who testified before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual harasser, then-Supreme Court nominee Thomas, said female accusers face deep skepticism when speaking out. “One of the things that really is troubling to me,” Hill said, is that “it still takes about 30 women to come forward before one woman is believed. … Our word is as valuable as the word of our abusers.”
2. Diverse casting in films boosts box office performance: CAA agent Talitha Watkins presented data by the agency that analyzed the diversity of film casts since 2014 and compared those films’ weekend box office performances to that of non-diverse films. The data show better box office openings for diverse movies, Watkins said. This should motivate Hollywood to make more inclusive films.
3. Barbie’s inclusion evolution: Sejal Shah Miller, vice president of marketing for Barbie, said the iconic doll had lost its cachet among moms, whom Miller called the “gatekeepers to the brand.” Miller said Barbie wasn’t passing the “birthday party gift test” with moms in recent years, in part because of the doll’s unrealistic body proportions. So, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, introduced different body types for the doll, including curvy and petite. “It’s so important you listen to your consumer,” Miller said. “Your consumer is guiding you and telling you what they want.”
4. Native American leaders on a mission to preserve their culture: Ray Halbritter, Nation Representative and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises, and musician Stevie Salas spoke about the representation and acceptance of Native American culture through the years. As explored in the film “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” which Salas executive produced, Native Americans have helped influence American music and society, yet receive very little credit. “A lot of what Indian leaders think about is future generations. It’s important to get this information for the young people to learn about themselves,” Halbritter said. “In my mother’s time, they were not permitted to speak the native language in school. They were whipped and the language almost died out. People didn’t want to be Native back then — you hid it.”
5. Is artificial intelligence the solution to gender and racial balance? According to Geena Davis, actor and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, AI programs are currently being trained to look at motion pictures, and compare how often women and people of color appear onscreen, for how long, and how many lines they have. The program is also being trained to read through scripts for the same information. Davis also said the easiest place to start increasing gender representation is the writer’s room, and that writers can easily change the genders of characters to balance out their casts.
6. There is no true equality until there is economic equality: Entrepreneur Nely Galán, author of “Self Made: Becoming Empowered, Self-Reliant, and Rich in Every Way,” told interviewer Steven Shapiro (SVP Entertainment, City National Bank) that it is vital for multicultural people and women to become financially literate and grow their wealth. Even if they aim to focus on creating art, people pursuing careers in the entertainment industry must first have a “side hustle” to gain financial independence. “Money doesn’t buy you happiness, but it does buy you freedom to make decisions,” Galán said.
7. Peele: White liberals need to think more deeply about their role in systemic racism. “Get Out” writer and director Peele spoke to Variety film critic Peter Debruge about the “insidious qualities that some white liberals have when you dig deeper.” Peele said unpacking this issue of thinly veiled racism was the “gut punch” of the film. “If we’re not willing to look within ourselves and understand our own battles with these things, then we’re part of the system. The monster is a systemic problem; the ‘sunken place’ is a metaphor for this state of marginalization. It’s that feeling of when you scream, but you can’t be heard,” he said. “It’s the prison industrial complex. It’s the dark hole that we throw black people into. It’s the assimilation of culture and bodies, which is taking the parts of black culture that serve you and disregarding the rest. It’s slavery by a different name. The ‘sunken place’ is the theater where black people are relegated to watch horror movies during which we can scream at the screen, but we’re not getting represented on the other side of that screen.”
8. Authenticity is essential when depicting older characters: Actress Elizabeth Marvel (“Homeland,” “House of Card “) said she does not like to hide the age lines on her face because she wants people to see reality. “From where I stand, the older I get, the longer I live, the more that I do, the deeper the work gets,” she said. Older adults feel more hope and connect better to stories when they see aging actors continuing to tackle complex roles.
9. Disability must be destigmatized: “Able-bodied people sometimes put limitations on people with disabilities. They give them the stigma that disabled means unable,” said Danny Woodburn, actor and co-vice-chair of the SAG-AFTRA’s Performers With Disabilities Committee. He insisted that increasing access for disabled people is often not costly. “If I can put in my contract that I only want green M&Ms, then why can’t we also address that?” he continued. “We’re still limited when it comes to creating accessible work spaces.” Woodburn noted that change starts with opening up opportunities for disabled people in smaller roles so that they can gain the exposure and education that will allow them to hone their craft.
10. Always remain open to learning: Director-producer-writer John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood,” “Shaft”) emphasized the importance of being open to understanding people unlike yourself. No matter how experienced or influential a figure is in Hollywood, no one should assume that they don’t have more to learn. “I always have a sense of discovery,” Singleton said. When we close our minds, we resist progress. Empathy is vital to storytelling; listen to other human voices even when the situation does not impact you personally.