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How Michael B. Jordan Is Leading the Charge in Hollywood’s Diversity Efforts

As 2018 draws to a close, Hollywood continues to find itself under the microscope with regard to inclusion and representation in the industry. It appears some positive steps are indeed being taken toward rectifying a historically shameful track record of excluding women and people of color from executive suites and on both sides of the camera.

While film and television leaders still have miles to go before claiming victory, the consensus among dozens of actors, filmmakers, executives, agents and industry observers interviewed by Variety is that lip service has begun to translate into real action. Agencies, guilds and studios are fortifying their efforts to combat the dearth of underrepresented talent on- and off-screen through a variety of programs and data-point tools, while major stars are leveraging their clout to ensure parity on their productions.

Swift moves have also been made to address racially insensitive remarks allegedly made by high-profile executives, evidenced by the abrupt firings of Paramount Television president Amy Powell and Netflix communications chief Jonathan Friedland, and career repercussions for the likes of Roseanne Barr at ABC and Megyn Kelly at NBC.

In September, WarnerMedia established a companywide diversity protocol, which will include annual reports on its progress. It’s the first time a major Hollywood studio has etched such a policy in stone. “Anytime there’s change in any process — and we’re talking about changing the process of how we staff up on a movie or TV show — there’s a natural uncomfortableness,” says Warner Bros. Entertainment chief executive Kevin Tsujihara. “But I think everyone realizes this change is necessary. And it isn’t a feel-good kind of thing. This is actually good business. The status quo is not an option.”

Michael B. Jordan, the first actor-producer to adopt the inclusion rider, a formal declaration of diverse hiring practices, helped WarnerMedia launch its initiative via his upcoming film “Just Mercy.” Inclusion is second nature to Jordan. Ever since he was a child actor, he expected to collaborate with people from all walks of life. When he learned there was an actual contractual clause that he could enlist at his Outlier Society Prods. shingle, it was a no-brainer.

“I think it’s just catching up everybody with the times,” Jordan says. “This is evolution and the right thing to do.”

The promise of change was afoot prior to the March 4 Academy Awards ceremony earlier this year, thanks in large part to movements focused on the lack of diversity (#OscarsSoWhite) and prevailing sexism (#MeToo and Time’s Up). But Frances McDormand lit the fuse when she ended her acceptance speech for lead actress in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” with those two words: inclusion rider. Along with Jordan, several Hollywood figures, including filmmaker Paul Feig and Oscar winners Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Brie Larson, were quick to adopt the clause.

Credit for the inclusion rider’s existence is owed to its three authors: Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California; Kalpana Kotagal, a partner at the law firm Cohen Milstein; and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, head of strategic outreach at Affleck and Damon’s Pearl Street Films. “I don’t think anything is a hurdle any longer in the inclusion and diversity debate,” Smith says. “People’s hearts and minds were changed a long time ago, but they were lacking action.”

Through her work at USC, Smith has spent more than a decade tracking what she calls an “epidemic of invisibility” in the entertainment industry. Smith stresses that the number of films featuring speaking roles for black or African-American talent, as well as Asian and Latina women, has remained disastrously low for years. But she and her co-authors struggled to get a foothold with their open-source document.

“The response by a lot of people was, ‘This is already happening. We don’t need to codify it,’” DiGiovanni says. “But we kept going back to Stacy’s numbers. There was some disconnect.”

Adds Kotagal: “The template we have worked toward, it’s not rocket science. It’s low-hanging fruit. But here’s the reality of social change: If it were easy, this would have already been done.”

McDormand’s declaration was just the lightning bolt needed for the effort to catch fire. Within a week of the Oscars, Endeavor chief executive Ariel Emanuel invited Smith to speak at a meeting attended by hundreds of WME’s agents and executives. In a memo the next day, Emanuel declared it “imperative” that they have conversations with their clients about the issue.

“The inclusion rider is by no means a silver bullet but one of many tools we will continue to push,” Emanuel says. “Our work is far from over, but we are seeing some signs of progress, whether it’s diversity tracking being added to the California production tax credit or the commitment we have seen from WarnerMedia.”

But it will take more than contractual guidelines for momentum to gather. Though the rider has potential, thanks to how crucial talent is to the movie business, studios need to adopt inclusive hiring practices with or without the promise of big stars, says Paramount Pictures chief Jim Gianopulos. “People tend to work with people they’ve worked with before,” he says. “There’s a certain perpetuation of a more limited diversity — which is not out of discrimination but out of familiarity.”

Paramount and parent Viacom have several inclusion initiatives, including a directors program where filmmakers from diverse backgrounds shadow established directors as mentors, and a writers and artists development program that began at Nickelodeon and will expand to Paramount and other Viacom content brands.

Viacom at large is expected to adopt a sweeping inclusion initiative in the coming months that is comparable to the WarnerMedia pledge, an individual familiar with the company said, though it will not necessarily center on the inclusion rider.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s partnerships, meanwhile, tick several boxes, including a long-standing advisory relationship with Geena Davis and her eponymous foundation to increase positive and diverse portrayals of gender on-screen, as well as a massive overall deal with star athlete Stephen Curry that will leverage every division of the studio.

Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group, says there’s a new level of sociopolitical awareness throughout the business and from the audience in the macro sense. “There are much bigger imperatives that have been bearing fruit,” he notes. That said, the movie chief acknowledges that the gears of film production turn more slowly than those of television because of scale and time, to say nothing of the volume pressure studios face in the hurricane of media consolidation.

Michael B Jordan Variety Feature Article
CREDIT: Cliff Watts for Variety

A recent GLAAD study found that while LGBTQ characters hit record highs this year in broadcast, cable and streaming, with equal percentages being male or female and around 50% of them people of color, the group’s Studio Responsibility Index, which tracks fair, accurate and inclusive LGBTQ representation in film, tells a different story. Every major Hollywood studio rated “insufficient,” “poor” or “failing,” though only one, Warner Bros., took a step back from last year.

“It’s been year after year after year of not moving the needle on major films, and that has been incredibly frustrating,” says GLAAD president and chief executive Sarah Kate Ellis, adding that she often hears the same old pushback about international business potential, particularly with distributors concerned about countries where LGBTQ representation is illegal. “But in order to draw a younger audience, you have to have inclusion in your film. If they don’t see themselves, they’re not going to show up. I think they’re getting that memo at the studio level.”

GLAAD’s study also showed that strides, albeit small ones, are being made with the nation’s largest minority group — the disabled community, which accounts for 61 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study found that series regulars with disabilities hit 2.1% in 2018, up from 1.8% from last year. That represents a low but climbing total of 18 characters.

“It’s a major step forward,” says Deborah Calla, chair of the Producers Guild’s diversity committee. “We’re also starting to see showrunners go out of their way to hire writers that have disabilities in the room of a show that has a character with a disability. ‘The Good Doctor’ is a good example of that. ‘Speechless,’ the same thing. ‘9-1-1’ has a child character with cerebral palsy played by an actor with cerebral palsy. That is getting a lot of response. But it starts with the writer.”

Advocacy for voices that can’t get their foot in the door due to industry cronyism is more important than ever. Feig, in addition to adopting the rider, has established a development incubator for female directors through his digital media company Powderkeg. In October, six short-film concepts out of 40 submissions were greenlit for production. For Feig, sponsorship has taken on a greater significance than mentorship in accelerating the pace of change.

“That’s what’s going to get people jobs,” he says. “We’re vetting people, seeing if they have the goods and then going out and actively supporting them. It’s not even that we’re discovering new voices. We’re just giving access to voices to be validated and seen.”

Filmmaker Chloé Zhao witnessed some of those closed doors firsthand. She came up through the Sundance labs with talents like Ryan Coogler and Marielle Heller, but before she developed her award-winning second feature “The Rider,” she found few responded to the kinds of stories she wanted to tell, or the cast she was eager to work with. “There wasn’t a lot of interest in talking to me about anything,” she says.

Following the success of “The Rider,” Zhao — who says she prefers a balance of men and women on her crews — has a real shot at making her passion project, a story centered on Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. She’s also been handed the reins of a superhero property, “The Eternals,” and being a child of manga and animation, she’s eager to put her spin on the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“Marvel has always been a place I wanted to see if I can tell stories,” she says. “There’s a lot of diversity already in the company, so I don’t think I’ll have to fight for what I want.”

Jordan, meanwhile, says one of his central career goals is to create opportunities for those who haven’t received the same breaks he has. Adopting the inclusion rider is part and parcel of that effort to carve out a space for them to succeed. It will take commitments like that from stars with his level of influence to push things forward.

“I know of so many other talented actors out there that never got the shot,” Jordan says. “So I’m like, ‘I’ve got to start creating more. I’ve got to start building things for other people to win at across the board.’ I want elevated material that everybody has access to, and [I want to help] break down some stigmas and barriers along the way.”

One of those barriers is the perception of how well diverse stories travel. Long-held common wisdom has been showing cracks, but it takes a major event to move the dial. Many point to this year’s “Black Panther” as that event. The Marvel film grossed $700 million in the States and nearly the same number in foreign receipts.

“What blows my mind is the international [box office],” director Spike Lee says. “One of the reasons why I haven’t been able to get the budgets I’ve needed is they always go to the line item ‘foreign.’ And they say to my face, basically, ‘Black films don’t make money overseas.’”

Michael B Jordan Variety Feature Article
CREDIT: Cliff Watts for Variety

Lee’s latest movie, “BlacKkKlansman,” has scored nearly $40 million on foreign shores. It’s his second-best international performer, behind 2006’s “Inside Man” with Denzel Washington.

“We’re in a business where we have a lot of bias disguising itself as knowledge,” Christy Haubegger, Creative Artists Agency’s head of multicultural business development, says. “We hear people in Asia don’t want to see black and brown people. Well, they do. The thing that is far riskier is to not cast any diversity.”

Haubegger says a number of CAA clients have even begun requesting that more diverse outlets cover junkets for their films, which the agency is happy to facilitate. Also, earlier this year, CAA launched its CAA Amplify Database, a searchable compendium of more than 800 television writers of color. The agency also annually sends a “roadshow” of female directors and directors of color to the studios. In the past it has featured future Oscar-winning talent like Barry Jenkins and Jordan Peele.

“Inertia is powerful,” Haubegger says. “Part of my job, a lot of times, is to take the excuses away. I can’t make you hire women and people of color, but you’re not going to be able to say you didn’t see them. From the roadshow to the database, I’m going to put them all out there.”

Sources say director Ava DuVernay, through her company Array, is assembling a diversity index of below-the-line talent as well. That will help establish more opportunities for crew members. DuVernay had no comment at this time on the initiative.

Regardless of progress and an overall positive outlook, many caution against resting on laurels or even earned goodwill. It’s a deep hole that the business needs to claw itself out of, with lots more digging to go. But at the very least, the industry is finally putting one foot in front of the other.

“One of the keys to progress is that once you make these important strides, it isn’t just about improvement,” says Mark Pedowitz, president of The CW, which boasts 50/50 gender parity with writers and showrunners for its programming. “It’s about remaining steadfast in your commitment and not moving backward.”

Senior film reporter Matt Donnelly and senior TV reporter Daniel Holloway contributed to this report.

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