In the book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” a gifted young lawyer fights for the poor and the wrongly condemned. And in pure Hollywood fashion, the movie based on the book’s true story will be the first production to fall under WarnerMedia’s newly adopted inclusion rider.
“This is progress,” says Kalpana Kotagal, an employment law attorney and one of the co-authors of the inclusion rider. “It’s a contractual strategy and a lot of these infusions are happening behind the scenes between A-listers and their agents and their lawyers and studios and their lawyers.”
“Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson and Jamie Foxx, is expected to hit theaters in 2020. Its inclusion rider represents progress — but it is progress that, for many, has been a long time coming.
Inclusion riders received national attention in March when Frances McDormand won her second Academy Award and used her acceptance speech to call for the contractual clause that demands inclusive casts and crews. Days later, Jordan said he was inspired by McDormand and that his production company, Outlier Society, would adopt the policy.
In September, WarnerMedia announced that it would also practice “best efforts to ensure that diverse actors and crew members are considered for film, television and other projects, and to work with directors and producers who also seek to promote greater diversity and inclusion.” WarnerMedia added that it will also consider those with disabilities and the LGBTQ community and release an annual report on the diversity stats for all of its productions.
“At Warner Bros., diversity in front of and behind the camera is a priority,” says Kevin Tsujihara, chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment. “That’s why we — along with WarnerMedia and our sister companies HBO and Turner — became the first Hollywood studio to commit to a production diversity policy. In addition, we’ll continue to work with production companies, networks, guilds, unions, talent agencies and others to help ensure that the content we create reflects the world around us.”
But other companies have yet to follow suit. Disney, Sony, Universal, Paramount and Amazon haven’t committed to implementing inclusion riders so far. Fox also has not, but remains committed to fostering its existing diversity and inclusion partnerships and initiatives, a spokesman says.
Meanwhile, Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings made headlines in March when he publicly said that Netflix won’t embrace inclusion riders, citing the desire to have his staff speak with individual content creators about how many women and people of color were working behind the scenes than do “everything through agreements.” A followup query to Netflix to see if that philosophy has changed of late went unanswered.
Kotagal says the work that Jordan, his head of production at Outlier Society Alana Mayo and his WME agent Phillip Sun have done with WarnerMedia to shape their inclusion policy goes beyond riders on a project-to-project basis, but “really impacts practices and the ways inclusion can be implemented companywide.”
“There is no question that this is the highest profile example,” Kotagal says, admitting that what Jordan has done is “just the start” of changes to come. “It’s not always trumpeted from the rooftops when someone uses an inclusion rider because it’s a contractual approach, and it’s important to keep that in mind.”
Showrunners can make a difference, though. Although Disney has yet to officially adopt inclusion riders, Chris Nee, the executive producer behind “Doc McStuffins” and “Vampirina,” has been creating opportunities for people from all walks of life.
“One of the things that I really focus on doing is bringing in people through my coordinator position who maybe haven’t found their road in,” she says. “If they settle into that spot, I will mentor them in every way to try to bring those people up and through the ranks. Today we figured out that 50 percent of my coordinators have become staff writers and one of them is now an executive producer.”
“It is imperative ‘to grow people who are just getting started.'”
Similarly, “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” executive producer Keto Shimizu, who got her own start as a diversity hire, notes that it is imperative to “grow people who are just getting started and give them opportunities.”
“I hate the mindset that if the person is green, and they don’t do well, that it reflects on her gender or her race. I wish there wasn’t that kind of pressure. So I’m always striving to get these voices in. I’m willing to put in the work if there is someone who has an incredible story but needs some polishing. That was me…and thank God I had great mentors or I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “People have to invest until the day that the landscape is so diverse, we no longer need inclusion riders. But that hasn’t happened yet.”
Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, who worked with Kotagal, as well as actress, playwright and producer Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni to create the clause, is also hopeful that the public promises from such talent will also cause a chain reaction that continues to gain momentum.
“Both within entertainment and in other industries, the inclusion rider or similar ideas are gaining traction,” Smith says. “Endeavor Content has made a commitment to using inclusion policies across its TV and film properties. Amy Schumer has committed to using an inclusion rider, and Keira Knightley has said she is working on incorporating an inclusion rider.”
DiGiovanni adds that Casey Affleck and his development executive Whitaker Lader are considering implementing inclusion riders at their company Sea Change Media. She is also in talks with a representative with the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts because the organization hopes to adopt its own version of the inclusion rider.
But the buck doesn’t stop with entertainment. Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel has also incorporated an inclusion rider into her endorsement contract with TYR Sport, the first of its kind in such an athletic sponsorship agreement.
“Through this stipulation, Simone ensures that her partners extend meaningful opportunities to traditionally underrepresented groups and that diversity be reflected in the creative efforts she pursues with the brand,” TYR said in a statement. “TYR believes in the importance of diversity in the workplace and is proud to support Simone in her efforts to champion inclusion as both a best practice in business and a central tenet of her identity as a professional athlete.”
As more and more powerful players leverage that influence, Smith says, “the most exciting developments have been about taking this idea to the policy level.
“We would like to encourage these groups to not only think about the provisions of the rider, but the BFI Diversity Standards as guardrails and guideposts to create much-needed and swift changes to film, TV, and digital storytelling, music and games,” she says. “We are also interested in working to develop tax incentives that could benefit companies that take an inclusive approach to production.”
Says Kotagal: “It’s going to take wide strategy to include diversity and inclusion and it’s going to take narrative change to work. It’s going to take changing the white superhero complex and it’s going to take improving diversity among critics. All of these are pieces of the problem and all of these things need to be addressed. It’s ongoing and we will know as the months and years go on if these strategies are working because we will see it on-screen and off-screen.”