While Malala inspires at the movies, U.S. government investigates bias complaints behind the scenes

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Malala Yousafzai appears in a scene from the new documentary "He Named Me Malala." Fox Searchlight Pictures photo

Malala Yousafzai appears in a scene from the new documentary “He Named Me Malala.” Fox Searchlight Pictures photo

Since Hollywood is taking its sweet time making the Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel movies, thankfully, filmgoers don’t have to keep waiting on a Superwoman to see an inspirational heroine on the big screen.

You couldn’t ask for a much more inspirational heroine than 2014’s youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the subject of Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting on a Superman) unabashedly inspirational — in fact, downright adoring — new documentary He Named Me Malala.

As I wrote in my review for NewsOK, the writer-director uses a somewhat muddled nonlinear style to tell the story of the Pakistani teenager who was just 15 years old when she was shot in the head by Taliban thugs in 2012 on the way home from school. Malala, now 18, was targeted for speaking out for girls’ right to be educated, just like her father, Ziauddin, an educator and activist.

Guggenheim and his crew spent 18 months following the calm and charismatic Malala, chronicling her appearances at the United Nations, with Bono and on The Daily Show, her advocacy visits to schoolchildren in Syria and Kenya and her appointments with doctors who have treated her since the shooting, which left her face partially paralyzed and with scars mostly covered by her traditional headscarf. The family-friendly film doesn’t dwell much on her suffering, primarily because the Muslim teenager who wasn’t afraid to scold President Obama about drone strikes isn’t afraid to kindly tell a filmmaker “no” on that line of questioning.

But film’s most compelling moments are spent with Malala, her father, her mother and her two mischievous brothers at home in Birmingham, England, where they moved after she was gunned down. The Taliban have vowed to kill her if they return, and the film reveals a sort of backlash against Malala in her homeland, where some Pakistanis have accused her of either abandoning traditional beliefs or abandoning her people in favor of Western fame.

Inside their cozy flat, the fiery speechmaker is an ordinary girl who affectionately tussles with her brothers, wrestles with her feelings about her more traditional mother, struggles with her homework, worries over her social standing at school and titters nervously about her crushes on Roger Federer and Brad Pitt.

Known for his advocacy filmmaking — He Named Malala ends with a link to her foundation and some sobering statistics on the millions of children, especially girls, denied educational opportunities around the globe — Guggenheim couldn’t make his point any clearer: What makes someone like Malala special isn’t her Nobel Prize or her meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, it’s her willingness to stand up for what’s right, regardless of the consequences.

She’s only 5 right now and a little too young to learn about some of the harsher realities of this world, but when the time comes, I’m eager to show my own daughter, Brenna, He Named Me Malala so she too can be inspired by what one brave girl can accomplish.

Director Catherine Hardwicke, left, appears on the set of her hit 2008 film "Twilight" with stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. Summit Entertainment photo

Director Catherine Hardwicke, left, appears on the set of her hit 2008 film “Twilight” with stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. Summit Entertainment photo

Feds investigating sexism in Hollywood

We’re starting to see the effects of what happens when women in Hollywood stand up against sexism. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is working to interview dozens of female directors in an effort to see what action, if any, it should take to combat discrimination against female film and TV directors. A letter from the EEOC went out to some 50 women earlier this month, Deadline.com reports.

As previously reported on this blog, the EEOC probe comes after the American Civil Liberties Union spent two years looking into complaints of gender discrimination in Hollywood’s directorial hiring practices and in May requested that the federal government investigate. Women currently receive only 16 percent of the episodic TV directing jobs, and last year directed less than 5 percent of the major studio releases, according to Deadline.com.

The letter sent by the EEOC to female directors read: “Your name was provided to our agency by Melissa Goodman with the ACLU. Ms. Goodman has advised the EEOC that you would be willing to speak with us, so that we may learn more about the gender-related issues which you are facing in both the Film and Television Industries. To that end, I would like to begin coordinating dates and times for these interviews, to take place during the month of October at our Los Angeles District Office. Please note that these interviews will be considered confidential. At your earliest opportunity, please contact me and let me know your availability so that we can schedule a date and time for your interview.

Selma helmer Ava DuVernay and Twilight helmer Catherine Hardwicke already have spoken in favor of the EEOC probe.

“It’s important that this battle is fought on all fronts, and I think the (EEOC’s involvement) is one of many ways we can move for change,” DuVernay told EW.com. “Asking hasn’t gotten us anything.”

With its $69.6 million opening weekend gross in 2008, Twilight had the biggest opening ever for a film directed by a woman — as well as for a film starring a woman — but Hardwicke famously was denied the opportunity to film any of the bigger-budget sequels.

“When I started, I never believed there was a bias against me, I was so naïve,” Hardwicke told EW.com. “Then Twilight hit and it made $400 million, and that’s when doors slammed even harder. It’s been empowering to understand this unconscious bias and to realize it’s not just me.”

It’s hard to imagine how the film industry will be able to fight the sexism charges, since the statistics just keep mounting that show the gender bias in Hollywood. As EW.com reports, USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a report last week that examined the number of female directors of short films at the top 10 film festivals worldwide. The study’s results suggest that career challenges for women begin even earlier than when they’ve completed their first feature film.

“Female film directors face a fiscal cliff in their careers soon after making a short film,” says Annenberg Professor Stacy L. Smith, “Male and female directors are put on opposite paths as their careers progress. For males, opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish.”

What’s even more interesting is whether the investigation will lead to any real, lasting change, since as Deadline.com reports, this isn’t the first EEOC probe into Hollywood’s discriminatory hiring practices. In 1969, the EEOC held several days of hearings in Los Angeles and concluded that women and minorities were being discriminated against in behind-the-scenes jobs. But lacking enforcement powers at that time, it referred the matter to the Justice Department. The DOJ and the industry later agreed to establish “goals and timetables” to increase minority representation in many jobs covered by the IATSE, but that produced very few improvements. Female directors weren’t even included.

As previously reported on this blog, the Directors Guild of America filed a class-action discrimination suit against Warner Bros and Columbia in 1983 on behalf of female and minority directors. Even after a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, the number of female directors increased for a time filed but by now has declined back to even lower dismal depths.

Hardwicke shared her idea for a simple solution with EW.com: “This can all change. We can end this boring, repetitive conversation if every single executive, financier, distributor, producer takes this pledge — for every man that I hire, I’m going to hire a woman. For every male film I back, I’m going to back one by a woman. It’s possible,” she said. “It’s so easy, and it would be amazing.”

Geena Davis is the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Photo provided

Geena Davis is the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Photo provided

Reaching onscreen equality — in 700 years or less

One of the reasons it’s so vital to have more women directors behind the camera is because women characters are so underrepresented in front of it. EW.com reported back in February that in the top grossing films of 2014, only 12 percent of protagonists were women, according to a study released by Dr. Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

“The chronic under-representation of girls and women reveals a kind of arrested development in the mainstream film industry,” Lauzen said in the release. “Women are not a niche audience and they are no more ‘risky’ as filmmakers than men. It is unfortunate that these beliefs continue to limit the industry’s relevance in today’s marketplace.”

Ironically, the top-grossing film of 2014 was led by a female heroine: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

At the rate of recent growth, it will take 700 years for women’s representation in the media to reach gender equality, Geena Davis said during her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s first international symposium, presented earlier this month in London during the BFI London Film Festival, reports to ScreenDaily.com.

“I don’t think it’s going to take 700 years for this change to happen. From what I’ve seen we’re going to be able to take off both the zeros and move the needle very soon,” Davis said, noting that the ratio of male and female characters has been the same since 1946.

“In all the sectors of society how long will it take to reach gender parity? One category can be changed overnight – on screen. In the time it takes to create a television show or a movie, we can change. There aren’t enough female CEOs in the world, there can be half female CEOs on screen (immediately).”

She cited the direct impact of the CSI franchises on CBS on which the majority of the forensic scientists are played by women.

“In real life the number of women wanting to enter that profession has skyrocketed,” she said Davis, citing a statistic that some forensic science courses have a three-to-one ratio of female-to-male students. “This is change that can happen, it’s doable, it’s easy, it can be fun and exciting and inventive.”

Much like Hardwicke’s simple idea for equalizing the number of women directors, Davis has some easy fixes for the number of women film and TV characters, according to The Guardian. One would be to specify that crowd scenes are 50 percent female, she said, since research showed the current proportion was only about 17 percent.

“Everywhere I go I bring that up, and they say, ‘Why are we doing that? Let’s fix that right away!’ So there are very simple steps that you can take,” she said. “The default is so male in our society that it just doesn’t occur to people to say, ‘Why isn’t the boss or the best friend or the landlord a woman, it so easily could be?’”

Another easy step she recommends for filmmakers and TV creatives: “Before you cast something, just go through and do a gender check and change a bunch of first names to female. Voila! You have some very unstereotyped female characters.”

From left, Brittany Snow, Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson star in "Pitch Perfect 2." Universal Pictures photo

From left, Brittany Snow, Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson star in “Pitch Perfect 2.” Universal Pictures photo

Women-driven films zipping right to the bank

For Hollywood, putting more women on screen also is making a difference where honestly it’s probably going to matter most: at the box office — and ultimately, the bank.

Thelma Adams recently examined for Variety.com the phenomenal performance of a wide range of female-driven films at the box office this year, from the musical comedy Pitch Perfect 2 ($285 million worldwide gross) to the action vehicle Mad Max: Fury Road ($375 million worldwide gross) to the sexy potboiler 50 Shades of Gray ($570 million worldwide gross) to the comedies Spy ($236 million worldwide gross) and Trainwreck ($138 million worldwide gross).

“The numbers speak for themselves. Period. Worldwide grosses for ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ and ‘Cinderella’ were over $800 million. Clearly women aren’t the only ones going to see these movies,” Academy member Peggy Rajski, associate arts professor/head of producing, NYU Graduate Film Program told Variety.com. “Over half the world’s population is female. Why wouldn’t you target that audience more aggressively?”

And remember 2014’s top-grossing film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1? Mockingjay — Part 2 is opening Nov. 20 and stands a decent shot of helping the franchise repeat for the top-grossing movie of the year title. By the way, that franchise already has grossed Lionsgate $2.2 billion.

As Adams notes, “Female-driven movies make money. In an era when movies are beset by competition from quality television, video games and alternative entertainment, the industry can’t afford to be biased.”

Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst in "Suffragette." Focus Features photo

Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst in “Suffragette.” Focus Features photo

Meryl Streep drawing attention to gender gap in film criticism

Three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, who co-stars in the new femme-centric film Suffragette, isn’t just taking Hollywood to task for sexism. She told the DailyBeast.com that the entire American movie industry is being skewed by the dominance of male film reviewers, who have different tastes and perspectives to women.

“The word isn’t disheartening—it’s infuriating,” she said.

She particularly called out review aggregator RottenTomatoes.com.

“In the United States when people go to find a movie to watch at night, to go out to the movies they go to something called Rotten Tomatoes. So I went deep, deep, deep, deep into Rotten Tomatoes,” she said.

She said she counted up all of the women critics whose opinions were included in the site’s Tomatometer.

“There are 168 women. And I thought that’s absolutely fantastic, and if there were 168 men it would be balanced. If there were 268 men it would be unfair but I would be used to it, if there were 360, if there were 4… actually there are 760 men who weigh in on the Tomatometer,” she said.

“I submit to you that men and women are not the same, they like different things. Sometimes they like the same thing but sometimes their tastes diverge. If the Tomatometer is slighted so completely to one set of tastes that drives box office in the United States, absolutely.”

As AWFJ reported last year, Lauzen did a study tracked over 2,000 reviews penned by 145 writers designated as “top critics” on RottenTomatoes.com over a two-month period in the spring of 2013.

In spring 2013, top male critics wrote 82 percent and top female critics 18 percent of the film reviews featured on the film review aggregator site. Plus, 78 percent of the top critics writing in spring 2013 were male, and 22 percent were female.

Males accounted for 91 percent of critics writing for movie/entertainment magazines/websites such as Entertainment Weekly, 90 percent of those writing for trade publication websites such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and The Wrap, 80 percent of critics writing for general interest magazines and sites such as Time and Salon, 72 percent of those writing for newspaper websites, and 70 percent of critics writing for radio outlets/sites such as NPR.

In contrast, women comprised 30 percent of critics working for radio outlets/sites, 28 percent of those writing for newspaper websites, 20 percent of critics writing for general interest magazine sites, 10 percent of those writing for trade publication sites, and 9 percent of critics writing for movie/entertainment magazine sites.

Native Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, 14, has been cast as the voice of the title character in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Moana." Photo provided

Native Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, 14, has been cast as the voice of the title character in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Moana.” Photo provided

Quick hitters

RIP Chantal Akerman: Pioneering Belgian film director Chantal Akerman, widely considered a leading light of experimental European cinema, and an important influence on directors such as Gus van Sant, Todd Haynes and Michael Haneke, died Oct. 5 at the age of 65, according to The Guardian. Our thoughts go out to her family, friends and fans.

La Frances Hui added to MoMA film department: The Museum of Modern Art has named La Frances Hui as Associate Curator in the Department of Film. Specifically, Hui will serve as a strategic collaborator in driving the department’s extensive calendar of programs, exhibitions, collections, and scholarship under the leadership of Rajendra Roy, the Museum’s Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film. Ms. Hui joins the MoMA staff as of Oct. 13, reports AWFJ’s Jennifer Merin.

Disney’s Moana finds her voice: Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Moana has found her voice following a worldwide search to cast the film’s title character. Native Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, 14, joins Dwayne Johnson in the big-screen adventure about a spirited and fearless teenager named Moana (Cravalho) who, with help from demi-god Maui (Johnson), sets out on a daring mission to prove herself a master wayfinder, according to a news release.

“I didn’t think I would have a chance,” Cravalho said in the release. “When I was little, I used to dance around the house singing at the top of my lungs. In my mind, that was performing and I loved the feeling of it. But I never imagined being in a Disney movie, being Moana—representing my culture in that way.”

Moana sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016.


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