Study: More women and people of color were lead characters in movies in 2019

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Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet.” [Focus Features]

In 2019, film fans were more likely to find movies with lead characters who were women and people of color in their local cinemas than they had previously in more than a decade.

That’s according to a recent study led by Stacy L. Smith from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California. Titled “Inequality Across 1,300 Popular Films: Examining Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Leads/Co Leads from 2007 to 2019,” the research recorded the progress made in the top 100 movies of 2019 for both women and people of color, Variety reports.

According to the study, 43 of the top 100 movies had female leads or co-leads, 16 of whom were from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups.

That’s an improvement from 2018, when 39 movies in the top 100 had a woman lead or co-lead character, 11 of whom were characters of color.

In the overall sample, 29% of the 1,300 movies had female leads or co-leads, Variety reported.

The study also found that 31 of the top 100 movies of 2019 had “a lead or co-lead actor from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group,” up from 27 in 2018.

Across the 1,300 movies, the number of people of color in lead or co-lead roles was 17%.

Both results represent 13-year highs, Variety noted, citing the study. In 2007, only 20 of the top 100 featured women as leads or co-leads, and just 13 of the top 100 films featured leads or co-lead who were characters of color.

With female leads and co-leads, the percentages for films are on par with statistics for television for the first time ever.

The study used box office as a measurement and didn’t examine films from Netflix, Variety noted.

Despite the increase of lead characters for both women and people of color, Smith and her cohorts noted that the percentages still don’t reflect census data: Women comprise 51% of the U.S. population, and people of color make up 39.6% of the nation’s population.

Also, the number of films with a female lead age 45 or older dropped from 11 in 2018 to three in 2019, Variety noted, citing the research.

In her remarks with the study, Smith noted that the trends towards more diversity weren’t reflected during awards season. As previously reported, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences drew widespread criticism for the dearth of diversity among the top nominees as well as the exclusion female filmmakers at last month’s 92nd Annual Academy Awards. Only one performer of color – Cynthia Erivo for her portray of former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman in “Harriet” – was nominated for an Oscar across the four acting categories.

“It is clear that Hollywood is taking steps to create more inclusive stories and that those films are connecting with audiences,” Smith wrote in the study.

The “very obvious disconnect between what sells tickets and what garners awards,” she noted, “points to a systemic bias at cultural institutions like the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards.”

To read the research brief, click here.


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