- Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism by Nancy Wang Yuen
The dearth of opportunities for actors of color in Hollywood can be attributed to various reasons. As the sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen elucidates in her recent book, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, these reasons are interlinked but not inevitable. Using interviews she conducted with one hundred individuals working in film and television, including actors of color (and, for comparison, white actors), talent agents, casting directors, and writers, Yuen demonstrates that limited script opportunities, lack of cooperation by intermediaries such as agents and casting directors, and deeply entrenched racist biases undermine efforts to diversify the US film industry.1 Critical race and cultural theory inform Yuen's approach to writing about an understudied area of film and media: the lived experiences of actors of color pursuing full-time careers in Hollywood.
In addition to the in-person interviews Yuen conducted with working actors of varying levels of fame between 2005 and 2015, the author assesses casting data from television networks' seasons and incorporates previously published statistics and interviews with actors such as Constance Wu, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Vergara, and Mindy Kaling to inform her analysis. That analysis focuses on the film and television industries, the Academy Awards and #OscarsSoWhite campaign, [End Page 170] labor issues, and organizational histories. She cites a critical lack of opportunities for actors of color to gain prominence through their portrayals of nuanced, nonstereotypical characters. Data on award recognition and quotes from artists such as Spike Lee highlight the starkness of Hollywood's long history of ignoring and limiting opportunities for actors of color, with scant recognition for their talents and contributions. Yuen notes that at the time of her writing, "In Oscar's eighty-eight-year history, actors of color received only 6.2 percent of total acting nominations and won only 7.8 percent of total acting awards."2 Actors of color have not passively accepted this exclusion, as Yuen makes clear. Reel Inequality provides a compelling account of actors' methods of combating stereotypes, the shortage of well-developed, specific roles for actors of color, and discrimination in casting. In her introduction Yuen links current issues of representation to cinematic performance's origins in minstrelsy and frames the lack of racial parity in mediated representation as a high-stakes problem that influences American identity and the well-being of people of color in this country—not only those who work in entertainment but also those who search for a face that looks like theirs on-screen and, too often, see none.
Yuen's intersectional approach reveals that racism and sexism often combine to make the entertainment industry most challenging for women of color, as when light-skinned black actresses are expected to meet Anglo-centric beauty standards and dark-skinned black actresses are obliged to play less feminine characters, and almost never leading ladies. Yuen also cites a statistic that in the top-grossing films of 2013, "Latinas had the highest percentage of partial or full nudity compared to all other women actors."3 Frequent stereotypes of women of color playing maids and other service workers, who are often either highly sexualized or barely developed, forces actors to choose between perpetuating a harmful portrayal or not being hired if they wait for well-written, developed, culturally relevant, and respectful parts to play. This is a challenge faced by many actors of color, but as Yuen finds, there is an opportunity to voice their opinions when actors encounter these stereotypes: "Despite facing both racial and gender stereotyping, some female actors of color assert their power by rejecting exploitative roles. Actors of color can also reject roles as a form of advocacy."4 By refusing to perpetuate racist tropes, to perform in projects in which people with accents are the butt of the joke, or to play the same character over and over again, the actors with whom Yuen spoke resist and challenge racism in the entertainment industries, all while striving...