Like the “Soy Bomb” of its era, “Inclusion Rider” was the big talker and takeaway from this year’s Oscars ceremony, with Frances McDormand’s rousing speech upon accepting her award for best actress literally bringing the audience to its feet.
Or at least a small part of the audience.
Requesting that all of her fellow female nominees please stand, McDormand revealed the paltry truth of the ostensible liberal bastion we call Hollywood: As a handful of actresses, directors, writers, producers, costume and production designers, makeup artists, animators, one editor, and one cinematographer stood, the tableau brought home just how rare women are on film sets, especially as crew members. Throughout the evening, despite consistent nods to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the parade of white men accepting below-the-line awards reinforced just how far the film industry has to go when it comes to meaningful representation before and behind the camera.
Which is what made McDormand’s call so electrifying. (“I have two words to leave you with tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.”) For three hours, the audience had seen elegant lip service being paid to equality, while being served up example after example of just how unequal things are at the largely invisible core of the movie business. With just two unfamiliar words, McDormand seemed to be offering a practical, even immediate, solution.
Conceived by University of Southern California professor Stacy Smith and Washington-based employment attorney Kalpana Kotagal, an inclusion rider is a contract addendum in which a movie’s producers commit to recruit and hire members of underrepresented groups as cast and crew members. Although not yet formally adopted by many filmmakers (“Seen none. Have none,” one entertainment lawyer told the Hollywood Reporter this week), the concept shares DNA with Jessica Chastain’s recent demand that she and Octavia Spencer make the same salary on an upcoming project: it enables actors and name directors, to leverage their power on behalf of structural, ground-level change.
On Wednesday, Michael B. Jordan — whose impressive performance in “Black Panther” has made him one of that film’s breakout stars — announced that his production company would adopt inclusion riders for its projects “in support of the women and men who are leading this fight.” Shortly thereafter, Brie Larson tweeted her commitment to the practice going forward.
It’s revealing — and not surprising — that the first people to commit publicly to employment parity are a young, African American man and a young actress: Amid Hollywood’s old guard, the pushback started almost immediately, with skeptics raising doubts about the nuts and bolts of putting the clause into practice, as well as the possibilities of reverse-discrimination suits. Meanwhile, grumblings could be heard about the focus on “demographics” over artistic excellence, and the dreaded specter of quotas.
Missing from this analysis, of course, is acknowledgment of the fact that Hollywood has operated under a quota system for decades, with the white men who have been running the studios consistently favoring colleagues who look like them and projects that cater to their desires and worldviews, no matter how mediocre or outright disastrous the results. When it comes to the pursuit of excellence, Hollywood has indeed been blinkered by demographics, limiting its prospects to a nepotistic boys’ club, while the talents of untold numbers of artists, craftspeople and executives have gone untapped.
In the meantime, even without the benefit of contract law, it’s possible to point to the proven merits of inclusion: From the “Fast and Furious” franchise to such recent hits as “Hidden Figures,” “Girls Trip” and “Black Panther,” it’s clear that pluralistic stories and characters appeal to wide audiences. As for behind-the-camera talent, Dee Rees went out of her way to hire people of color and women of all races as crew members on her World War II-era drama “Mudbound,” resulting in the film’s cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, becoming the first woman in history to be nominated for an Oscar in that category. Ava DuVernay has followed a similar practice when staffing her OWN series “Queen Sugar” and her new film, “A Wrinkle in Time” — which, because of DuVernay’s distinction as the first African American women to helm a $100 million-plus movie, has been hyped as a phenomenon on par with “Black Panther.”
It isn’t. It’s a good movie, with its own strengths and weaknesses, that marks a colorful, occasionally dazzling, addition to Disney’s canon of one-off children’s classics. But in directing a garden-variety good movie — one that features a representationally balanced cast and crew as a matter of course — DuVernay has provided invaluable proof of concept for an idea that, thanks to the blunt-force moral authority of Frances McDormand, is now nameable, tangible, and achievable. For an industry and art form that put a premium on realism, authenticity and distinct voices and visions, the path forward couldn’t be clearer: This is what crews look like. This is what casts look like. This is what the world looks like.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what movies look like.