2015 was supposed to be the year that Hollywood recognized what women and people of color are worth. “Furious 7,” the latest installment of a franchise that started as a story about a white guy before evolving into a multicultural family drama, made $353 million in the United States and $1.16 billion world-wide. “Empire,” Fox’s soap opera about a family’s fight for control of a record company, made the splashiest television debut in decades. “Fresh Off The Boat” brought Asian Americans back to TV for the first time in decades.
But while this felt like a year when Hollywood was supposed to recognize that its woeful record on diversity was costing the industry money, Vulture’s “Most Valuable Stars” list, released Monday, provided some sobering perspective. Jennifer Lawrence, a young female star, may have topped the rankings for women and people of color. But the analysis still suggests that women and actors of color are still less valuable to Hollywood than white men — and that women and men of color make themselves most valuable to the industry by playing aliens, superheroes or action drones rather than telling their own stories.
Vulture’s “Most Valuable Stars” rankings are useful to look at because they try to get beyond raw box office, which can be boosted by an actor’s presence in a big franchise that would do well with or without his or her presence, to measure things like social media clout and appeal with critics. In theory, that ought to bring up the value of some actors who are beloved and admired, but persistently undervalued by an entertainment industry that maintains a conservative, even cowardly, conviction that white men are the only sure draw for audiences.
But even with those corrective factors, the 2015 list is overwhelmingly white and male. Just 35 women made the list, and they represented only 16 of the actors in the top fifty. Ten percent of the list are actors of color, just two of whom are women. Of those actors, Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel and Zoe Saldana and Lupita Nyong’o are of mixed race, Idris Elba’s parents are from Sierra Leone and Ghana, and Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Kevin Hart, Jamie Foxx and Tyler Perry are African American. Saldana and Nyong’o are the only two women of color on the list.
And while Saldana and Nyong’o may be on the list, a look at their upcoming projects suggests that Hollywood finds them valuable in a very specific way.
Since Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress for her work in “12 Years A Slave” at the 2014 Academy Awards, she’s booked only three movies, an unusually small number for someone who is supposed to be a breakout star. And in only one of them, “Queen of Katwe,” about a young Ugandan chess star, will Nyong’o’s actual face appear on screen. She’s being shot in motion capture for “Star Wars: Episode VII–The Force Awakens,” and she’s doing voice work for “The Jungle Book.”
Saldana has fared slightly better, thanks to her starring role in the “Avatar,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Star Trek” franchises. But she’s a blue alien in the “Avatar” films and a green one in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” In four of the nine upcoming movies Saldana has in the pipeline, she’ll appear behind a face other than her own. Extraterrestrials often seem better-represented in American movies than women of color. But it’s particularly telling that the two actresses of color deemed most valuable to Hollywood have gotten that way in part by playing non-humans.
Of course, one of the things the list illustrates is just how much franchises matter in determining which actors are valuable. And big franchises remain overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Many of the women and people of color on the Vulture list appear there because they’re exceptions to that rule, anchoring, or at least having footholds, in big ongoing series.
Lawrence, who topped the list, is one of the very few women who can be said to truly topline a franchise. She’s the undisputed star of “The Hunger Games,” which has its last installment arriving in theaters this week: the fellows are her supporting players. And Lawrence also stars in the renewed “X-Men” franchise as Mystique. Scarlett Johansson, who clocks in at 10 on the list, has “The Avengers,” even if Marvel hasn’t seen fit to give her character, Black Widow, the stand-along movie she so richly deserves. Shailene Woodley, at 34, has the “Divergent” movies. Melissa McCarthy, in the 24 spot, doesn’t yet have an ongoing series of movies, though her collaborations with Paul Feig are tied together by a shared sensibility and interest in challenging Hollywood’s gender norms.
Dwayne Johnson (5 on the list) and Vin Diesel (number 23) co-star in the “Fast & Furious” franchise, and both have other franchises to their names, including the “Journey to the Center of the Earth” movies for Johnson and the “Riddick,” “Witch Hunter” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” films for Diesel. Kevin Hart has comedy franchises in “Think Like A Man” and “Ride Along.” And Tyler Perry’s brand is strong enough that the man is a franchise in and of himself.
It may be encouraging to see a woman at the top of a “Most Valuable Stars” list, but the rankings as a whole paint a depressing picture of why Hollywood doesn’t just marginalize women and people of color, but stories about their experiences. There may be some actors, like Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep and Will Smith, who are allowed to carry big, stand-alone movies. But many of the women and people and color on Vulture’s list are considered valuable because of how they fit into a larger story, sometimes ones where they aren’t playing humans at all.