ESSAY: “Every Single Word” — Hollywood Has A Race Problem (But You Already Knew That, Right?)

(Header image chosen as a particularly clear example.)

So, Hollywood has a problem when it comes to depicting racial minorities in movies. The problem being, they don’t. Here’s a quick breakdown:

22.5% of casting calls ask for white actors specifically, while another 46.5% don’t specify race, an industry practice used to call for white actors without writing it out. Open calls make up only 8.5% of all opportunities, while black, latin@, and Asian calls are only 8.1%, 5.2%, and 4.3% of the total. Both Middle Eastern and Native Americans were called for less than 2% of the time (1). From 2007 – 2012, white actors played a speaking role 75.8% of the time, while black actors only had lines in 12.4% of the films (2). And in the 87 years of the Academy Awards, fewer than 5% of all Oscars awarded for acting roles have gone to black actors: 99% white for Best Actress award winners (Halle Berry’s win for Monster’s Ball is the only WoC Best Actress award) and 92% white for Best Actors. (On another note, only one woman has ever won the Best Director award.) (3)

Along comes the blog Every Single Word, pet project of performer Dylan Marrow. The concept is simple: take every line spoken by a PoC in a given movie, and string it together. The result? Depressing. Most videos run just a few seconds long, working with the handful of background character lines and forgettable generic dialogue. Also, none of the roles are standouts—an Indian Khaki Scout in Moonrise Kingdom, an Asian doctor in The Fault in Our Stars, a black secretary in (500) Days of SummerInto the Woods doesn’t even have any screentime for PoC, just a handful of seconds in the background of a song.

Glowingly pasty.

This could be a new cohort to the Bechdel Test, a classic test used to show how hard it is for movies to pass a laughably low bar for female representation: do two women (A) talk to each other (B) about something other than a man (C)? And yet, of the 5990 films on the test’s database, only 57% of the films pass. Many similar “tests” have sprung up for race and gender representation online, including the following:

  • The Mako Mori: there is a) at least one female character, b) who gets her own narrative arc, c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.
  • The Sexy Lamp: “So, there’s the Bechdel test. I’ve got another test that works just as well. The Sexy Lamp test. If you can take out a female character and replace her with a sexy lamp, YOU’RE A FUCKING HACK.”
    (Kelly Sue DeConnick, at ECCC’s ‘From Victim to Hero’ panel.)
  • The Anti-Freeze: no woman assaulted, injured or killed to further the story of another character. (combats the Women in Refrigerators trope)
  • The Ellen Willis test: if you flip the genders, does the story(/song) still make sense? (calls out the condescension and inherent sexism in many heterosexual love songs)
  • The Deggans Rule: a) At least two POC characters in the main cast, b) in a show that’s not about race.
The Unbearable Whiteness (and Male-ness) of the MCU.
The Unbearable Whiteness (and Male-ness) of the MCU, sans ScarJo. (Also, whitewashing the Jewish/Romani Maximoff twins, and the ambiguously-Hispanic Maria Hill.)

What these tests, and ESW, aim to highlight, is that the standards for representation and absurdly low. We’re asking for female characters that do things other than exist to accompany a male storyline. We’re asking for PoC who speak during the runtime of the film. And yet, Hollywood refuses to deliver. None of the ESW videos crack a minute long. That’s fewer than 60 seconds in which PoC are given a voice, any voice. And it’s not genre-specific: indie darling Wes Anderson’s stable isn’t colorful, nor are the biggest summer action movies, particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). TV fares slightly better, with notable shows including Jane the VirginFresh Off the BoatScandalEmpire, and How to Get Away With Murder, among others. So why is it so hard for movies?


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