Is Hollywood's culture ready for real diversity?
When Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand lit up Oscar night with her puzzling plea for "inclusion riders," civil right lawyer Kalpana Kotogal was watching the event a continent away in Washington and almost leaped out of her seat.
"I was completely floored," she told me in a telephone interview the next morning.
She was, after all, one of the few people in the country who knew what the heck McDormand was talking about. An "inclusion rider" is a contract provision created in 2016 by Kotogal and Stacy Smith, who researches gender equality in film and television at the University of Southern California.
"I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider," McDormand said at the end of a rousing acceptance speech for her best actress Oscar for "Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri."
McDormand had urged Meryl Streep and all of the other female nominees in the star-studded crowd to stand up. She reminded the audience that every woman standing had stories to tell and projects that needed financing.
After a year marked by the rise of a "Me, Too" and "Time's Up" movement and a tidal wave of claims against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful media moguls for raping, groping and other wretched behavior, the pushback appeared with McDormand's speech to enter a new phase.
Moving beyond the black-gown and colored-ribbon protests of recent Golden Globes and Oscar nights, McDormand's "inclusion rider" talk called on a new form of direct action: Hollywood women don't need to wait for others to reform the industry's male-centered cultured of self-congratulatory mirror-kissing.
Women with clout can use their growing leverage to enact change where change usually happens in Hollywood and other big industries: contract negotiations.
(Cue the sound track: "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves.")
Will it work? Earlier Oscar winner Brie Larson tweeted immediately her commitment to the inclusion rider, adding "Who's with me?"
And it's not a new idea. After Robin Williams' death it was revealed that on every film or event, he required the company hiring him to put a certain number of homeless people to work.
Yet questions were immediately raised by those who sniffed more than a whiff of racial and gender quotas, which could illegally discriminate against men, whites and the non-disabled.
There can be legal problems, wrote Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, on Oscar night in National Review Online.
"Suppose that a top salesman for a company said that he'll continue to work there only if no African-Americans are hired. The employer agreeing to such condition would clearly be in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination by private employers."
He has a point. But we also are talking here about entertainment projects which, by their very nature, discriminate by race, gender or ethnicity in casting parts. Where would "Hamilton" be, for example, if directors were not allowed to choose whatever cast diversity they wanted?
As Smith described in a 2016 Ted talk, there's no reason why minor roles in a movie can't reflect the demography of where the story is taking place. "An equity rider by an A-lister (star actor) in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live," she said.
Indeed. I was reminded by her words of the many times I have joked about how the Manhattan depicted in Woody Allen's movies and Jerry Seinfeld's TV comedies curiously has almost no people of color in it. That's show biz.
But, as much as conservatives mock narcissistic Hollywood liberalism, I am delighted to see breakthroughs that are making room not only for women and minorities but also for the best advantage of diversity: unfettered creativity.
I was delighted to see Jordan Peele become the first African-American to win an Oscar for best original screenplay for his film "Get Out," not just because it is an Oscar-worthy film but also because of its very perceptive originality. He took the everyday racial anxieties in today's liberal America and created a riveting horror movie that makes you think without getting in the way of a genuine entertainment.
It is the sort of movie that might have been created by a filmmaker who was not an African-American, yet was more likely to be created by one who is.
The success of unusual films like "Get Out" and best-movie winner "The Shape of Water," a very unlikely story of love between woman and fish, show Hollywood breaking out of its old habits and taking some high-stakes chances. Artists win when they have more opportunities. Audiences win when we have more choices.
(E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.)(c) 2018 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.