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How an uptick in racial representation could change the movies

“Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins (R) and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney pose with the Oscar for Best Movie and for Best Adapted Screenplay during the 89th Oscars in Hollywood, California. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

By Ese Olumhense

Increased racial representation on screen — in films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences (all led by black actors and actresses) — in 2016 appears to have resonated with moviegoers of color. Asian-Americans, blacks, and Latinos frequented theaters much more than usual last year, reported the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) on Wednesday. The year was also a record one for box offices in the U.S. and Canada, which made $11.4 billion in 2016 — more money than any year before.

Asian-American viewers went to the movies an average 6.1 times a year in 2016, compared with an average 4.9 annual visits in 2015. Black moviegoers visited theaters an average 4.2 times in 2016; in 2015 it was 3.5 times. For both groups, the uptick in “frequent moviegoer” numbers, defined by the MPAA as going once a month or more, was the highest in at least five years.

Latinos, who generally frequent movies more than their black and Asian counterparts, also saw a slight increase in their frequent moviegoer totals over last year. However, fewer whites went to the movies as frequently in 2016, the MPAA reported: The number of “frequent moviegoers” from that demographic fell one million in 2016.

Of course, other factors besides movies’ heightened racial representation could have driven viewership surges in communities of color in 2016, including the national increase in disposable income.

April Reign, a writer and editor from D.C. who started the hashtag campaign #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 to highlight the fact that the academy had not nominated a single actor or actress of color for its top honors for 2014, said of the moviegoing numbers this week, “It’s a promising trend, and I hope that it continues.”

“I definitely think it has something to do with the fact that there are more characters of color and those from marginalized communities on the big screen, the small screen, and on the stage,” she continued. “People are interested in seeing stories that center on people that look like them, or just stories that are different from what we’ve normally seen.”

For years, the academy, and the industry in general, grappled with claims that it repeatedly snubbed actors and actresses of color for meaty roles and for its top honors. The problem, some charged, was the result of bias, both from the decision-makers at studios and from the academy’s pool of mostly male, mostly white voters.

The controversy bubbled loudly to the surface in early 2015, when Reign’s hashtag #OscarsSoWhite exploded online and offline. It later became a rallying call heard across the industry, even by Cheryl Boone Issacs, president of the academy, who later introduced an initiative to improve the diversity of academy staff and governance.

“Representation matters to me because my children should be able to move freely in the world without thought of how someone else’s bias may affect them,” Reign said in 2016. “My kids should be able to see themselves up on a screen and should know that their stories are just as important as anyone else’s.”

Despite the increases in movie attendance from audiences of color, a lot of work still needs to be done to expand representation for all marginalized groups on screen, not just the black community, Reign said this week. Viewers living with disabilities, as well as LGBT and Asian viewers, are still underrepresented in movies.

The industry actually took some “steps backward” for Asian representation in 2016, Reign said, casting white actors and actresses in roles as Asians, though Asian-Americans frequented theaters in big numbers. Asian-Americans, who make up eight percent of the U.S. population, bought 14 percent of all tickets sold in 2016.

“The fact that we had a strong 2016 with respect to films that reflect the black experience doesn’t mean, by any means, that the work is done,” she said. “In 2017, I’m still waiting for that rom-com starring two members of the LGBTQIA community. Sir Patrick Stewart is phenomenal and X-Men was great, but he’s an able-bodied man playing a disabled superhero. Why can’t we have a disabled actor or actress playing a superhero?” she asked.

Reign is hopeful the just-released stats will encourage studio heads to realize the “purchasing power” of these demographics and work to greenlight more films that showcase their experiences. Her own advocacy for heightened representation in film will continue, she said, until “all moviegoers from traditionally underrepresented communities can see themselves on the screen in a myriad of roles — not just during award nomination season.”