Lauren Conrad’s voice haunted the high school halls during my sophomore year. It was 2006, and The Hills, Conrad’s spin-off from Laguna Beach, was all anyone talked about. The green-eyed blonde stole the hearts of many and became a stencil for beauty trends. I remember my sister persistently asking my mom for what I would call the “whitewashed” look. She wanted to dye her dark black hair blonde and get blue-coloured contacts, no prescription necessary. My mother did the responsible thing and said if I, the older and more sensible sister, did it, she would give her permission for blonde streaks. When I finally did the deed, I remember looking into the mirror and thinking, “this was a mistake.”
The next day at lunch, I bumped into my sister. She must have gotten her hands on some illegal imports. Her eyes were not the usual brown I saw every morning but a muddy blue instead. I didn’t understand. Why go through the effort to be someone completely different just to fit in? The cultural assimilation of a teen’s subconscious is too easy in a nation where one in five people is a visible minority.
Your Token is Looking a Little Dull
Lisa from Saved by the Bell, Miranda from Lizzie McGuire, and Fez from That ’70s Show are examples of visible minorities on the small screen. To the privileged eye, these characters were just part of the main cast. But to people looking for a relatable character in the sea of fair-skinned faces, these fictional people were beacons of representation for teens in the early ’90s and ’00s. That was “diversity” at the time.
They were series regulars but still felt like side characters. Some even lived more exciting lives than the main lead.
Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls was a far more interesting character than the titular Gilmore family. She was a Korean teen who lived a double life — secretly joining a rock band, stashing her forbidden rock clothing, and covertly dating non-Christian boys all while hiding it from her ultra-religious mother. Juxtapose her life with that of her best friend, Rory Gilmore. Rory attended a fancy private school. Rory ate lunch at the popular girls’ table. Rory never worked a part-time job because she had her grandparents to lean on. Rory’s privileged life did not compare to Lane’s challenging working-class story. The creators used Lane as a token when I thought she deserved the spotlight.
A token is one or two visible minorities in a predominantly white cast. The tokens are usually there for comic relief and given lines to follow a racial stereotype. Rajesh Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory is an example of the model minority myth of Asian students. These students are quiet, follow the rules, and are highly intelligent. They represent the “ideal” minority.
Tokenism is still happening. Films and television shows still cast minorities for the sake of diversity. But with movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, marginalized groups finally tell their own stories. Representation on the screen is changing, but does diversity in the crews behind the scenes affect what audiences see?
A Little Representation Here, There, and Everywhere
Within the past five years, diverse stories have become more mainstream in western culture. The South Korean comedy-thriller Parasite, a film with subtitles, made history for winning Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020. Black Panther, released in 2018, had a predominantly Black cast. And yet, award ceremonies still snub other American films like The Farewell because of the ratio of the subtitles to English dialogue.
Meditation Park, directed by Mina Shum, is a Canadian story of a Chinese woman challenging gender roles and her difficulties adjusting to immigrant life independently.Mina Shum wrote and directed Meditation Park for domesticated immigrant women who are afraid to challenge the men in their lives. She wrote a story she experienced. She didn’t have to make assumptions and stereotype any characters. The film is about a Chinese immigrant, but I could relate it to my Filipino mother’s experience. These types of films are baby steps to dismantling systemic racism. Still, less than 10 per cent of film writers are people of colour, according to UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report 2019.
BIPOC TV & FILM, a Toronto-based grassroots organization, provides resources and opportunities for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour who are looking to be part of the Canadian television and film industry.
“Many people hire minorities just to receive funding, and they do not look into what they can do to make it a safe space. They shut us out,” says Adeline Bird, advisor and content creator from BIPOC TV & FILM.
Funding opportunities such as the Solidarity Fund for racialized people (Black people and people of colour) and the Indigenous Screen Office/Netflix Apprenticeship & Cultural Mentorship Funding Program exist so underrepresented people can be in charge of how their stories are told.
Minorities pay to watch white people’s stories, and it should also apply the other way around. Yet, Indigenous movies like 2018’s The Grizzlies are not blockbuster hits. Where were the promotions for this film?
“People are dying in my community; the suicide is so high because my Indigenous relatives do not see themselves on TV, so what can they identify with?” says Bird.
According to Nordicity, a data analyzing firm, in 2016, visible minorities and Indigenous people made up 16.3 per cent of the english speaking roles on Canadian television shows overall.
Directors such as Jordan Peele and Ava DuVernay are cementing the path paved by Spike Lee. They are creating a safe space for future Black directors. The films they create represent what they know: stories signifying themselves even if they are the minority. The number of diverse lead actors in film has doubled since 2011 and is increasing on-screen.
“This is the generation that is not doing fake inclusion. Those days are over,” says Bird.
The Full Local Experience
According to Stats Canada, in 2016, Winnipeg’s population consisted of 705,244 people. Over 190,000 visible minorities and more than 86,000 Indigenous peoples populated Winnipeg at the time, in other words, one in three individuals is a minority as of 2016.
Whenever I take a class or training workshop, I count the marginalized groups’ ratio to the white males. I think about my odds of being hired compared to the considerably more privileged group. There are less than a handful of us every time I’ve counted. It is intimidating as a woman of colour to be working within this ratio. Manitoba’s film industry continues to grow, and I reached out to these local workers/talents and asked them to describe what it’s like being a minority on set.
Erin Hembrador, a Filipino filmmaker, has been working in the film industry for ten years. She has worked as a sound mixer for various independent productions, a workshop facilitator for Film Training Manitoba, and an administrator at FRANK Digital. Hembrador says she’s seeing more diversity today with people from all kinds of different cultural backgrounds than when she first started.
“There’s a huge shift in people of colour who are more aware that our stories need to be told. Our stories have been told in the past, but it’s usually been by Caucasian men,” says Hembrador.
The directors and producers are the influencers on set. The crew members receive direction and follow through with what the directors and producers say. Hembrador says it isn’t necessarily essential to hire specific crew members for the sake of diversity because it is a technical job. She encourages inclusion on her sets, but as long the job is done right and who she employs is easy to get along with, she says she would hire anyone.
Hembrador says not many Filipinos are aware of the types of jobs on sets, such as construction, transportation, and catering.
Quan Luong is a cinematographer and colourist. He was born in Vietnam and moved to Winnipeg when he was 18 years old to pursue his career in the film industry.
Luong says he is usually the only person of colour on set and always wants to fit in with other crew members. He realized his background makes him unique so he uses his experience in Vietnamese food to connect with other members of the crew.
“I take it as an advantage of mine. Being Vietnamese, it’s pretty easy to talk about food with everyone. It helps to be more interesting to people,” says Luong.
He says he has never had a negative experience as the only person of colour on set. Because he is one of the younger guys on the crew, he feels the need to work extra hard to research and know about the equipment beforehand to avoid looking like an “idiot.” Luong takes advantage of applying for specific BIPOC grants to fund his projects. He recently received funding for his upcoming project about 39 Vietnamese people who died in a U.K. truck in 2019.
Joanne Roberts, who is of Filipino descent and the winner of the 2020 Gimli Film Festival’s RBC Emerging Filmmaker Pitch Contest, says the film industry is slow-moving and needs to modernize faster. She wants to give local BIPOC technical crew, writers, and directors their first job credit and the tools and training they need to succeed in the industry.
“The world is so diverse, and art is just representing life in different ways, and if we are representing life, we have to give it the diversity it absolutely deserves,” says Roberts.
It’s conflicting being the token. She says you feel special because you’ve been selected but at the same time it’s really discouraging.
“There are so many artists of colour that absolutely deserve to get their foot in the door but due to the system, we have inherited it makes it harder for people of colour to really be able to thrive in it,” says Roberts.
Her film, Anak, will debut in July 2021 at the Gimli Film Festival.
Boma Cookey-Gam is an up-and-coming actor who’s been in the industry for two years. Originally from Nigeria, she studied law before coming to Winnipeg. She’s worked in various independent productions and as a background performer for larger productions. She says the jobs she finds are posted by white people, making it difficult for her to connect with productions with a diverse crew. She says she usually gets the jobs with the diverse crews through word of mouth and recommendations.
Cookey-Gam says she sometimes doubts the genuineness of some roles she has been offered. She wonders if she receives them just because she is Black. She says she doesn’t just want to play the token Black character.
“In a way, it’s great, but in the same way I’m like wait, so you needed the Black Lives movement so that you could include more black people in your shit?” says Cookey-Gam.
She recalls working on a Black documentary last summer, and there were no Black makeup artists on set for the first few days. The makeup they had did not suit the faces of the actors because they were Black. She questioned the production team’s consideration for the Black performers. Eventually, they hired Black makeup artists for the rest of the shoot days.
“They had white makeup for Black people.”
This was her first time interacting with a Black makeup artist since she began acting. With the Fenty beauty launch in 2017, the range of shades for dark skin tones has broadened. Still, it is not typical for makeup artists to have.
She remembers wearing a wig on set and not having a Black hairstylist. She had to remind her stylist to be careful with her hair because it was a wig. A Black stylist would have understood immediately. Moments like these made her uncomfortable. Even with no outright verbal racism, just thoughtless decisions can make or break how welcoming a set is.
“I’m not the only Black actor there, but the makeup artists and hairstylists are predominantly white,” says Cookey-Gam.
She has only ever worn her wigs to set because the hair is straight and easy to work with. If they ever had to work on her natural hair – when she had it in an afro, for example – she can’t imagine what they would do with it. She does hope more productions hire Black makeup artists and hairstylists because she knows they are out there. They just haven’t been given the opportunity yet.
“With more inclusion, we are able to understand each other’s culture as it relates to what is putting out on the screen,” says Cookey-Gam.
Cookey-Gam believes more diversity on set gives the crew the ability to catch offensive things overlooked on paper and before the film gets distributed. She says even something like craft services could be extended to include more diverse food and give her a sense of comfort and inclusion on set.
“The more diversity of the food, the more diverse the cast and crew,” says Cookey-Gam.
All Aboard the Training Station
There has been a 30 per cent increase in unionized productions in Manitoba since 2019, according to ACTRA Manitoba. With the growing number of productions every year, the need for trained crew members is also increasing.
Film Training Manitoba had 1,435 participants attend their courses this past year, increasing women’s interest in technical roles such as grip and lighting. Adam Smoluk, managing director, says their organization sees increased attention from underrepresented groups more than ever. However, there still needs to be an improvement.
“We deal with labour shortages in the film industry, and so if we are only appealing to a small grouping of people and demographic, then you’re going to miss out on filling those jobs,” says Smoluk.
The organization hosted 34 in-class courses and six online courses from April 2019 to March 2020, according to their 2019-20 annual report.
“Having crew members from different cultures and backgrounds working together can grow the community, and having individuals with different experiences kind of makes it a healthier workplace,” says Alison Bile, operations manager at Film Training Manitoba.
Milos Mitrovic is a Theatre and Film Instructor at the University of Winnipeg and says BIPOC stories are essential and need to be heard. Mitrovic, who arrived in Canada as a refugee, wants to show how the vast body of cinema reflects different cultures and gives everyone within the population and within the class a voice.
“Groups that have been marginalized historically must be given the opportunity to have their voices heard and participate in the film and arts industry,” says Mitrovic.
On average, the Introduction to Film course teaches more than 60 students per semester.
“Everything we strive to do should be for our communities’ betterment, and inclusion is key to nurturing a diverse and healthy community here in Manitoba,” says Mitrovic.
He says when we tell stories, we should also make a statement about how the stories are told. Representation matters immensely.
“To inspire new artists, we must expose them to artists and filmmakers who have gone through similar experiences that they can relate to — this goes for both in front of the camera and behind the camera,” says Mitrovic.
The Not-so Sensitive Incentives
Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter social movement has been a driving force in protesting against police brutality. In the spring of 2020, over 450 significant protests were held across the continent. These events brought hundreds of thousands of people to show support for Black people. The oppressed spotlighted systemic racism. The phrase “silence is violence” was written on cardboard signs at political protests for racial justice.
As the protests continued, large companies began showing support for the BIPOC community by donating and pledging to change. Companies such as Snap Inc. and Techtonic pledged to prioritize hiring marginalized groups.
HireBIPOC launched in October 2020 by BIPOC TV & FILM. The website is a directory full of BIPOC industry professionals. It allows the opportunity for someone to add their name to the directory and to search for hire. Shortly after the announcement, leading Canadian broadcasters Bell Media, Corus Entertainment, and Rogers Sports & Media said they will prioritize using the new directory.
Canada’s treasured foul-mouthed superhero, Ryan Reynolds, used his own money to create the Group Effort Initiative, placing a call out across Canada to hire a BIPOC crew for his upcoming Netflix film.
The Final Take
I still cringe whenever I hear “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield. The Hills theme song played every Wednesday night on our family-shared television in the living room. My sister hasn’t changed much. She recently got a “mommy makeover,” which involves implants, liposuction, and lifts of a facial feature — I think. She is still trying to alter her appearance, but now as a mother of three, she realizes how important it is to share her cultural background with her children. She is learning to speak Tagalog, the Filipino language, and always asks our mother for traditional recipes. When she can find a babysitter, I drag her to see movies with Filipino representation. The last film we saw was Yellow Rose, a movie about a teenage Filipino American trying to make it as a country singer.
We have come a long way from having stereotypical token characters such as Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles to a predominantly Asian cast and crew in Crazy Rich Asians. Every day new stories are coming out with more accurate representation like Soul, a movie illustrating an accurate representation of Black Americans.
Canadian broadcaster’s initiatives and partnerships with organizations like HireBIPOC are creating the groundwork for social equity. Equality is out, and social equity is in. We must continue to break down the systemic barriers and construct doors for marginalized groups to access.
It’s still challenging to differentiate tokenism and sincere hiring. There is a thin line dividing the two: intention. As a woman of colour looking to work in this industry, I want to make my intentions clear. I intend to create stories that I have experienced to represent the characters accurately. I intend to never hire a person for the sake of gaining funds. I intend to be part of an inclusive environment where everyone is comfortable being themselves.
Black people need Black makeup artists and hairstylists. Immigrants and refugees need to have their stories accurately depicted. Asian people need to be separated from the model minority myth. Indigenous people need to be seen and heard.
Does representation in crews matter to what the audience sees on-screen? Yes, it absolutely does — representation matters in everything.