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What is an inclusion rider, and what can it do to tackle systematic issues of inequality in Hollywood?

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Many people watching the Academy Awards on Sunday were left puzzled when Frances McDormand, in her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress, finished her time on stage with “I have two words for you - inclusion rider”.

What is an inclusion rider, and why was she using her platform to bring attention to it? Speaking to journalists backstage after her win, she elaborated that she had only recently learned of this concept, explaining that “you can ask for and, or, demand at least 50 percent diversity in not only the casting, but also the crew… the fact that I just learned that after 35 years of being in the film business – we aren’t going back.”

“So, the whole idea of women trending? No, no trending. African Americans trending? No, no trending. It changes now,” McDormand continued. “And I think the inclusion rider will have something to do with that.”

Frances McDormand in The Oscars (2018)

The principle of inclusion riders was first proposed by Stacy Smith from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a thinktank which researches inclusion and diversity in the entertainment industry, in 2014. According to the thinktank’s latest data, it found that only 4 percent of Hollywood’s top 1,100 films in the past decade were directed by women, 5.2 percent were by African Americans and 3.2 percent by individuals of Asian descent.

Smith, speaking to The Guardian, explained that a “typical feature film has about 40 to 45 speaking characters in it. I would argue that only 8 to 10 of those characters are actually relevant to the story. The remaining 30 or so roles, there’s no reason why those minor roles can’t match or reflect the demography of where the story is taking place. An equity rider by an A-lister in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live.”

The clause also stipulates that if the film were to fail to meet the requirements explicit to the inclusion rider, the film’s distributor would have to pay a “penalty” to a fund which supports female directors and other marginalised or underrepresented groups.

It’s putting power to create change in the hands of A-list stars, empowering them by law to ensure proper representation and inclusion of women, individuals of colour, members of the LGBT+ community, and people with disabilities.

Putting negotiating power in the hands of those most powerful has been proven to work, as seen recently when Jessica Chastain used her pay privilege to tie her contract to Octavia Spencer’s. Spencer later tweeted about it, announcing that she was now making five times her previous salary. Insisting for the addition of inclusion riders to contracts can do something similar on a far larger scale, for Smith asserts that they can also be used to ensure equal pay on set.

Since McDormand’s speech, many celebrities have expressed support for the rider, with fellow Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson pledging to call for it in future films, and Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan announcing that he and his production company, Outlier Society, will also be adopting the inclusion rider. One can only hope these are the first in a very long list of high-profile stars to assume this clause.

Michael B. Jordan at an event for Black Panther (2018)

“Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse on-screen demography reflecting [the] population… in other words, reality.” Smith wrote in 2014.

This of course does not ensure the hiring of a diverse main cast, nor does it ensure that the stories being told by Hollywood, and those telling them, are representational. It does, however, begin to enforce more diverse recruitment practices, and does so by legal means.

Diversity policy and practice up to now has been dominated by belief in a model of individual deficiency, the idea that marginalised individuals aren’t represented because they lack the skills and connections to succeed in cultural professions. But this won’t bring about change if the white male gatekeepers to the entertainment industry are misusing their power (as spotlighted by the Harvey Weinstein scandal) and handing over opportunities to those who look like them.

Inclusion riders are one possible tool to begin making top-down changes to the systematic exclusion of diverse groups. To really make a difference, not only must stars include the rider in their contracts, but the inclusion rider should also become established as standard practice and supported by unions, and by the production companies.

Legal recourse to tackling a lack of diversity is a great first step to changing the status quo in Hollywood, but it should by no means be considered the be-all, end-all of change. It might start here, but it certainly won’t end here, and to think that one contractual clause will alone end decades of repression is to be extremely naïve about the depths of systematic oppression that still exist in the industry.




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