No Trending, It Changes Now! Hollywood, Diversity and Native Americans

March 22, 2018 Betsy Theobald Richards

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

A vibrant culture is often marked by the diversity of its storytelling. We all value, as Mark Twain put it, a “good story, well told.” And increasingly, multi-cultural movie audiences are hungry — and willing to shell out money for — films that reveal complex narratives, offer visibility and humanity to us all.

Best Actress-winner Frances McDormand echoed these values during her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards on March 4, when she called for her celebrity colleagues to demand the little-known inclusion rider option in their film contracts.

McDormand was a powerful ally that night, and her call to action reminds us of an important tool that can hold studios and producers accountable for diverse hires on their projects. Her speech will open doors for women and people of color both in front of and behind the lens.

Unfortunately, for the five million Native people like me spread among our 573 sovereign Tribal Nations, inclusion riders are helpful only if America’s current mindset moves away from its understanding of diversity in the binary: Black vs. White, Women vs. Men, and Immigrant vs. Citizen.

Well, the thing is, the Hollywood movie screen not only reflects our culture, it plays a starring role in creating it.

When veteran actor Wes Studi came on the Oscar stage that same night and spoke the Cherokee language to the star-studded gathering, it sent waves of joy across Indian Country. I’d ask, however, why has Indigenous culture taken so long to be included on that stage?

Well, the thing is, the Hollywood movie screen not only reflects our culture, it plays a starring role in creating it.

A recent UCLA report on Hollywood and diversity, called Five Years of Progress and Missed Opportunities, lays out in no uncertain terms how Native Americans have by far the lowest inclusion numbers both in front of and behind the camera. The report underscores how Hollywood’s gatekeepers, even if unaware, are complicit in helping de-prioritize and de-humanize First Americans and have contributed real challenges to education, criminal justice reform, economic opportunities and racial justice for Natives.

Native American actor Wes Studi presents at the 90th Academy Awards

One solution to this insidious invisibility is to ask influential allies like Frances McDormand and her fellow celebrities to be more specific in their inclusion riders and demand Native inclusion, not just in White-centric/Indigenous-themed films like Wind River and The Revenant (or in offensive films like The Lone Ranger and Ridiculous Six) but also in comedies, action, rom-coms and sci-fi films. Actors like Studi, as well as producers like Heather Rae, writers like Luca Brown Eyes, and many other Native filmmakers, reside within a system that needs to include them as well.

Let’s all move beyond the binary dialogue and start asking for more Native, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Muslim, Trans, people with disabilities, and non-binary relations to be seen, heard and have their stories told. Not just as a momentary trend but starting now.


Betsy Theobald Richards is the Director of Creative Strategies at The Opportunity Agenda and a Citizen of the Cherokee Nation.