Why nearly all of Hollywood's most valuable stars are still white men

Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence is one of few women in the American film industry to headline a film franchise - the key to big earnings. And extraterrestrials seem better represented than minority women on screen.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

This was supposed to be the year that Hollywood recognised what women and ethnic minority actors are worth.

SEE ALSO: Jennifer Lawrence bids farewell to The Hunger Games, the series that made her a star

Furious 7, the latest instalment of a franchise that started as a story about a white guy before evolving into a multicultural family drama, made US$353 million in the United States and US$1.16 billion worldwide. Empire, Fox's soap opera about a family's fight for control of a record company, made the splashiest television debut in decades. Fresh Off The Boat brought Asian Americans back to TV for the first time in decades.

But while 2015 felt like a year when Hollywood was supposed to recognise that its woeful record on diversity was costing the industry money, Vulture's “Most Valuable Stars” list, released this week, provided some sobering perspective. Jennifer Lawrence, a young female star, may have topped the rankings for women and ethnic minorities. But the analysis still suggests that women and actors from ethnic minorities are still less valuable to Hollywood than white men - and that minority actors and actresses make themselves most valuable to the industry by playing aliens, superheroes or action drones rather than telling their own stories.

Entertainment news website Vulture's “Most Valuable Stars” rankings are useful to look at because they try to get beyond raw box office, which can be boosted by an actor's presence in a big franchise that would do well with or without his or her presence, to measure things like social media clout and appeal with critics. In theory, that ought to bring up the value of some actors who are beloved and admired, but persistently undervalued by an entertainment industry that maintains a conservative, even cowardly, conviction that white men are the only sure draw for audiences.

SEE ALSO: Film review: with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Lawrence graduates from young adult fantasy

But even with those corrective factors, the 2015 list is overwhelmingly white and male. Just 35 women made the list, and they represented only 16 of those in the top 50. Ten per cent of those on the list are from ethnic minorities, just two of whom are women. Of those actors, Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel and Zoe Saldana and Lupita Nyong'o are of mixed race, Idris Elba's parents are from Sierra Leone and Ghana, and Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Kevin Hart, Jamie Foxx and Tyler Perry are African-American.

Saldana and Nyong'o are the only two minority women on the list. A look at their upcoming projects suggests that Hollywood finds them valuable in a very specific way.

Since Nyong'o won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in 12 Years A Slave at the 2014 Academy Awards, she's booked only three movies, an unusually small number for someone who is supposed to be a breakout star. And in only one of them, Queen of Katwe, about a young Ugandan chess star, will Nyong'o's actual face appear on screen. She's being shot in motion capture for Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens, and she's doing voice work for The Jungle Book.

Saldana has fared slightly better, thanks to her starring role in the Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Trek franchises. But she's a blue alien in the Avatar films and a green one in Guardians of the Galaxy. In four of the nine upcoming movies Saldana has in the pipeline, she'll appear behind a face other than her own.

SEE ALSO: No more ‘adorable’ Jennifer Lawrence: Hunger Games star rails against sexism in Hollywood

Extraterrestrials often seem better represented in American films than minority women. But it's particularly telling that the two minority actresses deemed most valuable to Hollywood have got that way in part by playing non-humans.

Of course, one of the things the list illustrates is just how much franchises matter in determining which actors are valuable. And big franchises remain overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Many of the women and minorities on the Vulture list appear there because they're exceptions to that rule, anchoring, or at least having footholds, in big ongoing series.

Lawrence, who topped the list, is one of the very few women who can be said to truly lead a franchise. She's the undisputed star of The Hunger Games, the last instalment of which opens in cinemas this week: the series’ male actors are her supporting players. And Lawrence also stars in the renewed X-Men franchise as Mystique. Scarlett Johansson, who clocks in at 10 on the list, has The Avengers, even if Marvel hasn't seen fit to give her character, Black Widow, the stand-along movie she so richly deserves. Shailene Woodley, at 34, has the “Divergent” movies. Melissa McCarthy, in the 24 spot, doesn't yet have an ongoing series of movies, though her collaborations with Paul Feig are tied together by a shared sensibility and interest in challenging Hollywood's gender norms.

Dwayne Johnson (5 on the list) and Vin Diesel (number 23) co-star in the “Fast & Furious” franchise, and both have other franchises to their names, including the “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” movies for Johnson and the “Riddick,” “Witch Hunter” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” films for Diesel. Kevin Hart has comedy franchises in “Think Like A Man” and “Ride Along.” And Tyler Perry's brand is strong enough that the man is a franchise in and of himself.

It may be encouraging to see a woman at the top of a “Most Valuable Stars” list, but the rankings as a whole paint a depressing picture of why Hollywood doesn't just marginalise women and minorities, but stories about their experiences. There may be some stars, like Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep and Will Smith, who are allowed to carry big, stand-alone movies. But many of the women and minorities on Vulture's list are considered valuable because of how they fit into a larger story, sometimes ones where they aren't playing humans at all.

The Washington Post