A new study by the UCLA School of Law and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center finds that Latino, black, Asian American and Native American actors have few acting opportunities available to them. The study's author also challenged the legality of race-specific casting announcements and suggested that actors may have legal recourse in federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
The findings, which are based on a 2006 survey of casting announcements, or "breakdowns," from Breakdown Services, a communication network and casting system, found that 69 percent of the roles were reserved for white actors and another 8.5 percent were open to white actors as well as non-white actors. Actors of color were limited to between 0.5 percent and about 8 percent of the roles, depending on their racial background.
The study, authored by Russell Robinson, UCLA acting professor of law, found that women also compete for fewer roles. According to the professor's analysis of major films in 2005, men were almost three times as likely as women to work in the first-billed lead role. Women made up 44 percent of second-billed roles and 40 percent of third-billed roles, but they were outnumbered by men in each category.
"Casting directors take into account race and sex in a way that would be blatantly illegal in any other industry," Robinson said. "Many actors accept this as normal, but depending on the facts of the case, lawsuits can be filed." He said that he believes that in many instances, taking race and sex into account for acting roles violates Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination.
Many casting breakdowns currently restrict, without any strong narrative justification,the sex and race of the actors who may audition, he said. According to Robinson, casting is a form of free speech that may be protected under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, depending on the circumstances. This extends to race- or gender-based casting when these traits are integral to the storyline. But, Robinson said, there are many exceptions that permit the government to regulate certain speech in certain ways.
"I argue that Title VII's regulation of casting announcements falls into an exception," he said. He added that he did not believe that complying with Title VII would entail using quotas but rather the consideration of actors of color and women in many more roles.
Robinson recommended banning the use of race/sex classification in casting breakdowns except where casting an actor of a specific race or sex is truly integral to the narrative. This would require that the entertainment industry conduct an annual comprehensive review of the information obtained from requests to use race/sex in breakdowns.
Robinson also recommended studying as positive models the diverse casting practices of particular films, television networks and shows, such as the 2004 film "Sideways" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and CBS's "CSI" television series.
Robinson's research is featured in the center's Latino Policy & Issues Brief. It is based on a longer article that will publish in January in UC Berkeley's California Law Review.
Read the entire brief.