Psychology Uncovers Racism at the Movies
Research finds racial bias against black leading actors & white supporting roles
Posted Sep 05, 2015
By Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
New research finds racial bias against films with black leading actors and white supporting roles, is rife amongst mainstream newspaper movie critics – resulting in an average revenue loss for these films of up to $2.57 million, per movie.
While millions are at stake at the box office, new research published in the ‘Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization’, predicts films with African-American leading actors do less well than films with white stars.
This has nothing to do with how good the acting is, the charisma of the leads, or the excitement generated by the plot. The producers, directors and actors press the flesh and dazzlingly smile for the paparazzi on the red carpet, but do they and the fans realise the racial composition of their movies is a secret psychological force is at work, decisively determining the impact of any film?
Researchers from the Johnson School of Management, Cornell University, and the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University have analysed 566 major movie releases between 2003-2007. Their startling conclusion – racial bias in newspaper critics means films with a black lead actor and all white supporting cast are scored approximately on average 6% lower in movie reviews, compared to films with other racial compositions. This dramatic figure is arrived at after the researchers took into account all the other drivers of how a movie is usually assessed by critics.
The authors of the study, entitled ‘Racial bias in expert quality assessment: A study of newspaper movie reviews’, argue their ﬁndings are consistent with racial discrimination by these newspaper reviews, and result in an average revenue loss for these particular films of up to 4% or $2.57 million, per movie.
It may be surprising that films and patterns in newspaper movie reviews would be of interest to an academic journal of economics. However, movies are a good example of the kind of product where consumers cannot fully ascertain quality before purchasing. Experts’ opinions in this situation therefore have particular influence. Cars, restaurants, ﬁnancial stocks, books and movies are all markets where opinions can make or break. The US motion picture industry is worth nearly $10 billion annually and as critics’ reviews are widely read, the authors of this study decided to investigate, wondering whether bias was influencing this major market.
The rise of the internet and sites offering reviews of everything, hotels, holidays, hairdressers etc means the review is itself now big business. More than one third of film consumers actively seek out critics’ reviews, and about one third of ﬁlm-goers admit choosing movies on the basis of positive reviews.
Another reason the authors of this study, Lona Fowdur, Vrinda Kadiyali and Jeffrey Prince, wanted to scrutinise whether movie critics were biased, was that this was the first time the possibility of prejudice in this area was going to be rigorously investigated. Academic research had already established racial discrimination definitely exists in areas such as wages, credit availability and judicial sentencing.
Focusing on 68 film critics employed by 11 major newspapers in the USA, the authors of the study found that movies with black leads and all-white supporting casts receive lower critic ratings – approximately 6% lower – compared to movies with other racial compositions. This suggests a bias by critics not against black actors or even black lead actors per se, but instead a prejudice against movies with black leads combined with white support. The authors argue this is because such films break the trend of black people playing subservient roles to white characters. It’s the relationship between black and white on screen, in particular in relation to subservience, which seems key.
As a result, movies with a black lead and all-white support were found to suffer up to a 4% loss in box ofﬁce revenues, due to lower ratings, compared to films with an all-white cast. As average revenue for movies in this sample is $64.2 million, therefore the 4% loss in box ofﬁce takings is on average of the order of $2.57 million.
The authors of the study don’t believe that the racial partiality they found in movie critics’ reviews is explicit discrimination, or a conscious decision to be jaundiced. Instead they contend the bias they have uncovered is ‘implicit’ discrimination, which is largely unconscious. This would explain how come critics at relatively liberal newspapers of the stature of the New York Times and The Washington Post, which were both in the sample of the 11 major US Newspapers examined, might be vulnerable to such discrimination.
Films with black leads and supporting white casts might violate the unconscious expectations of critics. In previous decades the majority of black performers cast in movies were seen in subservient or stereotypical roles. Only in the last 10 years have black artists made progress in the variety of roles available. In its 80 years of existence, the Academy Awards have only awarded 12 Oscars to black performers, seven of which were awarded between 2002 and 2010.
One possible psychological theory is that ‘expectation violation’ makes the critic uncomfortable, but they are not necessarily able to access precisely why they are feeling discomfort, so they project onto the film the problem. ‘It’s not me it must be the film’, and so the quality of the movie gets blamed for what is really an internal psychological process.
Another example of this from the research is when black actor or actresses play a part where you would expect a white person to be in that role in real life, movie critics also appear to come down harder against the movie. For example, Catwoman (2004) is about a shy black graphic designer who works for a cosmetics company, transforming into a woman with super powers. According to official labour statistics from the USA, the percentage of black workers in arts and design related ﬁelds ranges from 2.6-4.0% of total employed, compared to black employees comprising 11% of total employed population. Therefore, this role could easily have been played by a white actress; in fact, a white performer in the role would be more representative of racial employment patterns.
But when a movie dares to cast a black actor or actress in a role where a white person would be more expected, perhaps usually a high status role, then, according to this research, the critics tend to be more negative about the film.
The authors of the study carefully checked as to whether the production or advertising budgets, the bankability or popularity of the stars, commercial or artistic genres, or the implicit quality of the movies, might explain the critics tendency to mark down films with black players as leads combined with white performers in the supporting cast. But the study could find no credible alternative explanation other than racial bias.
The crucial issue uncovered is not just about how many black performers appear in a movie, it’s the relationship between the roles played by the cast with a single lead black actor, combined with an all white supporting cast, which appears particularly toxic to reviewers. The authors of the study argue the credibility of their astonishing finding is further supported given there is an even stronger negative effect (more than double) for casts where the lead as well as #2 actor is black and supporting cast is white. No bias was detected in reviews of all-black movies, or all white, or movies with white-leads-black-supports.
It seems that seeing black characters in lead roles when all of the “followers” are white violates the expectations of movie critics because black people in the Hollywood have traditionally starred in supporting roles in movies, and in US society, and there is a disproportionately lower number of black people in several “lead roles” in society, relative to their percentage of the population. It’s intriguing to note that of the 566 films investigated in this study, 384 had not just white leads but an all white supporting cast as well.
Behind the smiles and posing for the paparazzi on the red carpet, research has now established that all the glamour hides a disturbing reality.
Whether Hollywood is gradually becoming more colour blind remains controversial, but the racial composition of movies is there for all to see, debate, and comment on. What we didn’t know until this scientific research, is that flying under the radar and below conscious awareness, is a dark prejudice of the established press and its powerful movie critics, who can make or break a film.
But now we know this bias has been brushed under the red carpet.
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
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A version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post