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A Brilliant Video Series Shows Just How Few Words Are Spoken by People of Color in Movies

Russell Crowe in the very, very white Noah.

Photo by Niko Tavernise - © (C) MMXIII Paramount Pictures Corporation and Regency Entertainment (USA) Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In an interview with NPR in May, David Oyelowo revealed that there’s one role in Hollywood he refuses to play: The Black Best Friend. “You can feel when it’s literally an afterthought; you can feel when it’s like, ‘Oh quick, let’s get some color in here,’ ” he said. Oyelowo’s statement underlines how far things have come in the 75-plus years since Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammie in Gone With the Wind, was forced to take almost the exact opposite position on racial typecasting. (“I’d rather play a maid than be a maid.”)

Of course, the ability to be choosy with scripts is a luxury Oyelowo has gained only as he’s achieved major success, with his roles in movies like Selma, Interstellar, and The Butler. Even in 2015, the overwhelming majority of actors of color aren’t so lucky, and are frequently relegated to thankless “afterthought” roles in movies saturated with more fleshed-out white protagonists. Performer and sometime video editor Dylan Marron has zeroed in on this icky Hollywood practice with a series of videos titled “Every Single Word Spoken By a Person of Color in _____.”

There are only four examples so far, but they each do a powerful job of illustrating just how minor the minority characters tend to be in Hollywood movies. For example, the video for (500) Days of Summer fits all of the inconsequential lines spoken by its four actors of color into less than 30 seconds:

The video for Noah—whose casting choices were rightfully controversial—is even more damning:

Marron’s inspiration for the video series comes from personal experience. As he explained via email, he felt unrepresented on the screen, and by the time he reached high school and began taking performing seriously, that feeling didn’t go away. While meeting with agents, he was told that he’d “never play the romantic male lead and that they weren’t sure how much work is out there for my ‘type.’ ”

Later, in college, he began creating his own opportunities by writing his own material, and he has found some success as a working actor and writer, most notably as the voice of Carlos on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Yet even now as his career gets fully underway, Marron is still being told the same things by potential agents—he’ll never be the protagonist that audiences are expected to identify with on screen. “It seems like no matter how far I’ve come, how much work I have under my belt, this industry still finds a way to tell me what I can and can’t represent,” he says. “This series is a way of highlighting why I keep being told that there isn’t much work out there for me. And why so many other talented and hard working actors of color are being told the same thing.” He concluded:

I’m not picking these films because I don’t like them. On the contrary, I actually really enjoy them. I saw (500) Days of Summer on opening weekend and loved it. But if we can’t see our reflection in films as harmless as well-made indie rom coms, then we’re suggesting that our stories don’t exist. Or, at the very best, they don’t matter that much. 

Read more in Slate: